Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Colonel William Dewey: Mining Investor, Road Builder, and Business Developer [otd 08/01]

Prominent Idaho pioneer Colonel William H. Dewey was born August 1, 1823 in Hampden County, Massachusetts (some sources give the birth year as 1822). Raised on a farm, he presumably followed that line until he moved to Idaho, by way of California, in 1863.

Dewey turned out to be what the Illustrated History called “a born miner.” A relative late-comer to the Owyhee mining regions, he balked at what he considered exorbitant real estate prices. Thus, in 1864 he and some associates started a new town that became Silver City. The county seat of Owyhee County moved there two years later. A new toll road that Dewey helped build along with Silas Skinner and another partner [blog, May 19] spurred the town’s growth.

Wedding photo, Belle seated with her sisters standing.
Canyon County Historical Society & Museum.
During the heyday of the South Mountain mines, 1871-1875, Dewey, to quote the Owyhee Directory, “owned nearly one-half of that prosperous camp.” In 1875, Dewey, then a widower with a young son, married Belle Hagan. Soon after that, he opened the Black Jack Mine, which developed into a most valuable property.

Dewey suffered a severe setback in 1884-1885. He was first convicted of murder for a shooting affray, but a retrial acquitted him on the grounds of self defense. Winning, however, put him heavily in debt for legal fees. Persistence and his skill as a prospector recouped his fortune, and then some.

Colonel Dewey, Illustrated History.
In 1889, the Colonel began selling off mining properties. He was, of course, approaching 70 years of age and perhaps contemplated a well-deserved retirement. However, Dewey’s overall business activity soon picked up again. In 1896, he helped found the Boise, Nampa & Owyhee Railway, which eventually linked Murphy with the Oregon Short Line station in Nampa.

Booneville, located 2-3 miles northwest of Silver City, had been a thriving town in the late 1860s, but then withered away. In 1896, Dewey purchased the town site and rejuvenated its business and mining operations. That included building the topnotch Hotel Dewey.

Dewey also looked further afield. He purchased interests in several  central Idaho mining properties and also organized the Idaho Northern Railway Company. That firm then extended the Murphy-Nampa rail line on into Emmett. Dewey’s railroad projects increased his involvement with the town of Nampa, where he became owner of 2,000 lots through a mortgage purchase deal.

Dewey Palace Hotel.
Canyon County Historical Society & Museum.
The Deweys moved there in about 1900 and the colonel commissioned the construction of the Dewey Palace Hotel. In his description of it, Hiram T. French wrote, “At the time of its erection it seemed to be a structure all out of proportion to the size of the town, for it was a magnificent building.”

When the hotel was completed in 1902, he and Belle moved into an apartment there. Sadly, the colonel had little time to enjoy it. He passed away in May of the following year, after a lifetime of intense effort and incredible accomplishment.

Belle managed the Nampa properties for a number of years after his death. Recently, a redevelopment effort began in downtown Nampa: Backers call it the Belle District, in honor of Belle (Hagan) Dewey.
References: [French], [Hawley], [Illust-State]
“Boise, Nampa & Owyhee Railroad (1896-1898),” Reference Series No. 218, Idaho State Historical Society (January 1993)
A Historical, Descriptive and Commercial Directory of Owyhee County, Idaho, Owyhee Avalanche Press (January 1898).
“History of the Belle District,” The Belle District, Nampa, Idaho.


  1. I need to thank you for this fantastic read!
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  2. Great post! I keep expecting someone to write a book abt. Col. Dewey. Not only was he "bigger than life" in Owyhee & Canyon Cos., he also figures in the mining history of Thunder Mtn. in Valley Co. and also Pearl in Gem Co.

  3. Dewey was indeed an amazing person. To really do a book about him, one would like to get hold of his papers (correspondence, etc.) ... if such exist. Perhaps the Canyon County Historical Society has files about him?

    Unfortunately, Dewey's impact was largely within Idaho, and not as a politician. Somehow, that does not seem to be a combination that publishers seem very interested in. (Sigh.)