From Boise

The history of transportation in Boise

Published 7 months ago • 12 min read

Hello friends! How are you?

Today is the first of a two-part series about transportation in Boise. The story today explores the history of transportation in Boise, how different modes overlapped, and how some transportation methods quite literally shaped the Boise we know today. Sharon Fisher wrote today's story. Next week's story explores what the future of transportation might look like in Boise. You can listen to me read this story on today's podcast episode. I hope you enjoy it!

Also, today is voting day and if you are looking for election stuff, you will not find it here. I don't write about politics. Try BoiseDev or pretty much any other local news source.

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The history of transportation in Boise

Written by Sharon Fisher

The next time you get stuck in Boise traffic, count your blessings. After all, less than 150 years ago, you’d be riding in a stagecoach on an unpaved, bumpy road where it would take all day just to get between Boise and Kuna.

The history of personal transportation in Boise covered several eras, ranging from literal horsepower to electric streetcars to gasoline and, now, electric- and gas-powered cars and buses – not to mention the infrastructure on which they traveled. What’s important to remember, though, is that the Era of the Stagecoach didn’t suddenly switch to the Era of the Streetcar followed by the Era of the Automobile. Instead, there were years where different modes of transportation shared the roads, more or less harmoniously.

“It’s not as if we go from one to the other,” said Dan Everhart, State Historic Preservation Office outreach historian for the Idaho Historical Society. “There’s not a sharp line in the sane and we’re no longer using the horse and buggy. You would have had these eras of overlap.” During those transitionary periods, carriages, horseback, cars, and streetcars – not to mention pedestrians and bicyclists – would all be interacting with each other on Boise streets at the same time. You’d see newspaper articles reporting that ‘Mr. So and So’s horse was spooked by Mr. Smith’s new Buick on Main Street,’ he explained.

“The modes would have intersected with each other – not figuratively, but literally,” Everhart said. “Some old-timer would be holding on to his horse and buggy because he doesn’t trust a car and ‘I’m not going to sell my horse and buy one of those new-fangled things.’” And until one was supplanted by the other, they were all on the same roads together.

The horse-drawn era

The very, very first way that people came to Boise was on their own. “The way that people were arriving in Boise in those early mining years, they were either coming on foot or by horse,” said Barbara Perry Bauer, principal historian with TAG Historical Research and Consulting, in Boise. But it wasn’t long before entrepreneurs started coming up with ways to provide transportation for people who didn’t have their own.

By the late 1860s and 1870s, stagecoach lines were bringing people to the area from the railroad stop at Kelton, Utah. “That would be the main transportation point for people coming into the area from the east,” Bauer said. From the west, they came from Walla Walla, Washington. “Northwest Stage Companies was one that was pretty prominent,” she said, noting that William Morris – who went on to develop the Boise Bench and after whom developments such as the Morris Hill Cemetery were named – came into Boise originally as a manager of the Northwest Stage line.

Other stagecoach lines traveled between Idaho mining camps and suppliers in Boise. In fact, Bauer has compiled a list of almost two dozen stagecoach companies that served the Treasure Valley at one time or another.

And if you were going someplace not on the stagecoach line? Just like today, you took an Uber of sorts – except back then you had to control it yourself. “Not everyone would have a horse, so you had the development of livery stables,” which also housed the horses of residents who didn’t otherwise have space to keep horses, Bauer said. “Wealthier folks had their own stables and carriages and whatnot,” she said. “It was like a parking garage for a horse.” Livery stables also provided blacksmiths and other services for taking care of animals and wagons.

The streetcar era

Before long, transportation providers had another option besides horsepower: electricity.

“We never had horse-drawn streetcars in Boise,” said Bauer, the author of Treasure Valley’s Electric Railway. “Our mass-transit system really did start with Boise Rapid Transit,” which was incorporated in August 1890 and started providing service a year later.

By then, Boise was big enough that it needed public transportation. “It was a boon for people who lived in the community, because you could get around the city more easily,” Bauer said. Streetcars also connected Boise to other Treasure Valley cities such as Caldwell, leading to them also being called the “interurban.”

Streetcars also promoted development themselves. Private investors would buy land, run a streetcar out to the land – as well as the electricity infrastructure to power it – and then divide the land into residential lots and sell it. These so-called “streetcar suburbs” are still reflected in the development of Boise today.

“Boise was not unique,” Bauer said. “It was a nationwide phenomenon. As people were able to live further from the downtown area, you had developers investing in property they wanted to sell. The early developers were the force behind the streetcar lines.”

For example, Walter Pierce bought property and represented developers in the North End, while Harlan Ustick did the same thing for land that he owned on the western side of town, Bauer said.

“It led to the development of outlying areas,” such as the Boise Bench, Bauer said. “They wanted streetcar access to downtown. It was incredibly instrumental in how the city was shaped, and how neighborhoods grew, and where the population base was located. It’s undeniable in our city’s heritage.”

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Out of town tip

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The automobile era

When the first car appeared in Boise wasn’t definite. In Hailey, it was 1903, and in Idaho City, it was 1904, and they were definitely present in Boise by as soon as 1905.

As automobiles became more common, the era of the streetcar came to an end. But the popularity of the automobile led to something else: The development of roads, particularly paved roads.

“It was pretty clear, once the automobile was an assured system of travel, that there was going to need to be some investment in infrastructure,” Everhart said. “Our expectations for infrastructure evolved with that use of the infrastructure.”

Nationwide, in the teens and 1920s, there was the “Good Roads” movement, sponsored by car clubs, which began pushing for state and federal investment in highway infrastructure, Everhart said. “Boise had similar clubs pushing for, if not the pavement of our streets and roads, at least their widening and maintenance,” though downtown Boise had more of a need for paved roads than most of the rest of Idaho at that time, he said. Paved roads were also used as an economic development tool to help attract residents to a city, he added.

Initially, roads were created by the Ada County commissioners, who formed road districts, Bauer said. “Where there was enough of a population, you could petition to get a road,” she said. “You had to have a certain number of people, then the road would be put in place. That’s how some of those farm-to-market roads came to be in the area,” as well as roads to mining areas such as Idaho City.

Paved roads started in the early 1900s with macadam, a type of paving using broken stones mixed with tar, and expanded with technological changes and material improvements after 1912, Bauer said. At that point, the state began forming individual highway districts in charge of road construction throughout the state. In 1961, Ada County decided that its farm-to-market roads would become arterials, and began to pave them.

Things went on that way for some time. Ada County had a road department and Boise had a public works department, the two comprising about 150 employees, according to Ada County Highway District (ACHD) records. In addition, smaller cities had small road departments and some road equipment.

Boise residents, however, felt that they were falling behind in the roads department, with one estimate that it lagged in street construction and repair by $18 million. So in 1971, the League of Women Voters proposed a county-wide highway system, ACHD. While most of the outlying areas voted against it, it won in Boise, and roads in the county have been funded and managed that way ever since. Today, it is one of the only county-wide highway systems in the United States.

The bus era

More than any other transportation method, the era of the bus actually was shared among several other methods. Gasoline-powered buses took over some of the streetcar routes – even run by the same people – almost as soon as the streetcars themselves were shut down, and both buses and cars share the roads today.

In particular was Pierce. He invested in gasoline-powered buses and ran them along the streetcar lines that serviced his streetcar suburbs. “They still had a bus service to the folks who lived in those areas he had helped construct,” Bauer said. They were even still called streetcars. “City directories from 1930 referred to the ‘Boise Streetcar Co.’ and they weren’t running streetcars – they were running buses on rubber tires."

Other bus lines were set up to support other local communities. “You could no longer travel that multi-community route, but you could still get around with a bus,” Bauer said. “For many years, they were funded privately, but they weren’t always making a ton of money.”

In 1962, that started to change, because lawmakers on the federal level started looking at funding for mass transit, said Jason Rose, communications director for Valley Regional Transit, based in Meridian. In 1964, the first Urban Mass Transportation Act was passed, creating the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, which later became the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), he said.

The real heyday for buses in Boise started in 1973 with Boise Urban Stages (BUS, get it?), a private entity that was privately funded and restricted to the city of Boise, Rose said. That organization operated for about 20 years, while a similar organization called Treasure Valley Transit started running in Canyon County. “There were two separate systems running independently of each other,” he said.

At that point, there were buses, and routes, but no formal bus stops, Rose said. Instead, people flagged the bus down. “You had to know where the route was,” he said. “It was really inefficient. There was no way to know how often the bus stopped – it could be zero times, or it could be a hundred times.”

In 1994, the Idaho Legislature passed a bill to give citizens the opportunity to form regional public transit authorities, and in the Treasure Valley, two of them passed, one in each county, Rose said. They were formed in 1998. Then, in January 1999, the boards of each county voted to merge into the Treasure Valley Regional Public Transit Authority, or VIATrans. “They were seeing the need to have a regional connected system rather than two disconnected systems,” he said. In 2004, the organization changed its name to Valley Regional Transit (VRT), while the service itself changed its name to ValleyRide. More recently, both the organization and the service have started using the term VRT.

But it wasn’t until 2005 that the buses moved away from the flag system to a bus stop system, Rose said. “There was a pole in the ground so you could organize something rather than have a free-for-all,” he said.

VRT’s development has been hampered because Idaho is the only state in the Union that doesn’t have a dedicated source of operations funding, Rose said. Instead, each year VRT needs to go to the various communities and ask for funding. That’s partly why so much of the bus system covers Boise rather than surrounding communities; not only does Boise have the largest population, but it provides the lion’s share of the operational funding.

However, VRT is eligible for grants and other sources of funding for capital expenses, such as buses and stations. That’s what funded the Main Street Station, the underground downtown Boise station that opened in 2015. “It’s the largest station we have,” Rose said. “It’s an amazing facility for an agency our size.”

The streetcars’ influence today

Ironically, a lot of the bus routes continued to follow the same routes as the streetcars. But when you think about it, that makes sense, Rose said. The transit agency decides on routes based on factors such as population density, job density, destinations, pedestrian access, and sidewalks – all factors that were created and influenced by the streetcar routes.

“A lot of the cues we take come from routes developed long ago,” Rose said. “In the 1920s, and before the automobile, those areas were built for people. Both the buses and the interurban were made to send large groups of people around.” In contrast, areas developed between the 1920s and 1960s were developed under the presumption that people had cars and could spread out – which makes running an economic public transit system difficult.

“We follow where the people go,” Rose said. “That’s what the interurban did as well. Where a lot of car-centric development is built to move automobiles, other environments like early Boise, early Caldwell, and early Nampa were built around people because there wasn’t that demand for space.”

While the early automobile became popular because it was considered to provide people with freedom, now VRT is trying to provide a different freedom and more options – the freedom to not have an automobile. “At the Main Street Station, you see people from all walks of life,” ranging from students to professionals to shift and restaurant workers, Rose said. “It’s something people don’t know about. That’s the story we’re trying to tell: The bus can be for everyone.”

Stay tuned for next week's story about the future of transportation in Boise.

Thanks for reading!

With love from Boise,


Today's story was written by Sharon Fisher. You can read more of her work here.


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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