History of Idaho hotels includes those planned but never built

A hotel was planned for 8th and Main, but the Eastman Building took its place.
A hotel was planned for 8th and Main, but the Eastman Building took its place. Provided by Arthur Hart

Research into the colorful history of Idaho’s hotels, from the gold rush of the 1860s to the first decade of the 20th century, turns up unusual and interesting items, some of which you may find amusing.

In 1888, a Mrs. S.S. Gray and her daughters opened the South Boise Hotel, located on the Bench next to Boise’s first railway station, just east of today’s landmark depot of 1925. That 1887 depot was built at the terminus of the newly completed Idaho Central Railroad connecting with the Oregon Short Line mainline at Nampa. When passengers got off the train at that first Boise depot, they were still most of a mile from downtown. Mrs. Gray’s small ad in the Statesman proclaimed in large letters “PLENTY TO EAT” and “Good Beds, Good Accommodations. Board and Lodging One Dollar per Day.”

If you wonder how a small hotel like this could offer a room and “plenty to eat” for a dollar a day, remember that one 1888 dollar had the buying power of at least 25 of today’s dollars. Still, at a dollar a day for room and meals, the South Boise Hotel was certainly a bargain.

Polk’s Boise city directory for 1891-92 lists one George Butler as proprietor of the “Anti-Chinese Hotel.” Who was George Butler, and why would he choose such a racist title for his hotel? His biography, published in Gov. James H. Hawley’s 1920 “History of Idaho,” tells us that George W. Butler was “an ice dealer of Boise, connected also with ranching and cattle raising interests.” He had come to Idaho from Missouri in 1880 at 21 years of age, after working on the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad as a brakeman.

Anti-Chinese feelings were strong in 1880, especially in the West, where in some places violence had been used to drive them out. This mood of the country led to the passage by Congress of a Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, with subsequent renewals in 1892 and 1902, intended to halt all further Chinese immigration to the United States.

The owners of the old Overland House at 8th and Main had planned to erect a large modern hotel on that historic corner, but in October 1904 announced in the Statesman that they had abandoned the project in favor of a four-story business block instead. They had found it impossible to build the hotel at a cost commensurate with the probable revenue and reluctantly changed plans. The new structure was to be erected at once. John E. Tourtellotte & Co. architects were in charge of preparing plans for the new Overland Building. Two additional storeys were added to the first four in 1910, and it was renamed the Eastman Building in 1927 in honor of Eastman brothers H.B. and Ben. The building survived until Jan. 24, 1987, when it was gutted by a fire of mysterious origin and then knocked down, smashing its elegant lions-head cornice.

On Nov. 10, 1907, an Idaho Statesman headline read in large letters: “HOTEL TO BE BUILT ON TABLE ROCK. J.S. Jellison Buys Brothers’ Interest in Stone Quarry and Will Make Summer Resort.” The 685 acres of land that Charles and Edward Jellison sold to their brother John for $12,100 included most of Table Rock itself and the famous quarry that had supplied sandstone for important buildings across the country (notably Yale University’s Harkness Memorial Tower, St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Spokane and a Federal Courthouse in Portland). The ambitious plans included extending the Boise Valley electric interurban railroad to the top of Table Rock. “The road will form a loop on the flat top of the mountain,” Jellison said, “and a switch will run to the quarry, as all stone will be brought down on flat cars, both for use in town and for shipment to other points.”

The national financial panic of 1907 coincided almost exactly with John Jellison’s project, and it was doomed, never to be revived. Oh how I wish we could climb aboard a quiet, nonpolluting electric street car for the scenic ride to the top of old Table Rock and enjoy the pleasures of what Jellison said would be “a delightful summer resort”

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