By Angela Cornelison
Special to Centennial
Modern Blackfoot owes its existence, literally, to the “lay of the land” and to some early political maneuvers on the state level by Boise’s republican Ring to keep the capital in Boise, northern Idaho happy, and southern Idaho under control.
As early as 1878, a motley collection of people were living in Blackfoot. A store- saloon, owned by T.T. Danielson, and which was mostly saloon, was there, and perhaps, a few shacks by the railroad. Several miles away was the Corbett stage station.
Speculators anticipating the arrival of the railroad had laid out a town on the Shilling and Lewis homesteads, but it was not much. Cowhands made it their playground.
Carrie Adell Strahorn describes it thusly in her book, “Fifteen Thousand Miles by Stage”
“From Oneida we went by special engine and caboose over the unballasted track to Blackfoot from where we went to cross Southern Idaho by stage. That night in Blackfoot was a terror . . . we had jut arrived when a fusillade of shots and yells filled the air, as if a band of Indians had turned loose to destroy all the town . . . They, the cowboys, began at first by riding into a saloon and shooting the lights out; they ran their ponies like the wind up and down the streets firing at every light they could see, regardless of what they might hit.
“They rode their ponies right into stores and saloons, yelling like maniacs, and no one dared to check them, lest he would get the next bullet. It was more than an hour before the sheriff and a posse of men got out and chased them for miles out in the highroads, but they did not capture the fleet-footed cowboys who had left two men shot to death and a cyclonic wreckage that would be hard to describe.”
Stories of the time tell of bosses on cattle drives refusing to allow their herders access to Blackfoot because they feared the men would not return. Some of the cattle came from Texas, headed to the mining camps in Lost River and Montana. Blackfoot was an important destination because of the availability of supplies, a bed, and a warm bath.
Other stories tell of homesteaders passing through the town who rolled down the canvas side of the wagons to protect wives and children from viewing the town squalor.
Part of the problem in that early time was the scarcity of women and their gentle influence. The 1880 census showed 600 people in Blackfoot precinct with only 73 women between the ages of 14 and 70. Still, it was in that year that W.E. Wheeler was optimistic enough about the Blackfoot to establish the first newspaper, “The Blackfoot Register,” declaring, “We have one main object in view, and that is to secure as large of an amount of the filthy lucre as possible.”
Wheeler pushed a number of hopeless causes in his attempt to secure wealth. One was Blackfoot as the state capital. At the time, Southeastern Idaho had most of the territory’s population. In addition, north Idaho was still steaming at Boise for what they considered the theft of the capital from Lewiston. Most North Idahoans wanted to attach themselves to Washington. They were willing to support the capital in Blackfoot to spite Boise and to give greater emphasis to their proximity to Washington. Incensed, “The Boise Republican” called Blackfoot a “one-horse way-station” and declared the town “several degrees nearer Hell than any other town in Idaho.” with “more wind and more mosquitos and dust to the square foot.” Blackfoot did not get the capital.
What Blackfoot eventually did get was the county seat of Bingham County and the coveted federal land office wrested from Oxford. But that came later.
First there was the construction of a steel bridge across the Snake River, reportedly the first metal bridge in Idaho. Its purpose was to serve the freight road to mining country. Ultimately it became, however, a road into town for the farmers of Riverside, Moreland, Groveland, Rockford, Thomas and others.
Then there was the completion of the Blackfoot canal from the Blackfoot River which provided water for lawns, vegetable gardens and trees. Idaho residents traveled to Blackfoot just to gaze at the beautiful trees planted around the courthouse. These early trees, carried there by Alfred Moyes in 1866, earned the town the nickname of “Grove City.”
Blackfoot was, at first, part of Oneida County, which encompassed all of Southeast Idaho with Malad as the county seat. Bingham County, later created from Oneida, took in present day Bannock, Bingham, Bonneville, Caribou, Clark, Fremont, Madison and Teton along with parts of Butte and Power counties. Blackfoot was the county seat of this vast territory.
Byrd Trego, editor of the “Blackfoot Daily Bulletin” for nearly 50 years, said in the February 27, 1934 issue of his newspaper that after the legislative agreement had been made to create Bingham County, Eagle Rock (Idaho Falls) was chosen to be the county seat.
“Some Blackfoot men bribed a clerk to erase Eagle Rock and write in Blackfoot, and under watertight agreements made the day before, the measure went through without opposition and was signed by the governor,” Trego said, adding that “one certain clerk left Boise.”
Historian Davis Bitton, Blackfoot native son, in his article of “Idaho Yesterdays,” says it did not happen exactly like that, but that the deal was made as a result of political infighting involving the Boise ring and the anti-Mormon faction in the legislature led by Fred Dubois.
Blackfoot’s character, even as county seat, did not change appreciably from the time when Mrs. Strahorn honeymooned there.
“If saloons, gambling halls and bawdy houses were removed, the town would be so insignificantly small that would require a keen eye to find even a single building remaining. The Third District Court is in session at Blackfoot at present, and the town is thronged with gamblers, deputy marshals, blacklegs, and ruffians generally. The officers of the court, marshals, sheriffs, attorneys and jury all keep ‘bowled’ up to the ‘nozzel,’ and are constantly so full of bad whiskey as would render them in other regions incompetent of acting in any way official capacity no matter how small,” declared the “Salt Lake Herald” concerning the new Bingham County Seat.
In 1885, the territorial legislature issued a bond for $20,000 for the construction of a hospital for the mentally deranged in Blackfoot. Shortly after the hospital was completed, the main building burned and some lives were lost. The hospital, however, was quickly rebuilt. Blackfoot still has State Hospital South.
The Blackfoot vicinity with water from the Snake River only a mile away and the Blackfoot River, a scant two miles off, was attractive to settlers hoping to take advantage of the Homestead Act. The volcanic soil, rich and loamy, welcomed plow and seed.
In 1902 Blackfoot was named the site if the Eastern Idaho State Fair, an event which grows yearly, attracting upwards of 200,000 visitors during a week of activities.
Perhaps the most exciting day in Blackfoot history came on June 17, 1902, the day of the great land run for the newly opened portions of the former Shoshone-Bannock Reservation. Some 400,000 acres awaited to be claimed that day for mining and farming by those who arrived in Blackfoot first. Photos from the period show racing horses, horses racing trains, men running, men crawling, and the police out to get those claimants who came to be known as “Idaho Sooners.” It was a successful day for some, a disastrous day for others, and great fun for Blackfoot citizens who, for a brief moment, held the attention of the state and nation.
Wheeler should have stuck around. The real “lucre” to be made in Blackfoot came to businesses which served the outlying communities, and the farmers who provided the economic base necessary for the growth of the town. Blackfoot had the first sugar factory in Idaho. Dairying is important there. But Bingham County, with Blackfoot as its leading city, finds its real wealth in the growing, processing and marketing of the Idaho potato.