Before sewer systems were built, the best of Idaho hotels were primitive

Idaho’s big new Territorial capitol building of the 1880s had no indoor plumbing
Idaho’s big new Territorial capitol building of the 1880s had no indoor plumbing Provided by Arthur Hart

One thing early Idaho hotel owners never bragged about in their ads was the kind of sewage disposal facilities they had. Before 1892, neither Boise nor any other Idaho town had a sewer system. Disposal of human waste was primitive and inefficient.

This item from the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman of June 8, 1875, describes sanitary conditions along Main Street, where nearly all of Boise’s hotels were located: “Miasmic Holes — The 72 stenches which Coleridge found in the town of Cologne are excelled by the wonderful effluvia which this hole combines in one general stink which defies analysis.”

The paper continued to bring up the subject of sewage and garbage disposal regularly, as in this from April 1876: “FILTH — The offal of houses, dead cats, chickens and other filth have been thrown into the alleys and promiscuously around the premises of residences for a long time. In some places there is stagnant water as green as the grass and thick enough to cut with a knife.”

The paper urged city Marshall A.O. Nicholson to give property owners a final warning to clean up their property at once, and to arrest them if they didn’t.

Those were the conditions outside Boise hotel rooms. Inside, there was no running water or flush toilets, in lieu of which rooms were equipped with a chamber pot and a ceramic bowl and pitcher for washing. Chamber maids had the unpleasant daily chore of emptying and cleaning the pots, making the beds and filling the pitchers with hot water on demand.

In a few cases, Chinese help performed these chores, as they did in the homes of some of Boise’s wealthy families, many of which, however, still had an outdoor privy. In 1886 Idaho’s big new Territorial Capitol building was praised for its elegance, but legislators and all the men and women who worked there had to go outside to a separate outhouse.

When Boise did begin to construct a sewer system in 1892 and required all Downtown buildings to connect to it, James H. Bush, owner of the Central Hotel, “from the rear of which emanates some very obnoxious odors,” noted the Statesman, ignored the order and was served notice by Marshal Nicholson to comply at once or be arrested. John Lemp, former mayor and city councilman, and owner of the Capitol Hotel, was arrested for violation of the city ordinances respecting the disposition of swills and slops. He was fined $1, and $3 in costs!

In 1886 George Pettengill, of Boise, and William H. Davison, of Placerville, formed a partnership and briefly rented James Bush’s Central Hotel. Both men were respected pioneers with interesting histories. George Pettengill was born in Salisbury, N.H., on May 18, 1832. He crossed the plains to California in 1852 with a team of oxen, driving 300 head of cattle. He mined in California until 1862, when he followed the rush to the North Idaho mines, where he became a successful raiser of livestock near Lewiston before moving south to Boise Basin. He was elected to represent Boise County in the Territorial Council in 1879, and after moving to Boise in 1883 was elected a representative for Ada County.

Although George Pettengill had no experience in hotel-keeping, William H. Davison had a lifetime of it. Davison was born in Calaveras County, Calif., on Oct. 11, 1856, the son of James W. Davison, an Englishman who brought his family to Placerville, where he ran a hotel for 20 years. Young William Davison moved to Lewiston in 1897, where he took over management of the Hotel de France; in 1901 he was owner of that city’s Raymond House.

The Bancroft House, which opened on Oct. 15, 1893, at the corner of 9th and Idaho streets in Boise, was unique among hotels of its day. J.W. Bancroft’s tiny ad in the Statesman of Oct. 6, 1897, proclaimed in large black letters, “NO BAR” and noted further, “Lady cooks and waiters. Rates $1 to $1.25 per day. Brick building.”

Next week: The Idanha, Boise’s grandest hotel to date, opens at 10th and Main streets.

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