IDAHO HISTORY: Shoshone started as ‘purely a railroad town’

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANJanuary 26, 2014 

On Aug. 31, 1882, under the headline “A Town of Tents,” the Idaho Statesman reported that “many of Wood River’s old timers have recently moved to Junction City, the new town site at the junction of the Oregon Short Line and the Wood River branch. They say that their city is destined to become a place of vast commercial importance, though at present it is only a city of tents.

“The business places there now are the hotel and saloon of William Dill, the locator of the town, the contractor’s store, Dr. Wood’s drug store, the saloons of Charles Terry and Asa Wangaman and the Oregon Short Line forwarding house.”

When the U.S. Postal Service established a post office at the new town that month, it was under the name “Shoshone City,” but it would be plain “Shoshone” to the Statesman thereafter. A correspondent for the paper wrote of the place in 1885, “It is purely a railroad town. It is the end of three divisions of the U.P. system and the monthly disbursements of the pay car to the shop men and the road men is no small affair. The railroad buildings here are very substantial structures of lava rock.” Many years later a historic-sites survey of the area by the Idaho State Historical Society led to the listing of many of these lava rock buildings in the National Register of Historic Places.

The Statesman’s correspondent was concerned about the poor opinion of Idaho that visitors might have from what they saw of it from the railroad: “It must have required a vast amount of capital and a good deal of pluck to build such a road through the very worst portion of the country that could be found.” After attending a Methodist church service, the correspondent thought the Rev. J.W. Maxwell deserved to have a full house for his sermons even though it should leave very few people in the saloons and other places of business. After all, it was only one hour out of the 168 of them in the week.

That beauty is in the eye of the beholder was illustrated by a visitor to the Statesman office in May 1884: “Mr. C.J. Sims was in from Shoshone yesterday. He speaks very highly of the country around Shoshone, especially for stock raising. He says they have a good deal more farming land than is generally supposed. The farmers have planted orchards and sown a good deal of grain this season. Mr. Sims took up a desert claim of 640 acres a year ago and has got water on it and sown about 80 acres of grain. He says he has been offered $3,000 for his claim and would not take twice the amount.”

By 1889, when a new directory of Idaho Territory was published, Shoshone was listed as “the county seat of the new county of Logan,” although it apparently never served as such and certainly never had a courthouse. Logan County was founded on Feb. 7, 1889. Bellevue was county seat when Logan County was abolished by the Legislature on March 5, 1895, to become part of a new Blaine County. The 1889 directory notes that, “Little Wood River flows through the town furnishing water power, which has not as yet been utilized. The railroad machine shops located here, give employment to about 200 men. There are Catholic and Methodist churches, a new brick school house, two hotels, a brewery and a weekly newspaper, the Idaho State Journal. The shipments consist principally of livestock. There is a semi-weekly stage to Shoshone Falls, 26 miles away.”

Next week we’ll continue the story of Shoshone, its people and its architecture.

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

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