Ever Seen A Historic Boise Water Wheel Turn?
The Young house on Walnut Street in Boise’s East End is a place of many projects.
A large plastic tub in the living room is home to a scattering of chicks waiting for the new coop that Dayton Young is building in the backyard. A tray of seedlings bound for a newly cleared garden grows nearby. Young is building a table on the back deck — bonsai designs burned into a smooth wood surface. That’s not far from the metal railing he built to hone his welding skills.
But Young’s most ambitious project is restoring the massive circa-1910 steel water wheel that sits in the concrete Boise City Canal behind his midcentury house.
Young, a stay-at-home dad who has two small daughters with his wife, Kelsey, wants to get the wheel running again, something it hasn’t done for more than 30 years. The wheel is visible from Walnut Street, but it’s been easy to miss, cloaked in ivy. Young cleared that away and has been replacing parts on the wheel and loosening rusted bolts. The wheel, which stands more than 12 feet tall, is turning again.
“The project has taken a lot of oil, a lot of grease, a big hammer and a big wrench,” he said.
Boise’s picturesque, now mostly vanished water wheels operated by lifting water out of canals and into elevated troughs that took advantage of gravity to feed irrigation pipes. Grove Street, once one of Boise’s finest residential streets, was lined with trees and gardens and known for its water wheels. According to a 1928 article in the Idaho Statesman, each block of Grove had between two and four wheels “turning and dipping.” The sight was apparently so appealing that when President Benjamin Harrison visited Boise in 1893, he called Grove the most beautiful street he had ever seen.
The Youngs’ wheel once transferred water via an above-ground pipe that ran through their yard and irrigated numerous lawns along Warm Springs Avenue. Along with searching for usable parts in local metal salvage yards, Young started studying local history to learn more about water wheels and their restoration. He contacted John Bertram from Preservation Idaho for advice. Bertram wrote back, recalling an old wheel on Walnut Street and the pleasing squeak it made when it turned. He was delighted to learn that the wheel he knew and the wheel Young was restoring were one and the same.
“I told Dayton to get some WD-40 and put it on anything that moves,” said Bertram.
The wheel in the Youngs’ backyard is rare, Bertram said. Despite the number of wheels that once operated in Boise, it’s the only one he knows of that is unaltered and still in its original location. A wheel from Morris Hill Cemetery was installed at C.W. Moore Park Downtown in the early 1980s.
As Boiseans modernized and began relying on the city water system rather than irrigation to water their lawns, the water wheels fell out of favor, Bertram said.
Young won’t use the water wheel to irrigate. The water will circulate back into the canal. But he hopes groups like Preservation Idaho will include the wheel in future historic walks and garden tours.
And if all goes as planned, the wheel will feed an improvised Slip’N Slide in the backyard, sure to make the Young house one of the most popular in the neighborhood this summer.
More about the canal
The Boise City Canal diverts water from the Boise River. The canal follows the southern border of Warm Springs Avenue, primarily in an open channel. The canal goes underground and continues to Grove Street. It winds through Boise’s North End just east of North 26th Street, flowing to Edwards Nursery off Hill Road and beyond. According to a Preservation Idaho publication, Boise pioneer Cyrus Jacobs built the canal, which was also called the “city canal” and the “Grove Street ditch.”
Do you know of other water wheels, operating or not, in the city of Boise or in the Treasure Valley? Let us know. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.