From Boise

Portals to Boise history

Published 4 months ago • 10 min read

Hello my friends! Wow, what a gorgeous day. It's perfect weather to be out & about, and today's story might inspire your route. Our story today is all about places in Boise that you probably pass by often, yet you may not know that these places are a piece of Boise's history. Julie Sarasqueta wrote this amazing story and I learned so much! I know you will too. You can listen to me read this story in today's podcast episode. Enjoy!

In partnership with Idaho Wine Commission

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Portals to Boise history

By Julie Sarasqueta

When I moved to Boise in 2000, the best Bloody Marys in town were at the wonderfully tiny and divey Interlude on 8th Street. Readers frequently wrote to food editor Romaine Galey Hon at the Statesman, desperate for long-lost recipes from The Mode Tea Room, which was housed on the second floor of The Mode Department Store and closed in 1991. When I craved a scone the size of my head at 2:30 a.m., I’d go to Merritt’s, which was so far down State Street and surrounded by a whole lot of not much.

I could go on ad nauseam about how much this place has changed in the past 24 years, but to live in Boise is to watch it transform. Rapidly. This city has never been static. It is obsessed with self-improvement (sometimes misguided, sometimes not).

That makes it something of a curse for history-obsessed people like me: We’re always chasing remnants, those hidden portals into Boise history. There are hundreds of these magical time warps out there, but these are a few of my favorites.

The Beer-Crushing Water Fountain

At the turn of the century, menfolk who enjoyed their whiskey were terrorized by the thought of women winning the vote. They were right to be scared: For some women, voting was an opportunity to finally crack down on the vice in their communities.

You may have never heard of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, but at the turn of the 20th century they were an incredible force to be reckoned with. They embraced and promoted the women’s suffrage movement and a dizzying array of progressive causes. Members advocated for fair labor standards and were early proponents of a living wage. They campaigned against prostitution and pushed age-of-consent laws. But their biggest issue was a complete ban of alcohol: Prohibition.

Modern readers look back on Prohibition as a failed experiment that led to a massive increase in organized crime. But back then, it must have seemed like a sensible-albeit-drastic solution, especially in Western towns like Boise. The City of Trees was still fairly wild in the early 20th century, with rampant gambling, prostitution, and its own red light district called Levy’s Alley (located on the current site of City Hall).

The WCTU looked upon places like Levy’s Alley as an affront to the public and to God. They employed a number of tactics to fight alcohol, including strategically placed water fountains or barrels of ice water. If a man had access to pure, cool drinking water, the thought went, he wouldn’t need to head to a dirty and depraved saloon. (I don’t know about you, but I drink for reasons other than thirst, so the logic escapes me.)

Boise had a number of these fountains, including one that was dedicated in 1910 in honor of Mary Tolles, a WCTU member who died in 1909. By the 1970s, only the Mary Tolles fountain remained.

In 1979, the local chapter of the National Organization for Women campaigned to have the fountain moved to its current location in front of City Hall — just steps away from the infamous site of Levy’s Alley.

The Court Where Immigrants Played

Basques have been playing pilota, a quick-moving game featuring a hard rubber ball, for centuries. Pilota is such a part of Basque culture that nearly every Basque village, town, and city features at least one handball court, or fronton. When Basque people immigrated in droves to Boise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they built frontons in their new city.

One, located in the Fronton Building (of course) on Boise’s Basque Block, is more than 100 years old. It is the only Boise fronton that is still in active use — every week, you can hear the thwack-thwack-thwack of players slamming the ball against the fronton’s walls during league play and practice.

But just a few blocks away at 512 W. Idaho, right next to Flying M, you can see a nearly forgotten fronton that was an amenity for lodgers at the Star Rooming House. The Star building, miraculously, looks much like it did when it was built in 1895: Squint your eyes and you can almost see boarders lounged on the Star’s double-decker porches. The Star is one of the last of the dozens of boarding houses that popped up in Boise in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

It’s tough to overstate the role boarding houses played in the Basque-American experience. Basque men would spend months at a time alone as sheepherders, then return to the refuge of the boarding house. Basque women would find jobs as maids or cooks or run their own boarding houses. A boarding house was a hub: a place to collect mail, hear the latest news, dance, eat familiar home-cooked meals, and speak an ancient language that must have sounded impossible to American ears.

In 1911, when Jose and Felipa Uberuaga built the fronton at the Star, their new court would have given them a leg up in the fierce market for paying boarders. It also would have been a little piece of home for immigrants who were far from their own.

The Grove Where Travelers Slept

Many years ago, I was walking in what is now Kristin Armstrong Municipal Park and was struck by the layout of the trees. It just seemed so shady and inviting, like someplace you’d want to pitch a tent and have a picnic. Turns out, that was intentional: the park named after Boise’s best-known Olympian served as an auto campground for decades.

Nowadays, people go car camping all the time. But more than 100 years ago, when affordable automobiles hit the American market, car camping was a novelty. Camping had become increasingly popular in the late 19th century — Victorian-era Americans romanticized nature, especially the vast spaces of the West — but it wasn’t exactly easy. You might have to take a train to your destination, or load up horses or mules along with everything needed to maintain them during your trip. Not to mention the canvas tent, the tins and sacks of food, the bulky sleeping bags … but cars upended the process. Now, suddenly, anyone with a vehicle could load up and go as far as the car would take them — including the first national parks out West.

Auto campgrounds were the early 20th century equivalent of today’s KOAs. In 1918, when Boise Tourist Park opened in what is now Kristin Armstrong Municipal Park, the new campground helped meet a surging demand. According to the City of Boise, the park contained “tent sites, a communal kitchen with hotplates, a laundry with a washing machine, a playground and two cement slabs for washing cars.” In the ensuing years, traffic increased from 6,000 cars a year to 20,000.

By 1938, the fortunes of the United States had changed drastically thanks to the Great Depression, and the campground became known for housing itinerant people. The City of Boise took the land over, and its heyday as a stop for enthusiastic travelers ended.

The Road Built on Wagon Ruts

If you’ve lived in Idaho for long (or you’re of a certain age and “died” of dysentery while playing “Oregon Trail” on the ol’ PC), you’re probably familiar with the state’s Oregon Trail landmarks. There’s Three Island Crossing near Glenns Ferry, one of the most treacherous river crossings on the entire route. You can see where determined emigrants emblazoned their names across the landscape at Register Rock near American Falls or Camp Rock near Almo.

In Boise, the Oregon Trail is right under our feet: Boise Avenue. This north-south route in South and Southeast Boise began its storied history as part of the Oregon Trail and was eventually subsumed into the roadways of the city. The modern street follows the Oregon Trail from Capitol Boulevard to Eckhart Road.

Imagine what Boise Avenue looked like back then, with ruts already permanently etched into the earth by hundreds of heavily laden wooden wagons. There was no irrigation and most of Idaho’s groundwater was still intact, so the desert would have seemed more vibrant. Walking alongside your wagon would have been arduous, especially across Southern Idaho, but riding in the wagon would involve a sustained jostling modern travelers have never experienced. Your family members might have taken ill or died; you would have seen hundreds of simple grave markers as you traveled. You would have also witnessed spectacular country: the towering City of Rocks, the undammed and dangerous Snake River, and “foothills” that were bigger than any mountain Back East.

Traveling along Boise Avenue today, you’ll see obelisks dotting the road: 17 in total, with 15 on Boise Avenue and two in the North End. Each obelisk tells part of the story of the Oregon Trail in Boise, including the Boise River crossing at what is now the Capitol Boulevard Memorial Bridge, Boise Avenue, and a passageway that ran near what is now Harrison Boulevard. They’re well worth a look.

The Remnant of a Forgotten City-Within-a-City

These days, the building at 610-612 Front Street is best known for the witty quips the owners of American Cleaning post on its outdoor sign. But this unassuming structure is one of the last vestiges of Boise’s last Chinatown.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Idaho was far more diverse than it is today. In 1870, an astounding 30 percent of the state’s people were Chinese (by comparison, nearly 93 percent of the current population is White). Like so many immigrants from around the world, they came to Idaho because of the gold mining boom — and, as outsiders who weren’t given equal rights, they had to create their own communities from scratch.

The Chinese in Idaho faced huge obstacles working as farmers, launderers, cooks, maids, and more. White people often had no problem employing Chinese people to do work they didn’t want to do, but at the same time fought additional waves of immigration and discriminated against the Chinese population. In Boise, the Chinese community was relegated to a segregated Chinatown.

The first Chinatown was located on Idaho Street and included restaurants, gambling houses, laundries, and benevolent societies known as tongs. C.K. Ah Fong, whose apothecary is now housed within the Idaho State Museum, set up his business there.

By 1901, the first Chinatown was considered an eyesore and a health hazard and the State Board of Health shut it down. Chinese residents, who were forbidden by law to own land, had less than a week to relocate. These days, Boise’s first Chinatown is hardly visible — though you can still see the Chinese influence on architecture in the “pagoda” turret of the Adelmann Building on Idaho and Capitol.

The second Chinatown formed on 7th Street, now known as Capitol Boulevard, along Front and Grove streets. Chinatown’s residents built multi-use buildings housing benevolent societies, laundries, and mercantiles specializing in Chinese goods. Tourtelotte and Hummel, one of the most respected architectural firms in town, designed several buildings in the new Chinatown, including the Chinese Odd Fellows Hall at 610-612 Front Street.

But the writing was on the wall for Boise’s once-populous Chinese residents. By 1920, the number of Chinese people in the city had plummeted to around 600. Many went back to China; some stayed in Idaho.

In the 1960s, Boise was gripped by the promise of “urban renewal” and began tearing down huge chunks of the city’s core. Like so much of Boise’s history, the second Chinatown was deemed an eyesore unworthy of salvage. Wrecking balls crashed into Chinatown again and again during that decade, but somehow the Odd Fellows Hall survived.

That part of the city is still under constant development, but you can catch glimpses of what Chinese life was like through the stationary red binoculars strategically placed through the neighborhood. Each one features a scene from historic Chinatown, gazing exactly where it took place more than 100 years ago.

Other places to find history portals

North End Grocery Store Markers: Next time you’re strolling through the North End, look down: small brass circles in the sidewalk mark the locations of the neighborhood’s many former grocery stores (there were more than 40!).

C.W. Moore Park: This pocket park on 6th Street serves as a sort of graveyard for buildings destroyed by urban renewal.

121 N. 9th St in Downtown Boise: Just outside Bacon, you’ll discover remnants of the 1909 Odd Fellows Hall that was demolished in the 1990s. The building’s sandstone veneer was used to construct the wall that borders the alley.

Public Art: Many of Boise’s public art installations address the history of the city. Traffic boxes and permanent works, like Amy Westover’s “Grove Street Illuminated,” offer glimpses into the history of the neighborhoods where they are situated.

Thanks for reading!

With love from Boise,


Today's story was written by Julie Sarasqueta. Julie is a writer and tarot reader who lives in Boise.


From Boise

by Marissa Lovell

A weekly newsletter & podcast about what's going on in Boise, Idaho. Every week we share stories about people, places, history, and happenings in Boise.

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