Idaho History: Supplying the lumber to build Boise created lively competition

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANNovember 17, 2013 

Building an army post and a town on a sagebrush desert in 1863 took determination, skilled craftsmen, and suitable building materials. Boise city’s founders needed lumber, bricks, stone, and men who knew how to shape them into buildings.

There were cottonwood trees aplenty along the river, near where the town was platted, but before the first sawmill was built, cottonwood logs could be used only for log cabins by squaring them up with a broadax.

Two surviving local examples show that these cabins were small and crude, but with sun-dried adobe bricks, larger buildings could be made. The 1865 Thomas E. Logan house, which stands today next to the Idaho Historical Museum in Julia Davis Park is our only surviving adobe structure. Soon after it was built, it was coated with red oil paint, both to make it look like fired brick, and to protect it from weathering away. Sun-dried mud brick was sturdy, as was demonstrated more than a century after it was built when the house was moved from near the corner of Sixth and Main Streets to its present site in the park without cracking or crumbling.

By 1865, tiny Boise was bustling with skilled craftsman putting up buildings of all kinds. George Owens’s city directory published that year lists 27 carpenters, 10 masons, four painters and a brick yard. The carpenters were able to work with good pine and fir lumber after the first sawmills were built. The Statesman, still housed in a crude log cabin, reported on Jan. 5, 1865, that the Purvine Brothers were building a steam-powered sawmill in Stewarts Gulch, 10 miles above the city, and on Feb. 28, 1865, noted: “They have had their sawmill running in fine order for several weeks. They will send to this market a large amount of lumber this spring. They have on hand at the mill over one hundred thousand (board feet) of it, but the condition of the roads will not admit hauling it at present. These gentlemen deserve credit for their perseverance in building the mill during the severe weather of the past winter.”

In March 1865, Albert H. Robie and James H. Bush began building a steam saw mill on the south bank of the Boise River near the center of town. By floating their logs down the river and trapping them with a log boom stretched from bank to bank, they had their raw material ready at hand to be sawn into lumber. When the first whistle from the mill’s steam engine was heard on Friday, April 28, 1865, the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman was ecstatic: “Robie & Bush lit the shavings under the boiler in their new mill, when the engine moved off in splendid style, as freely as though it was the hundredth instead of the first time. The enlivening sound of the steam whistle reverberated along the valley and among the foothills, waking the echoes of pioneering enterprise for the first time within the limits of Boise City. It sounded familiarly and cheerily. We like it. Everybody likes it. Out of the hearing of a steam whistle an American feels as though he was in a wilderness, or in a slow country indeed.”

By midsummer, Robie had a planing mill in operation. “He has lots of machinery which he is bringing into use as fast as needed. Mr. Robie wants to trade lumber for hay.” Sadly, in August, 1866, all of Robie’s enterprise literally went up in smoke when his mill burned to the ground, with a loss estimated at $40,000. Boise had no fire department to do anything about it, and the Statesman editorialized about the town’s urgent need for one. In October, Robie advertised that he still had lumber for sale from his office on Main Street, which had a lumber yard in the rear.

On Christmas Day, 1866, the Mountain Mill Company advertised that it too had opened a lumber yard in Boise City, stocked with “the finest quality of good, soft, pine lumber,” available at the mill on Mores Creek, 14 miles from Boise, for $50 per thousand board feet, or at the yard in Boise for $75 per thousand. “It is conceded by all who have tried it,” claimed the ad, “that our clear stuff is the best that has ever been offered in this market to work into sash, doors, blinds, and for finishing work generally. This is owing to our choice selection of timber which is unsurpassed in the mountains.”

In February, 1867, A.H. Robie had recovered enough from the loss of his Boise sawmill that he was able to start up a new mill in the mountains and was again offering “a superior quality of lumber of all kinds, including shingles and timbers not exceeding 30 inches square and 30 feet long.”

Next week, we’ll continue to look at Boise’s building boom of the 1860s and ’70s.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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