Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Idaho Falls developer and Construction Leader William Keefer [otd 11/15]

William Keefer. J. H. Hawley photo.
Idaho Falls developer and builder William W. Keefer was born November 15, 1852 in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, 40-60 miles southwest of Harrisburg. Although he was a carpenter by trade, as a young man he spent two years teaching school.

In about 1873, he found work in the west. He ended up leading a construction crew building bridges and depots for the Utah & Northern Railroad in northern Utah and southeast Idaho

Financial problems slowed and then halted track-laying in southeast Idaho from 1874 into early 1878. Work resumed in March 1878, and the rails marched steadily north. They reached Eagle Rock (today’s Idaho Falls) about a year later [blog, Apr 11]. Then the company began to construct a full inventory of railroad shops and a passenger station in the little town, so Keefer focused on that work.

The completed shops provided locomotive repair and maintenance facilities, and were equipped so the company could build various types of rail cars there. When crews completed the railway structures, Keefer decided to settle in Eagle Rock rather than continue with the railroad.

The town experienced something of a building surge at the time, so Keefer found plenty of work. Along with his construction business, he began investing in prime real estate, with an eye toward development. It helped that the town was platted in 1884.

By the mid-1880s entrepreneurs had formed irrigation companies to build diversion dams and canals for cultivated agriculture. That sparked “Eagle Rock’s Building Boom,” according to the Idaho Register (April 4, 1885). The item noted that Keefer and a partner had just completed one project and had started a “soda water manufactory and sample room.” Later that year, the Register reported (Noember 21, 1885) that Keefer was making many improvements to his brewery: “nearly quadrupling his present capacity for making beer.”

The growth in farming to supplement stock raising helped “cushion the blow” when the railroad company moved its shops to Pocatello in 1887. Although the population suffered a severe drop, the town survived.

Matt Taylor’s original wooden bridge across the Snake River [blog, Dec 10] deteriorated beyond any reasonable repair effort after almost a quarter century of use. Thus, in 1890, commissioners hired Keefer to construct masonry piers for a new steel bridge next to the old one. When no one bid on the structure itself, Keefer went ahead and completed the job. The bridge would serve the city until 1907.

Broadway, looking east, ca 1912. H. T. French photo.
Throughout the Nineties, Eagle Rock/Idaho Falls (the name changed in 1891) kept growing: many churches, two or three banks, a hotel, and more. Keefer by no means handled all these projects, but he apparently had parts of many.

In 1909, Keefer and his twin sons, Fred and Frank, began construction of a dam to impound the Snake right at the town. The dam and a retaining wall diverted a substantial part of the flow to a new hydroelectric power plant. The plant went operational in 1912. Today, the dam and diversion wall are what tourists consider the “falls” of Idaho Falls.

Besides his development work, William Keefer served two years as county coroner, ran for county sheriff at least once, and served two terms on the Idaho Falls city council. He passed away in March 1940.
                                                                                                                                      
References: [Hawley]
Barzilla W. Clark, Bonneville County in the Making, Self-published, Idaho Falls, Idaho (1941).
Mary Jane Fritzen, Idaho Falls, City of Destiny, Bonneville County Historical Society, Idaho Falls (1991).

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