Idaho History

When Idaho had gold, other mining, Wild West growth – and plenty of saloons

These men posed in front of one of Boise’s 16 saloons.
These men posed in front of one of Boise’s 16 saloons. Idaho State Historical Society

Saloons outnumbered all other kinds of business on the Idaho frontier by a wide margin, and they made the pages of the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman with regularity. Although the paper ran ads for Boise City’s saloons, it also campaigned for a more peaceable, sober and orderly Main Street.

“Drawing pistols and knives, whenever a little misunderstanding occurs, is and has been too frequently indulged in in this city, and the law in relation thereto should be rigidly enforced.” Newspaper accounts of violence in saloons nearly always made a distinction between “good whisky” and “bad whisky,” suggesting that it was the “rot gut” kind that caused most of the trouble. “For the amount of saloons there are in this city it is singular that there is so little fighting going on. They must sell but little of the bust-head sort.”

In April 1881, a bit of verse in the Statesman promoted temperance, but not abstinence: “He who drinks and goes away, will live to drink another day, but he who drinks between the drinks right quickly to the gutter sinks.” That there were too many confirmed alcoholics in town led the paper to print this little quip in May 1872: “Early rising is usually considered an indication of thrift. In this city it indicates that a man is thirsty.”

In response to the Good Templars and other temperance organizations that wanted all of the city’s saloons shut down, the Statesman asked in a lengthy editorial, “What will take the place of the saloon?” It argued that “man is emphatically a social being. After he is through with the work of the day he delights in an evening of jovial intercourse with his fellows. To the rich and well-to-do many amusements are open. There are the theatres, social entertainments, and the pleasures of bright attractive homes. But the great mass of those who frequent saloons in our cities know nothing of these pleasures. A poor man comes home to his cheerless tenement after a hard day’s toil and finds little to relieve his tired spirit. The door of the saloon is always open to him. Its brilliant gaslights, its sociable tables, with their little games, its cheery warmth in winter, its iced beverages and cool halls in summer, all invite and welcome his entrance.”

By 1889, many old Idaho mining towns were just a shadow of their former selves, but still had a high number of saloons per capita. Atlanta, whose population had dwindled to only 100, had two saloons and a brewery. Bayhorse and Clayton, by contrast, were booming. Each had six saloons for populations of about 250, or one for every 42 people.

Bonanza City, in Lemhi County, was a boom town that attracted thousands after gold discoveries on the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River in 1878. Statesman editor Milton Kelly, writing from Idaho City on July 16, noted that “Bonanza City is growing rapidly — as fast as building materials can be obtained. There is already a population of two thousand persons in the town and immediate vicinity.” In the 1880s this had leveled off to about 600 people, with three hotels and two general stores, two boot and shoe stores, two lawyers, a blacksmith, a mining broker, and a newspaper called the Yankee Fork Herald, owned and operated by M.W. Musgrove. It also had an astonishing eight saloons, one for every 75 people.

Even in Mormon towns, where church doctrine forbade members the use of alcoholic beverages, there were saloons. Albion, with a population of only 500, had three saloons and a brewery. Malad City had two saloons and a brewery, Oxford and Preston each had a saloon, and only Franklin had none.

Boise, which had grown into a family town with churches of all of the major denominations and a synagogue, had 16 saloons, or one for every 250 people. These numbers, compiled from R.L. Polk & Co.’s “Idaho Gazetteer & Business Directory for 1889-90,” confirm that the saloon was an institution firmly implanted in Idaho Territory, about to become the 43rd state.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email