Idaho History

Ada County had to wait for its first real courthouse

When Idaho Territory was created in March 1863, it had only five counties and for a few months was bigger than Texas, and included land that would become Montana and Wyoming. Those original counties were Shoshone, Nez Perce, Idaho, Boise and Missoula, which became part of Montana Territory when giant Idaho was broken up to assume its present shape.

Ada, Owyhee, Kootenai, Oneida and Lemhi soon followed. Ada County was named for the daughter of Henry Chiles Riggs, a leader in founding the county. Contrary to what still appears in print occasionally, Ada was not “the first white child born in the county.” She was born in California in 1856.

What every new county needed as soon as possible was a courthouse with a fireproof vault for preserving its records. Ada County’s first courthouse was a modest brick structure at Eighth and Idaho streets that had been a photographer’s studio. The Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman reported on Sept. 14, 1865, “We understand the county commissioners have purchased the brick building formerly used by Mr. Law for a picture gallery and intend to convert it into offices for the sheriff, county clerk and county commissioners. The price paid was fifteen hundred dollars. The cost of the building will be saved to the county in rent, in the course of a year.”

Two weeks later masons began laying brick for an addition that would house probate and district courts and office space for the sheriff, clerk and recorder. The Statesman thought when the work was finished “it will make pleasant and comfortable rooms for the officers, either in summer or in winter.” By 1869, however, the paper described it as “the little dingy contracted place where the District Court is wont to meet, generally miscalled the courthouse.” In April 1871, the building was referred to as “a brick heap.” In May, “Some very healthy repairs are in progress at the courthouse. Mr. Walker, under direction of the commissioners, is putting a coat of paint on the ceiling, and some cheerful-looking paper on the dingy walls.” Not until 1877 did the commissioners contract for a 10-by-10-foot vault for safekeeping county records to cost “about $500.”

By 1879 the old pieced-together courthouse was woefully inadequate. Charles Ostner, whose splendid equestrian statue of George Washington stands in Idaho’s Capitol today, showed the Statesman plans he had drafted for a new courthouse. The paper said “It would be a splendid ornament to the city and generally enhance the value of property.” On June 14, 1881, the commissioners advertised for plans and estimates for a new courthouse.

G.W. Babcock of Boise got the contract to build the courthouse for $38,225, without the six iron jail cells required by law, wells, pumps and outdoor privies, furniture or 15 iron stoves and pipe worth about $50 each. In November alterations in the plans were authorized to include adding decorative quoins around all outside windows and doors for $1,100, raising the basement story one foot for $700, and increasing the ornamental belt course around the building from 5 inches high to 10 ½ inches for $300.

In March 1882, Babcock had a force of brick masons at work laying the second story of the courthouse. He anticipated some delay while a new kiln of brick was burned and while his stone masons waited for the roads to settle so the teamsters could haul stone.

By October 1882, Ada County’s new courthouse was finished and in use. Its Italianate style was pleasing to the eyes of Boiseans who visited it by the hundreds in the weeks following its completion.

The old ramshackle structure formerly used as a courthouse was an eyesore the Statesman wanted removed. “That the building has stood and not fallen down to this time does not prove that it is safe for any purpose. … It may stand 10 years longer, and it may fall down in the next 24 hours.” When it was torn down in April 1886, the paper observed, almost nostalgically, “One by one the old landmarks are removed by the hand of progress.”

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

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