IDAHO HISTORY: As Idaho grew, so did the demand for lumber

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANNovember 24, 2013 

Albert H. Robie had the kind of resilient spirit that allowed him to start all over again after fire destroyed his Boise sawmill and planing machine in August 1866, with a loss estimated at $40,000. In February 1867, he had another sawmill up and running on the mountain creek that still bears his name, and in partnership with German-born Alexander Rossi continued to supply lumber to the local market and to Silver City and Owyhee County. Although Robie & Rossi dissolved their partnership in May 1872, both men continued in the lumber business and to run sawmills.

Hubert Howe Bancroft, certainly the most prolific of all writers in the field of Western history, gives this brief biography of Robie in a listing of notable pioneers of Boise: “Albert H. Robie was a native of Genesee County, New York. He came to the Pacific Coast as a member of Governor Stevens’ exploring expedition (1853).

“After the Indian war of 1855-56 he was placed in charge of the Indians (around) The Dalles. In 1860, when the Nez Perce mines were discovered, he erected a sawmill at Lewiston, removing thence to Idaho City, and again to Boise City, where he was foremost in useful undertakings. He owned a large herd of cattle near Steen Mountain in Oregon. When the Bannock war of 1878 broke out he was at his stock rancho (sic) and narrowly escaped with his life. Joining in the pursuit of the Indians who had destroyed his herd, he fell a victim to an illness brought on by fatigue and exposure, and died July 26, 1878, at his home on Dry Creek, Boise Valley, aged 46 years, leaving a wife and five children.”

The trials and tribulations of all who ran sawmills in Idaho’s mountains were recorded regularly in the Statesman.

In April 1874, “Barrett Williams is running his sawmill 15 miles above here in Boise County but says he will not be able to haul out lumber to this place for six weeks yet. The snow is two feet deep, packed solid in places, where there was none last year at this time.”

In November, “The Dowling boys expect to have their shingle mill and planing machine in operation in a few days. They have been delayed by having to send to San Francisco after new belting.” In December that year, the paper reported that the Dowlings had lost about 300 saw logs, which had been beached above their mill on the Boise River. “This was owing to a sudden rise in the river. Most of the logs will be recovered, but the expense will be about as much as they are worth.”

A few days later the Boise River Lumber Co. advertised that they were prepared to furnish lumber of all kinds from their yard in back of Cyrus Jacobs’ store at 7th and Main streets. They, like Albert H. Robie and others before them, offered to take flour and grain in exchange for lumber.

In March 1875, the Idaho Statesman noted that Alexander Rossi had hauled enough logs to his mill on Shaffer Creek for 300,000 feet of lumber, but shortly thereafter he advertised in that paper, “For sale. A toll road and a Steam Saw Mill Complete, located 16 miles from Boise City in a good body of timber. The above property will be sold cheap.”

Rossi, like so many of Idaho’s pioneers, had followed the gold rush to California in 1850. After several years there he moved to Oregon City, where he ran a machine shop. After his shop was flooded out by the Willamette River he went to Lewiston, opened an assay office and began his partnership with Albert H. Robie in running a sawmill. In about 1865 they moved to Boise, the new capital city of Idaho, where construction was booming and lumber was needed. Perhaps Rossi’s major contributions to Boise history were his donation of the city block where the United States Assay Office was built and his service as its first superintendent.

The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a National Landmark. In further recognition of his abilities, Rossi was elected to three two-year terms as an Ada County commissioner.

The Wood River mining boom of the 1880s also created a demand for the lumber needed to build the new towns of Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue. The Statesman reported May 18, 1882, “There are now eight steam sawmills in operation in Wood River, and three more sawmills and a planing mill are to be put up in the next 30 days.”

Next week we’ll continue the story of Idaho’s lumber industry.

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

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