Idaho History

Boise’s bridges were lauded from the start, but early tolls and floods were challenges

The bridges in early Boise (top of image), one of which went to an island that is no longer an island but is home to Boise State University, were received with great fanfare.
The bridges in early Boise (top of image), one of which went to an island that is no longer an island but is home to Boise State University, were received with great fanfare. Idaho State Historical Society

“The Boise Bridge must be counted among the public luxuries that have happened during the last year. Instead of wading and wallowing across the Boise River and its rocky bottom, occupying half an hour, you now cross in five minutes both bridges and haste on the way rejoicing.”

So enthused the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman on Sept. 22, 1868, in praise of the bridge from town to an island in the river and a second continuing southward on the way to Silver City. The “island” referred to is no longer an island and is now occupied by the campus of Boise State University.

A bridge built 3 miles upstream by the partnership of Lawrence and Briggs had opened for business in April that year, but completion of the new bridges closer to town meant that in May it was for sale: “A BARGAIN. F or sale or exchange for other property the undivided one half of the OVERLAND BRIDGE, situated three miles above Boise City. For further particulars inquire of C.A. Lawrence, City Market.”

Another new bridge being built about 10 miles upstream from Boise City by William Lytell was blown down by strong winds in April 1971, costing its owner $2,000. He rebuilt it in April 1874, and pack trains for the mines were soon passing over it.

In January 1872, the Ada County commissioners were petitioned for a reduction of fares on the Boise Bridge and the Snake River Ferry on the Owyhee Road. “One man can take care of each and collect the tolls. It costs as much to cross Boise Bridge and return as it does to go to Idaho City and return over a toll road thirty-five miles long kept up at the expense of four or five men’s constant labor, and the use of a team and a large outlay of tools.

“Farmers cannot afford to pay four dollar every time they come to Boise City with a two horse wagon.”

In April 1872, the Ada County commissioners announced new rates of toll: “Wagon, one pair of horses, mules, or oxen, $1; 2 pair horses, mules or oxen, $2; each additional pair, 50 cents; man and horse 50 cents; pack animals, 30 cents each; loose animals, 25 cents each; man on foot, 25 cents each; sheep and hogs, 6 cents each.”

After the usual spring flood of May 1875, Boise Bridge owners Isaacs and Fruit had several teams hauling stone that was dumped into the river around the bridge’s supporting piers to keep the current from undermining them. This work had to be done every year, at considerable expense.

In January 1876, H.P. Isaacs sold the bridge to his brother J.C. Isaacs for $6,000. The spring floods that year left about 50 feet of the center of the bridge standing. By November: “To this has been added two hundred and fifty feet on the north end and two hundred feet on the south end. Eight new piers have been built fifty feet apart. Owner William B. Morris told the Statesman that the work had cost $5,000.”

Steps were not taken to make the bridge toll-free until January 1884, when the Boise City Council voted to levy a special tax of three-quarters of one percent on all taxable property in the city to buy the bridge and give it to Ada County.

That spring, as in every spring since the first bridge was built, Boise River went over its banks, showing that Mother Nature still ruled.

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