150 Boise icons: Fort Boise Military Reserve Cemetery

May 26, 2013 

Stroll through the Military Reserve Cemetery on a moonlit night and you'll find yourself in one of the city's most somber landscapes.

The cemetery has been on the hillside above Boise since 1906, when the U.S. Army relocated it from its original site about a half-mile down Mountain Cove Road.

Burials began at the original location in 1863, the year Fort Boise opened, said Ken Swanson, executive director of the Idaho Military History Museum. It was a military cemetery but civilians - men and women who died traveling the Oregon Trail, for example - are buried there, too.

Floods were always a concern. A particularly bad flash flood from Cottonwood Creek in 1906 inspired officers at the fort (called Boise Barracks at the time) to hire contractors to relocate the cemetery to higher ground.

The job was supposed to take one year, said Swanson. It took three because no one knew the full extent of burials. Wooden headstones had been lost through the years, making identification a challenge. In the end, the workers moved 166 graves.

The Boise Barracks closed in 1913, and burials stopped.

After World War II, the Department of Veterans Affairs began closing a number of small cemeteries across the U.S. to save money. The Army didn't want to take on the responsibility of moving the graves once again and asked that the cemetery remain where it was. The VA deeded it to the city of Boise in 1947 as a historic site.

The cemetery fell into disrepair in the following decades, until the Idaho Civil War Volunteers stepped up in the 1990s.

"We got together, adopted it and started taking care of it," said Swanson, a member of the group.

That care included replacing broken headstones and providing the labor to put them up.

Long after the Barracks closed, people continued to discover graves at the original cemetery site. In 1998, flood-control excavation turned up one full grave and the remains of two others.

The Idaho Civil War Volunteers built simple wooden caskets. They held a Memorial Day burial ceremony for the three that year in the Military Reserve Cemetery.

Thinking it likely the bodies were of Civil War veterans, the ceremony followed the Army's 1863 burial protocol for enlisted men.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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