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From Boise

The history of the Boise Bench

published10 months ago
12 min read

Editors note: Today's story explores one of Boise's hottest neighborhoods – the Boise Bench. We look where it started, where it's been, and where you can find glimpses of the past. It was written by Sharon Fisher with photos from Ted Harmon and the Idaho Historical Society. Enjoy! - Marissa

A bench is usually thought of as someplace you sit down. And while there’s plenty of great places to sit down in Boise, that’s not what people usually mean when they’re talking about the Boise Bench.

Views from the Bench along Federal Way. Photo by Ted Harmon @ted_the_capitalist

According to the Glossary of Landforms and Geological Terms, a structural bench is “A platform-like, nearly level to gently inclined erosional surface developed on resistant strata in areas where valleys are cut in alternating strong and weak layers with an essentially horizontal attitude.”

Right.

Here’s a simpler way. Ask Google to show you a topographic map of Boise, and then zoom in on the Boise Art Museum. You can see a dark gray line, roughly paralleling the Boise River, going up Federal Way to the Boise Depot, then past the Depot and Kathryn Albertson Park. It goes all the way out to Cole Road. In fact, it continues on even after that, roughly tracking Chinden Blvd., past the Banbury Golf Course in Eagle, and then petering out past Linder Road. That’s the First Bench.

Now go back to the Boise Art Museum. You’ll see a lighter gray line that stretches east all the way to the Oregon Trail Trailhead and the Boise River, petering out near Cole Road and Franklin Road. That’s the Second Bench. Each of the benches are related to erosion following the course of the Boise River, which is why they roughly parallel the river. The neighborhoods between and around those two geologic features are collectively known as the Boise Bench.

Photo by Ted Harmon @ted_the_capitalist

The 1868 USGS Map

Not surprisingly, these geological features caught the eyes of early surveyors, too, according to the Boise Bench History Project. Developed by Angie K. Davis, now reference assistant for the Idaho State Archives, the interactive project presents a detailed history of the Bench area up until the turn of the century – the last century.

The entire Boise River watershed region was an important stop in the seasonal migrations of the Northern Paiute, Shoshone, and Bannock Tribes, Davis writes. But while some areas around what’s now Boise had been explored by Oregon Trail settlers, people really got interested in Boise was in the 1860s, when gold was found in the Boise Basin.

Soon after, in 1868, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) surveyed the area using the Public Land Survey System, which divided the continental United States into one-mile square, 640-acre sections. Though that map was long before the Bench was settled, it had an important effect on the Bench area.

1868 United States Geological Survey of Boise. Source: Boise Bench History Project.

“This map set patterns for today's streets and roads and established the modern boundaries of the Boise Bench,” Davis wrote. “We can see that the major streets on the Boise Bench conform to the boundaries of the survey conducted by the United States government after Boise was founded.” An 1891 map shows familiar names such as Cassia Street, Kootenai Street, Latah Street, Owyhee Street, and Shoshone Street.

"Birds Eye View of Boise City" Lithograph, 1890. Original Litograph by Augustus Koch (Idaho State Archives E77-22.1). Boise City was originally platted parallel to the Boise River. The grid of the original town site does not adhere to the United States General Survey grid, resulting in sharp angles where the two grid systems meet. Source: Boise Bench History Project

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The effect of irrigation

At this point, what we now know as the Boise Bench area was considered a wasteland, looking not so different from the sagebrush desert we see in undeveloped areas of Ada County. But in 1871, William Morris began digging a canal to use the Bench area for agriculture, Davis wrote.

Artwork by author and artist Mary Hallock-Foote of the canal on the rim of the Boise Bench. Source: Idaho State Archives

In 1877, Morris filed a notice of intent to divert water away from the Boise River into his new canal and bought 17,000 acres of land in the area for just $0.25 an acre, because it was considered to be desert land. “The price reduction came in exchange for the buyer investing in reclamation projects,” Davis explained. In fact, at that time the area became known as Morristown.

After Morris died in 1878, his nephew, William Ridenbaugh, began expanding the canal both in width and length, eventually reaching as far as Five Mile Road. Families began to homestead in the area, farming crops ranging from hay and asparagus to orchards of apples, prunes, peaches, and cherries, Davis wrote.

Myers Pear Orchard on the Boise Bench. Source: Idaho State Archives

“There would be no initial settlement of the Bench without irrigation,” said Dan Everhart, State Historic Preservation Office outreach historian for the Idaho Historical Society. “The irrigation facility becomes this major inducer of settlement on the Bench. Everything was just sagebrush. Now you can water the land, and it becomes irrigatable and farmable.”

Those irrigation facilities still exist, though in some cases they’ve been buried or rerouted along their original alignment, Everhart said. In fact, some homes and neighborhoods in the Bench still use the old style of “flood irrigation,” where residents are assigned a certain time of day and allotment of water, open up an irrigation ditch, and flood their entire yard, just like the farmers used to do with their fields. “It’s a carryover from the days of agriculture as the primary enterprise on the Bench,” he said. “It’s not unique to the Boise Bench, but it’s something people new to Boise have no knowledge of.”

While the New York Canal and the Boise Project funded by the federal Bureau of Reclamation – originally planned by Mary Hallock Foote’s husband, Arthur De Wint Foote – also brought irrigation water to the area, the Bench’s irrigation system was well established with private funds by then, Everhart said.

The New York Canal near what is now Federal Way. Source: Idaho State Archives

The age of the Interurban

Ridenbaugh also sold off Morris’ land, including, in 1882, 80 acres to create the Morris Hill Cemetery. It might sound surprising, but the cemetery also helped develop the Boise Bench area, because Boise residents visiting their loved ones were repulsed by the poor aesthetics of the cemetery and how difficult it was to get there. The cemetery was improved and roads were developed to allow people to more easily visit there.

Morris Hill Cemetery. Photo by Ted Harmon @ted_the_capitalist

Part of these transportation improvements included the Hillcrest Line of the Interurban Trolley. “The Hillcrest Loop was started in 1913 when the Idaho Traction Company built a line connecting the Morris Hill Line that came from downtown Boise to Morris Hill Cemetery with the South Boise line that ran down Broadway,” said Barbara Perry Bauer, owner of TAG Historical Research and Consulting and author of Treasure Valley’s Electric Railway, in an email message.

“You could take a hearse streetcar that would drop you and the body off at the cemetery,” Everhart added.

Trolley stop at Orchard and Fairview. Source: Idaho State Archives

The Hillcrest line extended from Broadway, down Chamberlain Street to Manitou Street, across a bridge over the Ridenbaugh Canal, and up the side of the Bench to 11th Street (Nez Perce), Bauer said. “The track ran down the center of the street to Roosevelt where it continued north and connected to the Morris Hill line,” she said. “There were stops at various places – Eagleson Park Station was at Nez Perce and Gourley and there was a siding on Kootenai Street and Roosevelt. The width of the Nez Perce and Roosevelt were planned to accommodate the tracks, but that's all I've found except for a private residence that was reputed to be used as a ticket station.

The Interurban Trolley on the Hillcrest Loop. Source: Idaho State Archives

“The route was a boon to the Bench area and provided a link from rural areas outside downtown as the Bench was at that time,” Bauer continued. “The line linked the development of neighborhoods along Garden Street by the old fairgrounds, so it was a key transportation system connecting the Bench to other neighborhoods.”

The suburbanization of the Bench

Improved access to the area, as well as the irrigation that made it lush and green, encouraged people who wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Boise to buy five- and ten-acre plots and settle in the Bench. A second bridge across the Boise River also helped, leading to the incorporation of the village of South Boise, according to the Vista Neighborhood Historic Context, written for the City of Boise Planning and Development Services by TAG Historical Research and Consulting.

“All over America, the urban landscape was being transformed by a growing industrial presence, and the countryside was coming to be viewed as an escape from these busy, dirty, urban landscapes,” Davis wrote. “By the early 20th century real estate developers began offering up the idyllic countryside setting on the Boise Bench.”

An ad for Stein's Addition in Idaho Statesman, April 18, 1913. Source: Vista Neighborhood Historic Context

Communities like Franklin, Whitney, and Rose Hill formed in the Bench area, with some, such as Franklin, boasting their own schools and churches, according to Central Bench History, written for the Central Bench Neighborhood Association by Jim Duran. Whitney also had its own school and churches, according to the Vista publication.

The era of the automobile

Farms still occupied the majority of the area until the 1920s, when two major events happened, Everhart said. “With the growth of the personal automobile, and particularly with the construction of the new Union Pacific Depot in 1925, all of a sudden, the first bench is a very achievable distance from the city center,” he said. “If you want to have a large acreage, or a relatively small site but a suburban one, you built your house there.” Between World War I and World War II, the Kootenai area became a prominent suburb as farms subdivided into individual housing lots.

“Most of Kootenai, between Vista and Latah, is really developed at this time,” Everhart said.

Boise Bench intersection. Photo by Ted Harmon @ted_the_capitalist

Sadly, the rise of the automobile also meant the end of the interurban. “Unfortunately, the Hillcrest Line was discontinued in 1926,” Bauer said. “The electric railway system depended on revenue from passengers and also from freight business. World War I helped spur the passenger and freight service, but by 1924, the streetcar companies in Boise were feeling the effects of the increased use of automobiles. The popularity of the car was the demise of the streetcars.”

The development of the Boise Airport

The Boise Airport, originally located where Boise State University is now, moved to its current location in 1938, as preparations for World War II began, and the military built Gowen Field next door. “They constructed one of the largest airport facilities in the West,” Everhart said. But there wasn’t much military housing, so the military developed farmland into housing in the Bose Bench area. “At Overland and Latah, there’s a development there, purpose-built for noncommissioned officers, that they called ‘Sergeant City,’” Everhart said.

That project was from the Works Progress Administration project and consisted of 100 buildings of up to six apartments each, according to the video Building Boise: the 1940s. Some of those buildings still exist today.

That era was also when some of the neighborhoods were annexed into the city of Boise, and some of the more familiar streets got their present-day names. “When neighborhoods/townships were annexed, it was standard practice to rename any streets that duplicated street names in the older parts of the city,” said Tully Gerlach, collection development librarian for the Boise Public Library, in an email.

For example, “When the village of South Boise was annexed to the city of Boise in 1913, the numbered streets within the village boundaries were changed to avoid conflict with other streets in the city,” noted the Vista publication. “The early numbering system in the Vista neighborhood would remain until the 1940s when the area was annexed to the city, also to avoid confusion.”

Similarly, “A large number of streets on the Bench were renamed in 1940,” said Caitlin Hocklander, arts and history program assistant-history for the Boise City Department of Arts & History, in an email message. “According to an article in the November 27, 1940 Idaho Statesman, ‘Other streets have been named for presidents, precious stones and pioneer families, such as Koelsch, Peasley, Phillippi and Cruzen.’ During the mid-1940s, many streets on the Bench were renamed in an effort to accommodate mail delivery in the area. The Ada County commissioners authorized the new street names after engaging with a committee of area residents who helped choose the names.”

A Boise Bench home. Photo by Ted Harmon @ted_the_capitalist

Other streets were named after developers’ families. “Neighborhood streets Hervey, Gourley, and Kerr are Eagleson family names,” noted the Vista publication. The Eagleson family bought the former Foote property, which is now home to the Hillcrest Country Club. “Walter and Mattie Abbs platted their subdivision in 1914 and named streets after themselves. William T. Booth, who platted the Hillcrest Subdivision, and was involved in a myriad of development schemes throughout Boise and the Vista neighborhood, named streets after his relatives and children. These include Ormond, Norville, Helen and Jessie Streets, among others.”

Post World War II, housing was needed for returning service people as well. “Government loan assistance programs such as the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (the GI Bill) made home ownership affordable,” noted the Randolph-Robertson Reconnaissance Survey, written by TAG Historical Research and Consulting for the Boise City Historic Preservation Commission in 2012. In particular, those programs focused on new rather than existing houses, which furthered the development of the area. Consequently, multifamily developments such as Sergeant City fell out of favor, replaced by single-family houses, the 1940s video noted.

In addition, the Bench started developing its own commercial areas at Franklin and Orchard, Duran wrote, and with a number of strip malls, geared toward the automobile, according to the video Building Boise: The 1950s (which has some nifty Bench photos from the period, including a proposed freeway that would have covered the area). That included Vista Village, built in 1949, which may have had the dubious honor of being the nation’s first strip mall, according to a 2015 Idaho Statesman article. The Vista neighborhood wasn’t annexed into Boise until the 1960s, according to the Vista publication.

Historic things to see in the Bench neighborhood

Because so much of it was developed in the mid-20th century, people tend to think of the Bench as new, but anything over 50 years is considered historic. But that impression means that historic sites in the area aren’t necessarily being preserved, other than sites such as the Boise Depot.

“There’s never been a large amount of information gathered on the Bench at all,” Everhart lamented. “Kootenai, which a lot of people think of as the ‘Harrison Boulevard’ or “Warm Springs’ of the Bench, was completely undocumented and had no records of houses and buildings – not described in any way – until two years ago.” At that time, a Boise State University graduate student working on a master’s degree documented most of the houses from Vista to Latah, he said.

Spaulding Ranch. Photo by Ted Harmon @ted_the_capitalist

“It is also of interest and concern to us that there are no protections in place to preserve the significant historic buildings, both residential and commercial, on the Bench,” said Paula Benson, president of Preservation Idaho, in an email message. “The recent ordinance that requires a review of buildings over 50 years of age is a start in requiring the planning and zoning process to at least consider historical significance prior to demolition or redevelopment.”

One exception is the Randolph-Robertson neighborhood of the second Bench, north of Overland, which was largely developed in the 1950s and features a collection of Midcentury Modern architecture. It was surveyed by TAG Historical Research & Consulting for the Boise City Historic Preservation Commission in 2012. Preservation Idaho and its offshoot, Idaho Modern, often holds tours in the area, sometimes even inside the houses.

But otherwise, few of the houses or sites in the area have been documented in the National Register of Historic Places, Everhart said. The 1926 Whitney School, which was on the National Register, was torn down in 2009.

One site that has been registered is the Spaulding Ranch, a 20-acre site at Cole Road and Mountain View Drive, which was created as a local Boise historic district. “It’s the only local protected historic district in the city of Boise that’s not associated with downtown, and the only local historic district on the Bench,” he said. The city is in the process of developing the site into a park that will preserve the farmstead and its buildings.

Spaulding Ranch. Photo by Ted Harmon @ted_the_capitalist

"From a historic preservation perspective, the Boise Bench is unique in its history as part of the story of Boise's development,” Benson said. “It is a reflection of the power of agriculture to help shape a city and of the impact of the automobile to allow for development and permanent expansion further from the downtown core. Without a city-wide goal of preservation as a priority, however, those reviews won't help save this unique community. We hope property owners on the Boise Bench will be part of the effort to identify and preserve what is timeless and irreplaceable in their neighborhoods."

Boise Bench views. Photo by Ted Harmon @ted_the_capitalist

Thanks for reading!

With love from Boise,

Sharon Fisher

Today's story was written by Sharon Fisher. Sharon is a digital nomad specializing in history and tourism. Check out her book out about the history of Kuna, Idaho. You can read more of her work here.

Photos by Ted Harmon, @ted_the_capitalist

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