Idaho History

Saloons were plentiful in 1880s Idaho, as was ill-tempered drunkenness

Idaho City had five saloons just before statehood.
Idaho City had five saloons just before statehood. Idaho State Historical Society

Early Idaho newspapers record many instances of public drunkenness, and although some have an element of humor, most are more pathetic than funny.

The Owyhee Daily Avalanche of Silver City reported this on Feb. 26, 1875: “A sympathetic Crowd. – Weary and worn he tottered up to the bar of a gin shop in town last night and steadied himself by holding onto the counter. A sympathetic crowd of bystanders gathered around him, and took a drink at his expense. He tottered on to the next saloon, and the crowd mournfully followed him.”

The Idaho Daily Statesman asked in September 1889: “If our temperance friends, who are laboring for the closing of the saloon, ever meet with success, it will be after they have invented something to take the place of the saloon. 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 a cheerless tenement after a hard day’s toil and finds little to relieve a tired spirit. The door of the saloon is always open to him. Its brilliant gas lights, 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. No matter how friendless and poor and ragged, he is always welcome at the saloon.

“Take it here in Boise, the young men after weeks or months of solitary life in the mines, or upon the ranches, come to town for their day or week’s recreation. They have well earned a week of rest or pleasure. No home opens its door to them. They walk the streets strangers. The saloon invites them. There they meet scores of young men just like themselves – without a home – and for many months strangers to all home pleasures and influences. Is it strange that they flock to the saloon, the only resort open to them?”

This idealized description of the saloon is contradicted regularly in the news, for drunkenness all too often led to violence, and occasionally to murder. The Idaho Statesman noted in January 1872: “Roughness of Boise. – Drawing pistols and knives, whenever a little misunderstanding occurs, is and has been too freely indulged in, in this city, and the law in relation thereto should be rigidly enforced.”

An example of how too much to drink affected some was described in the Statesman on Nov. 27, 1869: “ON THE RAMPAGE. – Some fellow styling himself the ‘Montana Chief’ got red hot with whisky on Thursday night, and undertook to run the town. He took possession of the Chicago Saloon and demolished things generally ... the days of bowie-knife braggadocio in Boise City have passed away.” That they hadn’t would be described regularly for many years to come.

In 1889, on the eve of Idaho statehood, Boise City had 16 saloons, Idaho City five, Weiser four, Silver City four, Caldwell three, Glenn’s Ferry three, Payette two, Emmett two, Nampa one and Middleton one. Idaho had about 250 saloons altogether, and 24 breweries.

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