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).