Friday, August 11, 2017

Cornerstone Laid for Alturas (now Blaine) County Courthouse [otd 08/11]

On August 11, 1883, officials for Alturas County laid the cornerstone for a new county courthouse. The projected cost of the highly ambitious structure, which was to include both the court facilities as well as a jail, was authorized at $40 thousand (about $6 million using today’s labor costs).
Alturas County – Medium blue shows original. Dark Blue line: border in 1883.
The very first session of the Idaho Territorial Legislature defined, or re-defined, seven counties for the area “west of the Rocky Mountains.” One of those seven, created on February 4, 1864, was Alturas County. The original Alturas County contained nearly half the area of southern Idaho. It spanned about two-thirds of the east-west distance, and encompassed an area from the Snake River north to the Salmon River watershed. The original county seat was set as Esmeralda, a mining camp that soon disappeared. After April 1864, Rocky Bar served as the county seat. For fifteen years or so, mining in the Boise River watershed dominated the County’s economy.

Not much happened in eastern Alturus because of ongoing Indian unrest. However, after the Bannock War of 1878 [blog, June 8], stock raising grew on the Camas Prairie, and prospectors found rich lead-silver lodes in the Wood River Valley [blog, April 26]. The towns of Bellevue, Ketchum, and Hailey sprang up in 1880-1881.

The silver boom drew most of Alturas County’s population eastward. Thus, in the summer of 1882, after a bitter battle among the three towns, Hailey became the county seat. Prosperity seemed even more assured as Oregon Short Line railroad tracks marched across Idaho, and officials said Hailey would have a branch line connection before the next summer.

So, in February 1883, the legislature approved an Act that allowed Alturas County to issue $40 thousand in bonds to fund a new courthouse-jail. After the cornerstone ceremony in August, construction proceeded into the following year. The structure was completed, and accepted from the builder on August 1, 1884.

The Salt Lake City Tribune published (August 7, 1884) a long account from their correspondent in Hailey. The writer said, “The courthouse deserves more than mere mention. It is a very large, substantial and well arranged structure, located on the bench overlooking Hailey and the valley. The basement is of cut stone, and in it is located the jail, constructed of sheet steel and angle iron, riveted like boiler work.”

Citizen were proud that the project had “for once in the west” stayed within budget. The writer went on, “The finishing touches are now being put on the structure, which will be ample for some years to come.”

But, as usual, the boom times did not last. Within four years, silver production had dropped off drastically. Then silver prices fell in 1892, following by the financial Panic of 1893. The county took years to pay off the bonded indebtedness. Still, they were finally able to add to the structure in 1907.
Alturas/Blaine County Courthouse, ca 1919. [Hawley]

The complex history of how Alturas County disappeared as a political entity is far beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that eight completely new counties were created from Alturas, and it contributed healthy chunks to six others. Hailey survived as the county seat of Blaine County, created in 1895, but the county contains only about one-ninth the area of the original.

The Blaine County Courthouse was placed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1978. Although parts of the old building must sometimes be cordoned off for repairs or upgrades, it is still in use by county officials and employees.
References: [French], [Hawley], [Illust-State]
“Alturas County,” Reference Series No. 112, Idaho State Historical Society (1966).
George A. McLeod, History of Alturas and Blaine Counties Idaho, The Hailey Times, Publisher, Hailey, Idaho (1930).

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