Idaho History

Making Boise into a ‘City of Trees’ took time and effort

Main Street trees had to fight to survive.
Main Street trees had to fight to survive. Provided by Arthur Hart

Boise has long been called the “City of Trees,” but in 1863, when the town was platted on a dry sagebrush plain between the newly established military post and Boise River, the nearest trees to be seen were cottonwoods and willows along the river and pines and firs miles away, high on mountain ridges to the north and east.

French-Canadian fur trappers named the river “la Riviere Boisse” — the wooded river — since it was the first such stream they had seen for several days as they crossed Idaho, and early maps show it that way. The names for Idaho’s Big and Little Wood rivers have come down to us in the English translation.

From its beginning, the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman was a leader in promoting tree planting, but the first need was getting nursery stock to plant. On Sept. 1, 1864, in one of the paper’s first issues, this ad appeared: “Boise Nursery. Branch of Willamette Nursery, Ore. Walling & Cisco, Proprietors. The above nursery, located two miles east of Boise City, is now prepared to furnish all kinds of Fruit and Ornamental Trees and Shrubbery, in quantities to suit purchasers. G.W. Walling, A. Cisco.” We have found ads for this firm in The Oregonian as early as 1858.

In September 1864, another pioneer nurseryman of the Pacific Northwest ran this ad in the Statesman: “123,000 Trees and Plants of the finest growth, grown at the Columbia Valley Nursery near Walla Walla, W.T. will be delivered to parties in the (Boise) valley in November ... Send in your orders early by mail. Philip Ritz, proprietor.”

In February 1865, the Statesman ran a lengthy editorial urging Boiseans to plant trees, and throughout the decade regularly praised those who did. On Feb. 9, 1869: “Shade Trees. The proprietor of Hart’s Exchange made a little improvement yesterday by setting out a line of shade trees along the front of the hotel.” On March 4, 1869: “A Green Spot. We notice the planting of many trees about residences and hotels in Boise City. Messrs. Griffin & Barber are looking to it that the Overland shall be no exception, having placed a row of neat young Cottonwoods and quaking aspens around the front on each street. Boise will ere long rival her great wicked but beautiful sister of the plains.” The reference was to Salt Lake City, “wicked” because polygamy was practiced by some of its citizens.

On March 20, 1869, the paper reported: “The Tree Mania prevails in this city. Almost every street is already ornamented with poplar, cottonwood and willow trees, and as but few men are in the tree business, they observe a strict system of setting them out in a true line, and of the proper depth to make them live with a good supply of water. We flatter ourselves that we will be the premium or star city of the plains, when the water ditch is completed, and the street shrubbery abundantly supplied. The trees already set out make a marked change in the appearance of our city.”

The Grove Street ditch would become the principal source of water needed to transform the center of town into a veritable oasis in the desert. Cottonwood Creek, on the other hand, the natural course of which flowed through the center of town, was a constant flood threat, and it would take many years and much money to bring it under control.

As Statesman Editor James S. Reynolds strolled around Boise in June 1869, he noticed that some people had tied their horses to young shade trees. “The trees are entirely too young for such treatment. They are being raised at great expense and trouble. Give them a chance, and in four or five years they will be strong enough to hold horses.”

It would be years before Idaho would have a Capitol building, but it did have a “square” to put it on. On Feb. 17, 1870, the paper noted, “The virgin soil of capital square is innocent of a single tree, except a few scattering sage brush. A few dollars expended now, in setting a row of cottonwoods or other rapidly growing trees around the square would add much to the beauty of the city and pleasure of the citizens.”

Next week: Boise needed trees, but what kind of trees?

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