In the late 19th century, the largest city between San Francisco and Saint Louis was Idaho City — a boomtown constructed after the discovery of gold in the Boise Basin. With a rowdy population of miners from California, Washington, Missouri and China, Idaho City was the kind of place where whiskey was cheap and lives even cheaper.
The Boise Basin gold rush of the 1860s was one of the biggest in American history, and Idaho City was its nexus. Prospectors arrived from around the world, and the city’s story is filled with murder, gun fights, unbelievable wealth and thievery. Over two billion in gold was extracted from the area, and it’s not hard to imagine the scenes which must have played out… especially when you consider the fact that whiskey was cheaper than water in those days. The only thing more unscrupulous than a greedy miner, is a drunk greedy miner.
Today the town is something of a living museum. People still reside and work there, but there’s a definite focus on the past. The first building we visited was the County Council office, which used to be the town saloon. The bar is still in place and looks surreal amid the bustle of current-day office life. One of the clerks took a break from her computer to show us inside the old walk-in safe, where records streching back to the town’s founding are kept on file.
Across the street is the county courthouse, dating from 1873. Here again, one of the office workers volunteered to take us on a short tour of the historic building — locals here are apparently accustomed to tourists. The courthouse was fascinating, and looked much as it did back in the day. Justice was quicker and more vicious back then — after being convicted, felons were immedately hung over the judge’s desk.
Idaho City is so picturesque and atmospheric that it almost seems fake. Mostly, it reminded me of Frontierland in Disney world, and I half expected a gun-totin’ Goofy to come ambling out of the saloon. Almost every building had a story, from the schoolhouse to the Idaho World building, home of the state’s oldest running newspaper. There was a grand two-story Masonic Temple right next to the county penitentiary and, around the corner, the “Pest House”, where sick unfortunates were locked up. The old post office has been converted into a museum, which is supposed to be great, but was closed during our visit. And we saw the Pom Yam house, owned by a rich Chinese merchant — according to local lore, his ghost still floats around.
I suppose it’s a good thing that the lawless, gun-happy days of the gold rush are behind us. But for anyone nostalgic for that era, Idaho City is the perfect place to spend some time.