Nothing tells us as much about life in Idaho’s teeming mining towns in 1864 and 1865 as the directories published by George Owens. Gold had been discovered in Boise Basin on Aug. 2, 1862, and hundreds rushed to Idaho as soon as the word got out. By 1865, Idaho City, Placerville, Pioneer City, Centerville and Buena Vista Bar each had a directory of its own, with pages of advertising that expand our knowledge of local services available.
The site for the town of Placerville, named by former Californians for a gold rush town in that state, was chosen on Dec. 1, 1862, and two weeks later the town boasted six log cabins. Until there was a saw mill, there would be no lumber available, but with mountain winter already upon them, those first settlers needed shelter at once, and log cabins were the answer.
By 1865, when the Owens directory was published, Placerville was a thriving town with a wide range of businesses. Like some California towns it imitated, Placerville was laid out around an open plaza about the size of a football field. Among those that advertised in that first directory were two hotels that faced the Plaza. The Empire Hotel, run by Charles Durein and his brother William, faced the west side of the plaza and held the office of the Umatilla Stage Co. Its competitor, the International Hotel, advertised itself as “The Largest and Most Commodius House in Boise Basin. Particular attention paid to the traveling public. Stages leave twice a day for Pioneer City, Centerville and Idaho City, and every other day for Walla Walla. L.A. Burthey, Proprietor.” The transitory nature of these businesses is suggested by the fact that when the 1870 U.S. Census was taken, the Duriens and Burthey were no longer in Idaho.
Drugs and Medicine were advertised in the directory by Dr. B.W. Kimball, M.D.: “All the Standard Patent Preparations of the Day. Acids, Alcohol, Turpentine, Perfumery, Toilet Articles, and everything usually kept in a First Class Drug Store, on hand and for sale by B.W. Kimball.” Kimball had also left Idaho by 1870.
Not surprisingly in a town with a 90 percent male population, Placerville had a brewery, half a dozen saloons, a billiard parlor, a bowling alley, a theater and a tobacco shop. There was probably at least one bawdy house, but it isn’t mentioned. Only seven women are listed in the 1865 Placerville directory, three as “Miss,” and four as “Mrs.”
The town’s saloons had interesting names: “International Exchange,” “Washoe,” “Coast Range,” “J.H. Hart’s,” “Magnolia,” “Florence,” “Franklin,” “Fritz” and “Red Bluff.” James H. “Jimmy” Hart would become one of Boise’s best known citizens in the years ahead, noted for his Irish wit and the clam chowder he served every Friday night. (In 1870 there were 283 other Irish-born residents of Boise County, most of them engaged in mining.) Placerville’s occupations in 1865 included a butcher, four bakers, a tinsmith, five carpenters, two lumber dealers, two boot and shoemakers, three stable keepers, four blacksmiths, four jewelers and five general storekeepers. Sam Sing and Sin Lee ran a Chinese laundry, and George Harris, Joseph R. Johnson and N. Susand, “colored,” ran “hair dressing and bathing rooms.”
Maintaining law and order in Placerville was the job of Deputy Sheriff Thomas Neall. D. Overmyer was justice of the peace, J. M. Shepherd was city recorder, and M.B. Moore was postmaster.
The professions were represented by J.H. Ralston, M.D.; F.H. Orendorf, physician and druggist; and F.C. Clark, dentist. Clark’s large ad read, “After 12 years of experience in my profession I am convinced that the majority of teeth lost through neglect might have been saved.” It’s still true 153 years later, but you won’t find a dentist in Placerville.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email email@example.com.