Saturday, April 30, 2016

Railroad Touts Plans for Larger Passenger and Freight Terminals in Idaho Falls [otd 04/30]

On April 30, 1909, the Oregon Short Line announced that they would soon begin a substantial upgrade to the railroad facilities in Idaho Falls. This notice followed several years of steadily rising activity at the town.
Train at older Idaho Falls depot, ca. 1905.
Bonneville County Historical Society.

The railroad history of Idaho Falls (then called Eagle Rock) began in 1879, when Utah & Northern Railway tracks arrived in town [blog, Apr 11]. For a time, Eagle Rock was “end of track,” with the usual large, wild tent city. Of course, those throngs moved on with the track-laying. However, new pioneers rode the train into the area and spurred a modest period of growth.

Nor did the freight business over the Eagle Rock toll bridge drop off that much at first. Basically, the wagon freight companies saw no reason to immediately shut down. They simply moved their southern terminus further and further north.

The “tipping point” came more or less when the Utah & Northern established a major station at Dillon in late 1880. After that wagon traffic – and toll revenue – declined sharply.

Fortunately, about then the U&NR decided to build its maintenance and support shops in Eagle Rock. The town’s population rose rapidly after that. With traffic increasing, the railroad also built a rough passenger terminal. However, Eagle Rock suffered a major blow in May, 1886: A huge wind storm wrecked the railroad roundhouse.

By this time, east-west traffic on the Oregon Short Line Railroad had grown substantially. Rather than rebuild in place, the company moved the shops to Pocatello, where they could more easily service both lines. The population of Eagle Rock plummeted immediately.

Long-term, farming and ranching helped soften the blow, and the numbers had almost recovered by 1899. A year later, an independent railway company completed a line north from Idaho Falls to St. Anthony. By then, the OSL had fully absorbed the U&NR. They built a new passenger station, situated near where the spur line tracks met the main OSL rails.

The arrangement puzzled, and annoyed, citizens. The new depot was too far from the old one, which continued to be used for freight … and that made a lot of extra work for patrons as well as railroad personnel. Moreover, the new depot was too small to handle freight business as well as passenger service. In fact, a local newspaper, the Idaho Register, asserted (November 9, 1900) that if a fire broke out in the new structure, “not a person in town would throw a bucket of water on it.”

In any case, crews soon began extending the rails all the way to West Yellowstone, Montana, gateway to Yellowstone Park. Even before the tracks reached “West” in 1909, the Short Line had leased the property; they would later also take over the company. The OSL (rightly) foresaw a major increase in traffic and, as noted above, decided to upgrade several of its Idaho Falls facilities.
Idaho Falls depot, after 1911. Bonneville County Historical Society.

The cornerstone of the project was a new, larger passenger depot. The company also expanded their freight terminal and added trackage to let through traffic bypass the downtown area. They also built a new roundhouse, sized to handle the larger locomotives that were becoming more common.

Although traffic declined after the 1920s, the passenger depot remained in use until 1964. At that point, the company built a new depot at a different location and demolished the old structure. Passenger train service to Idaho Falls ended seven years later.
References: [B&W], [Illust-State]
Mary Jane Fritzen, Eagle Rock, City of Destiny, Bonneville County Historical Society, Idaho Falls, Idaho (1991).
Thornton Waite, Union Pacific: Montana Division, Brueggenjohann/Reese and Thornton Waite Publishers, Idaho Falls (1998).

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Boise’s Water Supply, a Local “Taj Mahal,” and Geothermal Development

Hosea Eastman. H. T. French photo.
In the words of the Owyhee Avalanche (August 27, 1881), brothers Benjamin M. and Hosea B. Eastman were “rattlers in the way of enterprise.” Not referring to the deadly snake, the writer meant the two regularly shook up the status quo. Their far-sighted improvements and innovations led Boise development for over forty years.

Both were born in the White Mountains area in north-central New Hampshire. Hosea was born in 1835, while Benjamin was five years older. Before ending up in Idaho, the brothers ran a sawmill and lumber business in New Hampshire, farmed in California, and mined in Oregon.

In late 1863, they moved to Idaho and staked placer claims on Jordan Creek, near where Silver City would soon be founded. They made enough from their claims to invest substantially in a well-paying lode mine. After about five years, they liquidated their mining properties and acquired the Idaho Hotel in Silver City. The brothers, Hosea in particular, proved to have a special talent for hotel work. They turned the Idaho into the premier hostelry in Silver City.

Unfortunately, in 1875, bank failures in California dried up outside capital and led to financial problems for the Silver City mines. So, in 1877 and 1878, the brothers sold the Idaho and purchased the venerable Overland Hotel in Boise City. Although the brothers remained partners in the Overland until 1903, Hosea generally took the lead, and newspaper accounts identified him as such.

They immediately remodeled the property, added more rooms, and upgraded most of the facilities. Hosea was particularly unhappy with the hotel’s water supply. He finally located a reliable source of cold spring water in Hull’s Gulch, about a mile and a half north of Fort Boise. In 1881, workers completed a system to pipe water to the hotel. With a considerable surplus available, they began distributing water to nearby businesses and residences.
Overland Hotel, ca. 1885. Idaho State Historical Society.
In 1891, the company they had formed to handle the water business merged with another firm to create the Artesian Hot and Cold Water Company. Hosea remained General Manager of the company for over a quarter century. (He passed away in 1920, Benjamin having died in 1909.)

Shortly after the merger, the company had deep wells drilled at a known “hot spot” a few miles southeast of downtown. These tapped into a steady flow of hot water, measured at 172ºF. The firm also had a large, opulent natatorium built. A huge “plunge” formed the centerpiece: 120x62 feet in expanse, ranging from 2 to 14 feet in depth. It was fed by a continuous flow of water that had been allowed to cool to a comfortably warm temperature.
Around the big pool, patrons could enjoy steam baths, hot tubs, showers, and massage parlors. Upper floors soon sported a fine bar, ballroom, and an exercise/health pavilion. Historian Hiram T. French, writing in 1914, dubbed the Moorish style structure “the Taj Mahal of the West.”
The Boise Natatorium, ca 1898. [Illust-State]
Soon, the company began selling surplus hot water to heat many buildings in downtown Boise. The city thus lays claim to being the first American town to have geothermal heating. Business at “the Nat” bloomed after the interurban rail line located a station nearby. It became the preferred site for inaugural balls, fancy weddings, and regular dances with big-name bands.

Still, the Idaho Statesman article (May 24, 1922) about the Nat’s thirty year anniversary made it clear that the facility was well past its prime. Finally, a wind blast in the summer of 1934 damaged the structure beyond repair, and it was torn down. After that, and still today, only an open-air pool remained.

Through all those years, Boise continued to benefit from the geothermal resources developed by Eastman and his partners. In the 1980s, developers drilled several more, much deeper geothermal wells, and just recently one system was expanded across the river to the Boise State University campus.
References: [Hawley], [French], [Illust-State]
Dick D’Easum, The Idanha: Guests and Ghosts of an Historic Idaho Inn, Caxton Printers, Ltd., Caldwell (1984).