Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Second Major Fire Devastates Idaho City [otd 05/17]

The Illustrated History (published 1899) observed, “The second great fire of Idaho City, on the 17th of May, 1867, did not spare St. Joseph's as the first had done.”

The statement referred to the St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, which survived a fire that devastated Idaho city in 1865. Fathers Toussaint Mesplie and A. Z. Poulin had been sent by the Roman Catholic Archbishop in Portland to establish a presence in the mining camps. Originally from France, Mesplie had spent years as a missionary among the Indians of Oregon. The Canadian-born Poulin had been associated with the Diocese of Montreal before being sent to the West.
Gold miners with riffle box. Library of Congress.

The Fathers had arrived less than nine months after prospectors established the first mining camp in the Boise Basin. Workmen started construction of the church during the summer of 1863.

The Fathers actually built four churches in the Basin that summer and fall, St. Joseph’s being the first and the largest. Builders had the structures ready by Christmas, 1863. Father Poulin led Christmas masses in Idaho City while Father Mesplie hurried between the smaller churches in three other towns. There were no Protestant churches in the Basin at the time, so, according to newspaper accounts, the Catholic services “were filled to overflowing.”

The following spring, an Idaho City merchant and (apparently) part-time minister erected a Methodist church down the street from St. Joseph’s. The fire in 1865 torched that church and most of the town, but ad hoc firemen saved the Catholic church, a popular theater, and a few other structures. News reports said that people in Boise City could see the huge column of smoke from the fire.

The fire had started, reportedly, in a “hurdy-gurdy” house, which – in the American West, at least – featured girls who would dance with the patrons for a small fee. Accusations of arson flew about, but nothing came of that. Looting, however, was rampant. For years, prospectors continued to find stashes of stolen goods believed to have been hidden away after the fire.

Early histories gave no source for the 1867 fire, which destroyed the major part of Idaho City. Driven by stiff winds, the flames consumed hundreds of the town’s wood frame structures, at least half of which housed businesses of various kinds. H.T. French noted that every hotel in town was burned to the ground. Yet the flames again spared the Jenny Lind Theater and the offices of the Idaho World newspaper.
St. Joseph’s church, Idaho City. Library of Congress.

In 1867, the Boise Basin placer mines were still highly productive. Owners who had managed to save part of their inventory were soon back in business. Locals also quickly rebuilt St. Joseph’s. A couple months after the fire, the Idaho World reported,  “It is not quite completed, but it already presents the finest appearance of any building in the city … ”

A few months later, newcomers might not even have known that the town had suffered through a big fire. Several structures build after this second fire are still in use today, including St. Joseph’s church.

Idaho City experienced another fire the following year, but the damage was not nearly so great.
References: [French], [Illust-State]
Hubert Howe Bancroft, Frances Fuller Victor, History of Washington, Idaho, and Montana: 1845-1889, The History Company, San Francisco (1890).
Arthur A. Hart, Basin of Gold: Life in Boise Basin, 1862-1890, Idaho City Historical Foundation (© 1986, Fourth printing 2002).

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