Saturday, January 13, 2018

Engineer, Developer, and Boise Mayor Ernest G. Eagleson [otd 01/13]

Ern Eagleson. J. H. Hawley photo.
Engineer and Boise Mayor Ernest George Eagleson was born January 13, 1864 near Cadiz, Ohio, 30-35 miles southeast of Canton. The family moved to Iowa and then Nebraska.

By 1881, “Ern,” as he was usually called, had gone to work as an engineering assistant for a railroad. A few years later, he attended a Normal school before continuing at the University of Nebraska. He graduated from their engineering program in 1889.

During the next four years, he worked as a railway construction engineer and then as a mining engineer in Wyoming. In the meantime, Ern’s parents moved to Boise City in 1891. Two years later, the Boise mayor appointed Ern to be City Engineer. He would serve four terms (eight years) in that position, although not in consecutive stints.

Eagleson found plenty of other work in the Pacific Northwest, including projects for mining companies, railroads, and irrigation districts. He also invested in real estate, with a substantial tract on the bench west of the Boise River plain. All this property needed was water to mushroom in value.

About the time his first term as City Engineer ended, a long-standing canal project seemed to be gaining momentum. Originally conceived over a decade earlier, the system would divert water onto the bench from upstream on the river, about seven miles southeast of Boise. However, financial panics, mismanagement, and bad luck had repeatedly delayed the work. By this time, ownership of the necessary water rights had become clouded, so in early 1896 Ern located one further up the river.

The battle among competing developers was soon joined, and parts of the dispute ended up in the Idaho Supreme Court. Finally, Eagleson could proceed with the engineering and construction work. The first water flowed into the New York Canal in 1900 [blog, June 20]. Over the next decade, Ern held the position of Ada County surveyor for a time, and spent six years as U.S. Surveyor General for Idaho. In 1914, Eagleson served a term as President of the Idaho Society of Professional Engineers.

Eagleson was elected Boise mayor in 1919. Commenting on Ern's two-year term, J. H. Hawley said that Boise development proposals could be “studied from the standpoint of a civil engineer who can correctly estimate upon municipal engineering problems and also from the standpoint of the business man.”

Eagleson lost a close bid for re-election in 1921, but ran again in 1925 and was elected. He was thus mayor when a Varney Airlines plane landed at Boise’s hurriedly-constructed municipal airport with a load of airmail from Pasco, Washington. That flight initiated the first commercial airmail service west of the Mississippi, and only the second in the country. (The first was based in Detroit [Detroit Free Press, February 15, 1926].) A photo in the Idaho Statesman shows Eagleson shaking hands with the pilot, while the Boise postmaster stands by with a mailbag to be carried on to Elko, Nevada.
Early airmail fleet, Boise. City of Boise.
Varney was one of several pioneer airlines that eventually combined to become today’s United Airlines.

Eagleson continued to work in Boise, and was spry enough at age 86 to give a long, enthusiastic interview about the wonders of Idaho to a bemused reporter (Idaho Statesman, Boise, May 1, 1950). He passed away in 1956. Eagleson Road and Eagleson Park subdivision carry on his name.
References: [Hawley]
“The Beginning of the New York Canal,” Reference Series No. 190, Idaho State Historical Society (March 1972).
“City Takes on Carnival Airs for Air Mail,” Idaho Statesman, Boise Idaho (April 7, 1926).
“Corrected List of Mayors, 1867-1996,” Reference Series No. 47, Idaho State Historical Society.

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