History of Blackfoot: The Making of a Town

Early settlers of Bingham County plow Main Street in Blackfoot, Idaho.

Early settlers of Bingham County plow Main Street in Blackfoot, Idaho.

(This article is from “Bingham County History, Written and Compiled by the People of Bingham County”. Taylor Publishing Company. 1985.)

Blackfoot got its start as a cluster of buildings around the railroad tracks over a century ago — but its roots go back to the fur trade which thrived in east Idaho into the early 1800s.

The bottoms, located south of Blackfoot, became the headquarters for the first settlement in the area. It was on this land that Nathaniel Wyeth, a Bostonian, in the year 1834 decided to build Fort Hall.

In 1836 Wyeth sold the fort to the Hudson’s Bay Company which flew its flag over it for twenty years.

Several factors — geography, politics, the slow pace of travel — came into play in the latter part of the 1800s to bring about the founding of Blackfoot.

The word “Blackfoot” originated in the summer of 1818 when a party of traders and trappers in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company traveled across the country from the Missouri River to the Columbia, following pretty closely the present route of the Union Pacific Railroad and the Oregon Short Line from Omaha to Umatilla. Their leader was Donald McKenzie, a Scotchman of large stature more than six feet tall who was afterward promoted to responsible positions in that rich company.

Soda Springs was then known as the Beer Springs, and when the party arrived there they learned that buffalo hunting was good in a valley about twenty miles north of there, now known as the Blackfoot Reservoir. At the Beer Springs McKenzie decided to turn aside to get food supplies at the big meadows the natives described.

There was a strife between different Indian tribes and in 1812 there had been some wildfires, reportedly started to smoke some invaders out, and it had gotten out of hand and burned over great expanses of country so that people walking through the burnt districts got their moccasins all black.

At the meadows, the McKenzie party found a great mixture of people, mostly Indians, and after they had laid in supplies of jerked (dried) meat and gone on westward, they met other Indians known as Cayuses, Pyutes, Nez Perces and Modocks, and in talking among themselves they referred to the different tribes by names as if they knew the names, and if not, by locality or some standing thing. In referring to the Indians at the buffalo meadows they spoke of them as the Indians with the black feet, or the “Blackfoot crowd.” They spoke of the meadows as the Blackfoot meadows and the stream flowing through as the Blackfoot River. The next big stream meandered like a snake lying at rest and the accepted the name that had already been suggested by the Astor party seven years before, Snake River.

The name “Blackfoot” persisted to identify the meadows, the river, the reservoir, the town and later the railroad switch station.

In 1830, the main ford across the Snake River was near Old Fort Hall, just below Ferry Butte, and this could only be crossed, with all degrees of safety, during low water. Many teams and outfits were swallowed up in its currents and not a few persons lost their lives.

The rapidly increasing traffic and necessity of crossing the river in all seasons of the year, led to establishing a ferry across the river at the Butte near Fort Hall. Built in the latter part of 1830 by Joseph and John Meek, it later became known as the Gibson and Meek’s Ferry and still later on called the Gibson Ferry. During the last years of its existence, it was known as “Ferry Butte” ferry.

In 1860, a town was laid out in anticipation of the railroad’s arrival. This town, then called Grove City, was actually a little more than a switching station which was to accommodate transfer of merchandise from rail to freight wagons bound for mines in the central section of Idaho. The fast-growing poplar was planted, cutting down on the wind and giving the town a nickname, “The Grove City.” Things were looking up, the town blossomed forth with some greenery instead of appearing as a ramshackle collection of frame shops and houses lined along windy, dusty streets.

In 1864, a log station was erected which served as a stage station. The Ben Holiday stages used it as a stopping place as did the freighters. Mail was unofficially handled here for more than half a decade. Tom Cosgrove Sr. and Tilford Kutch ran the ferry across the Snake River, next to where Bridge Street interchange is today. There were two buildings, a house and a barn, and it was called “Tilford City.” The barn doubled as a post office. Mail was placed in the cracks of the barn, where it would be picked up by drivers and delivered to the nearest Pony Express Station.

By 1866, there was no town, just a freight station, barn and a house called Tilford City. On April 4, 1866 the John Garrett family, Frederick Smith Stevens, Nels Just and Presto Burrell, came from Soda Springs (Beer Springs) along with nine newly discharged soldiers from the army. Among them were: Albert Lyon, James McTucker, a conscientious objector and a Quaker who was a civilian employee of the U.S. Army, and Shep Mederia, who later became a guide for the first survey party known as the Hayden Party. It was Shep who made sure that all names the names given to local landmarks in honor of pioneers remained unchanged on the survey (Stevens Peak and Higham’s Peak).
There were other white men in the area when the party arrived there.

Since the land between the Blackfoot and Portneuf Rivers was Indian country, and since Indians and whites weren’t too friendly at the time, wise travelers crossed the reservation as fast as possible. They seldom dared to make camp before crossing the Blackfoot River.

The first campsites were about four miles to the south of present day Blackfoot. Fred Stevens and Joe Warren, two of the original settlers in the Snake River Valley, settled at this location. They provided travelers with blacksmithing, lodging and supplies. Consequently their camping place became quite an important stop for traffic crossing the area.

While profitable, their business venture did not last long. Travelers soon began to take their business to the north, where it was possible to ferry across the Snake River.

In 1874, when it was learned that the railroad was to be built in the area, a few people (Charles Berryman, George Rodgers, Major and Theodore Danilson, N.W. Shilling, Charles Bunting) homesteaded land next to the reservation. They figured there were probably be a station near the edge of the reservation. Speculation paid off, and when the railroad came they held monopolies on all nearby land and businesses. This lack of competition in the early settlement hindered its growth as the financial center of the area. Blackfoot had the possibilities of being the largest city in Idaho had those who founded it been more interested in building an empire instead of a bank account.

The first general store was erected to Frederick S. Stevens and Major Danilson in 1874. The merchandise consisted of gin, tobacco, hay and supplies for freight wagons before they crossed the Snake River. This store had a loading platform where the freight wagons unloaded. This loading platform came in handy a little later when the railroad came through.

The Utah Northern Railroad began surveying through Montana and Idaho in 1876. The company had surveyed and decided to run the tracks near the Tilford City when Major Danilson, who was building a store on another location, talked Washington into putting it where it is now. That is why it makes a turn just this side of Gibson.

Picture the great west on 1876 and place Blackfoot in it. The land was mostly sagebrush and wild plains, through the high grass roamed the buffalo and deer; and the threat of unfriendly Indians was always near by.

In this sparsely settled territory with only one stage coach outpost, Joe Warren’s store on the Blackfoot River, a few other scattered homes, stores, and fifteen saloons, people lived, built homes and a community.

In 1877, the ferry at Tilford City changed hands to Theodore T. Danilson and he called it “Central Ferry” and included a store, then a gage station. He also built a ferry boat, put a cable across the river, and did a good business crossing teams. This lasted until 1879.

October 10, 1878, the U.S. Post Office was established with Theo T. Danilson as postmaster.

November 10, 1878, the railroad track was laid into Blackfoot directly behind the back door of the Danilson-Stevens general store. The narrow gauge line and store near it were named Blackfoot.

The first long-awaited train arrived in Blackfoot on December 24, 1878. The train was loaded with food which was distributed to the townspeople. Boxes of candy, oranges and apples were given to the children. On Christmas day the city’s future was assured. Railroad men moved in with their families. The railroad town soon became an agricultural community and homesteaders were making the western city trek looking for farm land had to look no further. The town was laid out in 1878 and the name changed to Blackfoot on March 20, 1879.

A number of business houses had been erected, and like all normal terminus towns, a good business had been done, but when the railroad company moved, nearly everything went with it. Mr. W.C. Lewis had put up a large hotel building which he could not move without considerable expense. A log building occupied by Judge Montgomery was a dwelling, one section house, one log building at the north end of town, Wm’s Mester’s saloon, a saloon owned by Geo. Duncan, the store occupied by Danilson and Stevens, and Major Danilson’s house were all that remained of the lately busy town.

The next few months of cold weather, and dull business, gave a rather gloomy hope for the future. Meyers, Berryman and Rogers, made a contract with the Custer Mining Company for hauling material to build a stamp mill which they were about to erect at Custer City. Blackfoot was made the forwarding point and business began to pick up.

New business houses of various kinds were put up until, instead of a town of half a dozen houses, Blackfoot contained about 60 buildings. Some of the businesses were: 4 general merchandise stores, 1 meat market, 1 livery stable, 1 jewelry, 2 blacksmith shops, several carpenters and painters, 1 hotel, 1 barber, 1 restaurant, 1 lumber yard, a physician and surgeon, 1 jail.

It lacked a lawyer, harness maker and shoe maker.

The same bill that made Bingham County (January 13, 1885) also made Blackfoot the county seat. When the bill was drawn it said the county seat was to be at Eagle Rock. During the night, before it was to be on its final passage, Blackfoot men bribed a clerk to erase Eagle Rock and write in Blackfoot, and under water-tight agreements made the day before, the measure went through without opposition and was signed by the governor. One certain clerk left Boise. The population of Blackfoot at this time was only 600.

In 1885 there were just as many saloons as stores and the place was really booming. One famous saloon, “The El Dorado,” had quite a reputation. It was the custom with the town’s bad men to go on a roaring bender, climaxing their sprees by riding into the tiny, wooden saloon on their horses, firing into the ceiling — or possibly the crowd — and racing out the back door.

The courthouse was built in 1885 with bricks that were kilned and molded on the Stevens ranch. In 1894, a scaffold was built on the court house lawn and an execution took place.

One week after becoming county seat, Blackfoot was offered to have an insane asylum. This was built in 1886.

In 1886, the land office was moved from Oxford to Blackfoot. August Dudenhausen was the first registrar of the land office after it moved to Blackfoot. He was succeeded by Frank W. Beane.

Telephone service came to Bingham County October 7, 1898, via a line from Pocatello and Blackfoot House, a prominent hotel. The Bell Telephone Company charged 25 cents for a five minute call.

Blackfoot’s population in 1900 was about 900 people. In 1901 it was given a village status.

In 1901, Clarence Mackay, builder of the Pacific Cable, financed by his rich holdings (The Comstock Mine) thought of building a railroad to Lost River and named a new town for his son. John Brown called it a meeting of business men across the farms and invited Mr. Mackay to connect with the existing line at Blackfoot.

A town which had a railroad depot, a courthouse, an insane asylum, enough water for gardens and shade trees, and a fairgrounds still lacked a firm economic base for growth. The carrying trade was basic at first, but its importance had declined when the pattern of railroad construction left the town separated from the major junction and the terminal. Without the agricultural expansion there would be no sugar factory. More important, what the population growth in the surrounding area really meant for Blackfoot was that it would be a commercial center for a prosperous agricultural region.

The growth of Blackfoot as a business community depended on markets, and it was the farming communities within, say, a twenty-mile radius that were Blackfoot’s markets. There made the difference between a precarious, some what artificial little place, trying desperately to make a go of it, and a secure, confident community that enjoyed a moderate but steady and healthy growth.

When the sugar industry was started, Blackfoot men bought a factory, one of the very best. While it was in freight cars speeding westward from New York, the Idaho Falls men had a meeting and did some bribing of their own, the same as Blackfoot men had done at Boise for the county seat. The billing was changed on the whole shipment to Idaho Falls. The cars were unloaded at the new town of Lincoln (near Idaho Falls). Blackfoot men curried half the world over to find another sugar factory and bought the best one they could get. The sugar factory has a capacity of 1000 tons daily.

Blackfoot High School’s first commencement exercises were held in 1902. The program consisted of orations by each of the eight graduates. They were J.W. Stoddard, Fred. W. Kiefer, Blaine M. Houch, Florence W. Cherry, Thomas M. Morris, Jessie Virginia Lloyd, Kate Wall and Susan Dora Bietham.

Blackfoot was incorporated as a city under the laws of the state in 1907.

By 1910 the population in Blackfoot had jumped to 2,200 (due to the Mormons) although some had started to settle the land west of the river as early as 1885. By 1910 it was clear that Blackfoot was here to stay.