History of Boise

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A lush green valley appeared in front of the early 1800s French-Canadian fur-trappers like an oasis rising out of the dry, brown high desert. Overcome with excitement, they are rumored to have exclaimed "Les Bois! Les Bois!", literally translated as "the wooded" in French. This historic utterance not only named a city, but also established Boise's nickname, "City of Trees."

It wasn't long before the Hudson Bay Company, also drawn to the Boise River's fertile ground, established Fort Boise in 1834 near present-day Parma, about 40 miles from Boise. The Fort hosted a wide range of travelers from professional soldiers to fur-trappers.

The Fort's most famous guests were thousands of people making the long journey from Missouri to Oregon on the Oregon Trail. After 1,554 miles of travel, the immigrants arrived at Fort Boise's protective gates. An 1843 immigrant remarked that his stay at the Fort had been "exceedingly polite, courteous, and hospitable." Continuing on their journey, the Oregon travelers followed the Boise River's southern bank.

Overwhelmed by Indian attacks, Fort Boise closed in 1854. Interest in Fort Boise was renewed when gold was discovered in the Boise Basin. A new fort was built in the crossroads of the Oregon Trail and Boise Basin and Owyhee gold mines. With this kind of traffic, Boise prospered and soon became known as a bustling commercial hub.

One German immigrant saw the miners and cowboys trampling through Boise as thirsty customers. Opening his brewery in 1864, John Lemp eventually became known as the "Beer King of Idaho." When he died in 1912, he had lived in Boise longer than any other resident. Today, visitors can stroll along Lemp Street in Boise's North End.

The same year Lemp began peddling his brew, Boise was incorporated and named Idaho's territorial capital. Except for a short decline in population after the end of the gold rush, Boise has been growing ever since. Prosperity brought the need for a federal mint or assay office, and in 1872, after one year of construction, the US Assay Office opened in Boise. Compared to a villa or chateau, this National Historic Landmark today houses the State Historic Preservation Office.

Unfortunately, the good times also brought organized crime and petty criminals. On July 4, 1870 construction for the Idaho Penitentiary began. Local newspapers noted that it was ironic that the end of freedom for many began on Independence Day. Taking more than a decade to complete, the structure was mostly built with convict labor. The prison closed in 1973, but the Old Idaho Penitentiary is open today as a historic landmark and home to the Idaho Botanical Gardens. The Idaho Transportation Museum is also found in the complex along with Ken Reese's Gospel Trailer, representing the time of traveling preachers.

Another important edifice, the original brick Capitol building, located between Sixth and Seventh and Jefferson and State streets, was built in 1886. Four years later, Idaho was named a state. The late 1800s are well preserved in the magnificent homes along Warm Springs Avenue. A walk along tree-lined Warm Springs Avenue is like being transported back in time.

Idaho's new government soon outgrew the Capitol, and in 1905 a new building was commissioned. Local sandstone from east Boise's Tablerock Quarry was used as well as convict labor. The sandstone and marble Capitol was completed in 1920, costing tax payers a little over $2 million.

Like many other high desert cities, Boise's growth depended on water. The expanding use of irrigation in the early 1900s brought farming families to the Boise Valley. Plans were made by the Boise Irrigation Project to construct the Arrowrock Dam, the tallest dam in the world, and other Boise River dams.

The early 1900s brought other firsts to Boise. In 1914 Boise welcomed Moses Alexander as Idaho's governor, the first Jewish governor in the United States. Another first in the nation took place in 1926 when Boise received commercial airmail.

One of Boise's most prominent companies also saw its beginnings in the early 1900s. In 1912 Harry W. Morrison and Morris Han Knudson joined forces to start Morrison-Knudsen, an engineering, construction and manufacturing company. Morrison-Knudsen had its hand in some of the century's largest construction projects, including the Hoover Dam, San Francisco Bay Bridge and the Trans Alaska Pipeline.

Always a hospitable host to immigrants, Boise opened its gates in the 1930s to Basque travelers leaving their home in the Western Pyrenees Mountains for America's fortunes. Although the Basque started migrating to Idaho in the 1800s, the 1930s saw the largest migration, making Idaho home to the most Basque immigrants in the United States.

Even the Great Depression couldn't hold back Boise's growth. Boise State University welcomed its first students in 1932. Joe Albertson opened his first grocery store in Boise in 1939, marking the beginning of Albertsons Supermarkets. J.R. Simplot started processing potatoes in nearby Caldwell in 1941. Today both Simplot and Albertsons are among Idaho's largest employers.

During World War II, Boise's Gowen Field hosted airmen as they trained for battle. Nearby Mountain Home opened the Mountain Home Air Force Base in 1942. Unfortunately, not all of Idaho's WWII history is worth bragging about. Japanese-Americans spent part of WWII in an internment camp near Eden, about an hour's drive from Boise.

Boise continued to prosper during the years following WWII. In 1957 two smaller lumber companies combined forces, creating Boise Cascade. Today the pulp and paper products company has two million acres of timberland under its control. It isn't surprising that in 1959 Pete Oleson, president of the local Chambers of Commerce, coined Boise valley's nickname, the Treasure Valley. He said that the name emphasized the "treasure chest of resources and opportunities in the area."

Boise was slow to respond to the tumultuous 1960s. The first civil rights march did not take place until 1968, after Martin Luther King's assassination. But it didn't take the Boise legislature long to catch on, creating the Idaho Human Rights Commission in 1969.

The past 20 years of Boise's history have seen tremendous growth closely linked with two companies, Hewlett-Packard and Micron Technology. Hewlett-Packard created its Boise Division in 1973, specializing in scanners and printers. Today, it is Boise's second largest employer.

The honor of largest employer goes to Micron Technology. Founded in 1978 by three engineers, Micron Technology designs and manufactures semiconductor memory components. Micron celebrated its 20th anniversary as one of the largest memory chip producers in the world.

While Boise's high-tech industries continue to grow into the 21st century, it is easy to get lost in the busy fast-paced world of corporate culture. However, Idahoans are constantly reminded of their westward expansion roots.

Visitors need only take a stroll through the Pioneer Village at Julia Davis Park to feel Boise's humble beginnings. Two 1863 log cabins with dovetail joinery are open for exploration. The 1909 Colson Homestead Shack is typical of the wood houses that homesteaders built across southern Idaho.

Compare this home to the large Micron complex flanking I-84 and you will understand how far Boise has come in a relatively short time. Boise's future, as its past has proven, should be spectacular.