Boise has never had a hurricane or any other big storm that caused damage comparable to what has happened in Texas and Florida in 2017, but it does have a long history of floods, locally from Cottonwood Creek and the Boise River. North Idaho river towns like Lewiston on the Snake River also have a similar history of regular annual floods.
Boise Valley’s great flood of July 1862 was the first ever recorded by settlers in Southern Idaho. The entire valley was under water, forming a lake a couple of miles wide that stretched from the Foothills on the north to the Bench on the south. There had been similar annual floods for thousands of years as snow in the mountains melted.
The Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman noted on Sept. 1, 1864, “The little gulch that comes from the hills in the rear of town rose to the depth of four feet where it crosses Main Street. It was dry before the rain and is nearly dry again now.” The paper, being new in town, had little experience of the area’s seasonal changes. “We think more of this climate than before. It was thought that no rain fell here in the summer, but now the atmosphere is cooled to endurance, the dust thoroughly laid, and the grass will soon be green again on the hills.”
In February 1869, “The stream leading through Boise City from Cottonwood Creek, being considerably swollen from snow in the mountains nearby, blocked up the drain and came very near flooding Main Street. We remember three years ago, the same creek made it very jolly for the highest top boots in crossing Main Street. Then, there was no remedy, but this time a little labor forced it into the natural channel.” It seems, after many years of following the history of Cottonwood Creek, that its “natural channel” crossed Main Street near Fourth Street, and often turned at that point and ran down Main Street itself. In January 1870, after 36 hours of incessant rain, John Krall suffered considerable damage at his brewery when his cellar filled with water. In March 1871, after Main Street was flooded again, the Statesman reported, “The city Dads were called in council upon the matter that evening and measures will be taken to amend the matter.” None could have realized in 1871 that future Boise mayors and city councils would be battling Cottonwood Creek for the next half century.
The Statesman, in its role as gadfly, wrote in January 1872, somewhat ungrammatically, “It don’t look very well for the credit of our city to have quite so large a creek running lengthwise of the street at this point. … Nature made our streets as good as we could wish, but we have been wearing them out for the last seven years without ever doing a day’s work to improve them. It is quite time that we should do enough to make them as good as when the city was first located.”
A week later: “We have called attention to this matter several times, and we believe there has been several efforts to turn this water off, but it don’t stay off. It looks as if this little job is being patched up very poorly. This work is a small matter, but it must be done well. We hope our city fathers will look after it soon.” A month later Cottonwood Creek was still running merrily down Main Street and the lower part of town was “nearly drowned out.” In what would prove to be a classic piece of optimism, the Statesman said, “It is not a very great work to turn this water at the mouth of Cottonwood Canyon, so it will empty into Boise River entirely away from the city.”
On Feb. 22, 1872, gold was being panned on Main Street. “No great loss without some small gain. We noticed yesterday, while Cottonwood Creek was running down Main Street, quite a party of mining prospectors at work in front of the National Bank. About half a dozen were using the pan and twice as many more looking on. We noticed two or three pans washed out by Chinamen, and one or two by white men, and one by a Spaniard. The latter had at least fifty cents, and one white man had nearly as good a prospect, and each Chinaman had several colors. It is possible that the most of the gold was from the sweepings of the Bank, but there is some gold in all this ground.” (The “Spaniard” would have been one of the city’s Mexican citizens.)
The Idaho World reported in April 1875 that Boise County’s Mores Creek and Elk Creek were filled with more water than ever known before. “Tons of tailings are being borne down by the turbulent muddy torrent, and the high water threatens to inundate the lower end of town, including the World office.”
Next week: The battle to keep Cottonwood Creek out of Main Street.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.