Top 50 Stories: 1863-66 — Boise Basin gold rush

mdeeds@idahostatesman.comJune 6, 2014 

This advertisement for B.M. DuRell & Co. was published regularly in the Statesman.

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    To celebrate 150 years of producing this newspaper, we are reprinting one of our Top 50 stories each day through July 6. Then you can vote for your Top 10 stories, which will appear in our commemorative special section on July 26.

After a group of fortune hunters trekked into Boise Basin and struck gold on Grimes Creek in August 1862, the blitz of picks, shovels and pans was on.

Idaho was about to become, well, Idaho.

To be clear, "struck gold" is literal, not figurative. Prospector George Grimes was killed days later, supposedly by Indians. But by the next year, Boise Basin was crawling with eager opportunists ranging from miners to businessmen such as Benjamin M. DuRell, who opened stores in Boise City and Idaho City offering goods and banking services.

Founded in late 1862 as Bannock, Idaho City was in a sweet spot for water, so its population skyrocketed to 7,000 within a year or two - making it the largest town in the Pacific Northwest.

Boise Basin's gold scramble was a catalyst for the creation of the Idaho Territory. Before that, we were part of Washington Territory. Soon afterward, the territorial capital was moved from shrinking Lewiston to Boise.

The gold-seeking heyday from 1863 to 1866 was sometimes chaotic. Disputes and random mayhem resulted in gunfire and murder. Still, as Boise County's website documents so vividly, "The saw mill ran continuously with rough lumber building up cities like magic." Fledgling towns such as Pioneer City and Placerville had populations in the thousands.

That rough lumber - think pine and shake shingles - also was a nightmare waiting to occur. On May 18, 1865, Idaho City burned to the ground. It took only about two hours, according to the Tri-Weekly Statesman. Granted, Boise's newspaper did occasionally struggle with details: "The light of the fire was seen in this city during the evening," the Statesman reported, "but there was considerable difference of opinion as to whether it was Idaho City or Placerville that was burning."

It was Idaho City, the Statesman confirmed, adding that "it is generally believed that the fire was set for the purpose of plunder." Naturally, this resulted in well-organized "stealing on the grandest scale."

Idaho City quickly was rebuilt - gold is a terrific incentive - only to burn again in 1867, 1868 and 1871.

As the gold rush faded, Boise Basin's population dissipated. Idaho City had boasted more than 200 businesses in the mid-1860s. It had 104 residents in 1920. Nowadays? There were 485 people in the 2010 census.

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