Idaho City has history of rising from the ashes

Idaho City didn’t lose any historic buildings in Friday’s fire, but the blaze has dealt serious economic and emotional blows to the historic mining town, filled with hardy souls who wear many hats to make ends meet and keep the community humming.

The boardwalk on Main Street was the city’s shopping district — a place where tourists could grab an ice cream cone, get photos taken in old-time costumes and pick up novelty gifts. Over the past few decades, it became iconic.

“That was kind of the face of our town — the entryway when you come in,” said Beth Wilson, who has lived in Idaho City for 35 years. “And it’s just gone.”

Some might say that Idaho City was forged out of fire — two blazes leveled the city in the 1860s. Structures that were rebuilt after those fires are still standing today, including St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.

In shock Friday, longtime residents expressed both heartbreak and optimism.

“Who knows? Maybe this is going to be the reflowering of Idaho City,” said Bruce Reichert, host of Idaho Public Television’s “Outdoor Idaho” and a longtime resident of the area. “It would not surprise me. Idaho City is constantly reinventing itself, and this is another opportunity.”

Reichert, who previously worked as a bartender, librarian, teacher and newspaper editor in Idaho City, remembers a brochure from the 1970s that referred to it as “The Ghost Town that Refused to Die.”

About a 45-minute drive from Boise, Idaho City’s economy relies heavily on tourism. Traffic to and through the city — which has about 500 residents — picks up significantly on Memorial Day weekend and continues through the summer. Hundreds of off-road motorcyclists from all over descended on the city last weekend for a race called the Idaho City 100.

“We’ve been going full guns,” said Trudy Jackson, owner of Trudy’s Kitchen, famous for its breakfast and pies — and for rebuilding after a fire seven years ago.

The city has had its highs and lows over the years — at times it has felt like a ghost town — but the opening of several new businesses had many optimistic that it was on the rebound.

Jackson said her phone rang off the hook Friday as concerned customers and supporters called to be sure her business didn’t burn down. Jackson said she was concerned about the employees who woke Friday to find they’d lost their jobs.

“It probably put 30 or so people out of work, besides the business owners. When there’s only 500 people in your town, that’s a big chunk,” Jackson said.

Skip and Donna Myers, who co-own the restaurant Donna’s Place, rebuilt their business after fires in 2004 and 2010.

“After the first fire, we just went ahead and put it back together,” Skip Myers said. “After the second fire, I had to do a lot of thinking. We got a lot of ‘please do’s.’ ”

Myers said he’s concerned about what the loss of the boardwalk will mean for tourism.

“It’s probably going to be a rolldown effect,” he said. “We have 17 employees. We’ll probably have to lay off a couple. I’ve never laid people off.”

Jackie Bridwell, a former mayor who now works in the Boise County Sheriff’s Office, said she felt sick to her stomach driving by the boardwalk Friday.

“It’s empty,” she said.

But this is a town that has a history of getting back up and fighting for its survival.

“It’s been my experience up here that whenever there’s a tragedy, in the long run, it ends up being better than before,” Wilson said. “If anything brings the dysfunctional family of Idaho City together, it’s something like this.”

Related stories from Idaho Statesman