In December 1889, just months before Idaho became the 43rd state in the Union, her capital city still had a way to go before its citizens could be proud of the face they presented to visitors. Her few sidewalks were rickety. Main Street was unpaved; it was dusty in summer and muddy in winter. It was passable by men on horseback or by wagons pulled by horses, mules or oxen, but it was a sore trail for pedestrians - especially for women, in an era when fashion dictated that shoes be dainty and that skirts brush the ground.
In its role as the city's gadfly, the Statesman commented on Dec. 10, 1889: "The condition of the sidewalks just now calls for attention. After the series of heavy showers we have been having during the past week, the sidewalks present chains of ponds and puddles making them almost impassable for pedestrians. A load or two of sand thrown in front of each block would suffice to fill up the depressions which cause the ponds and greatly improve the sidewalks. Unless something be done to improve the streets and sidewalks, ladies and children will be compelled to keep within doors." We gather from this that most sidewalks were made of sand.
In February 1890, the paper complained that the streets had been dusty last summer and were muddy now, and even though $15,000 had been appropriated by the city council for improvements, the money was simply "lying idle" when immediate action was needed. In March the Statesman continued to nag, "It does seem as if the city government might manage in some way to have a walk constructed to the public buildings on some one of the streets, where in a wet time, men, women and children would not be under the necessity of wading through the mud, either to visit the capitol, courthouse or the graded school."
In April, action was finally taken. "Eighteen men were engaged yesterday in laying the cement sidewalks around Capitol square. The work was commenced near the northeast corner and proceeded very rapidly. It is but six feet wide, leaving at least one foot between it and the curbstone on one side and the same distance on the other inside the coping." The editor thought these one-foot spaces should have been paved as well, because grass would grow in these spaces, attracting stray livestock that might damage the new sidewalks. Boise was still the kind of small Western town where livestock roamed freely. An ordinance making it illegal to allow livestock to run free inside the city limits was not passed by the city council until Oct. 12, 1895.
Now that the benefits of concrete sidewalks and the speed with which they could be laid had been demonstrated for all to see, the early 1890s became an age of sidewalk paving. In April 1892, N.H. Hon got the contract to build 14 blocks of concrete sidewalks on 8th Street from Idaho to Fort Street. In December that year the Statesman observed: "This stormy weather makes the average citizen wish that we had good sidewalks laid all over town. Everyone should make it a point to take a walk on 8th Street during the muddy season and see what a comfort good sidewalks are."
In June 1893, the paper reported, "A cement sidewalk will be built this summer along the west side of 9th Street from Front to Fort streets. It will be built down Front Street to the proposed new Union Pacific depot." Sidewalks continued to be laid that summer, filling in the gaps. In November, a cement walk was being laid around Moses Alexander's store at the corner of Main and 7th streets. When the old sidewalk was torn up, $5.00 worth of coins was found. Twenty years earlier, when gold dust was the common medium of exchange, men panned for the gold when the wooden sidewalks were torn up.
By March 1895, the Statesman could proclaim in a headline "ADIEU TO SAND WALKS Before a great while our broad, well shaded streets will be skirted on each side by cement walks, and Boise, the beautiful will then have taken another progressive stride. The law enacted by the Legislature just adjourned makes it possible for the citizens of Boise to enjoy the comfort of good sidewalks." That law allowed owners to pay for sidewalks in front of their property in seven annual installments, something the paper thought "even the poorest" could afford.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.