Idaho City, Idaho – Queen of the Boise Basin

Territorial Penintentuary in Idaho City, Idaho.

Territorial Penitentiary in Idaho City, Idaho.

A substantial county jail building was erected in the winter of 1863-64. The facility was put under the immediate supervision of Sheriff Sumner Pinkham. It was completed before the first term of the District Court was held in March 1864. The hand-hewn prison was originally erected above Elk Creek, north of Idaho City. It had fourteen cells, chains, doors lifts, and window irons that were used to discourage escape. It was erected at a cost of $8080 in gold dust, the then currency in the region. The same year, the Territorial Legislature designated the city jail as a territorial prison, for which it would serve as for the next eight years. Much of the original Idaho City jail fell into Elk Creek when gold diggers undermined the area in the early 1900s. The remaining buildings were moved into Idaho City where they continue to today.

The Idaho Territorial Legislature officially “re-established” Boise County on February 4, 1864, with Idaho City remaining as the county seat. The county was one of four Idaho counties that also existed under Washington Territory. On February 27, 1864, the Boise News announced that the governor had appointed the following county officers: John C. Smith, Frank Moore and Henry I. Crow, commissioners; Sumner Pinkham as sheriff; Daniel McLaughlin, probate judge; Washington R. Underwood, auditor; and Charles D. Vajen, treasurer, all of whom were to hold their positions until an election was held in the Fall.

On June 22, 1864, Idaho City’s first post office was established on Main Street. Other events occurring in 1864 were: the Boise News changing its name to the Idaho World, wagon roads to the community were built, and the sawmill ran continuously with rough lumber.

During these early years, Idaho City had assumed reputation of being the best mining camp in the Basin, the general rendezvous point of miners, speculators, and gamblers, and the hub of territorial commerce. It also attracted families as it offered special appeal to those seeking homes, plus it boasted two schools and a library. More children and women were in evidence here than in most other mining camps.

But of all the communities, Idaho City was said to have been the bawdiest and lustiest of the Boise Basin’s offspring. There was certainly a rough-and-tumble aspect to Idaho City. Bar fights and murders were prevalent. Stealing horses, robbing stages, and killings were common in the area as bands of desperadoes came into the gold camps.

With the Civil War raging in the East, the Boise Basin miners polarized around the Union and Confederate causes. Fueled by whiskey, Northern and Southern sympathizers often bloodied one another with fists, knives, and sometimes guns as they used force to show their opinions. Many an evening, Sheriff Sumner Pinkham and his deputy Rube Robbins had to lock up a drunken loudmouth who was threatening to punch or shoot to demonstrate his political beliefs to an equally intoxicated opponent.

On one occasion the Idaho World reported: “Several parties were found in the streets on Tuesday morning. Some with fractured skulls; some with bunged eyes and swollen faces, indicating very clearly that there had been a muss somewhere during the night. Blood was freely sprinkled about the town on woodpiles and sidewalks. As the puddles of blood were distributed over a large district, it was impossible to locate the fight.”

In the meantime, Sheriff Sumner Pinkham did his best to tame the lawless town.

Ferd Patterson

Ferd Patterson

With his staunch Unionist views, Republican politics, and tough law enforcement, Pinkham soon made himself many enemies in the predominately Democratic Boise County. However, both Pinkham’s enemies and his most loyal friends were quick to admit that he was a man not to be trifled with when he undertook to enforce the law, which he did so with an iron hand. One of his most fervent enemies was a Southern gunfighter by the name of Ferdinand “Ferd” Patterson.

In the Autumn of 1864, Pinkham was running for re-election as Boise County Sheriff. In a bitterly contested between the Democratic successionists and Republican candidates, Pinkham, an outspoken Union supporter, was defeated by A.O. Bowen by a comfortable majority.

As the last of the ballots were being counted, Ferd Patterson was celebrating when he encountered his old nemesis Sumner Pinkham, who was in a rage. Wasting no time, the lawman took a swing at Patterson, hitting him in the jaw, throwing the gambler off the street and into the gutter. Then Pinkham walked away. Locals expected immediate retaliation from Patterson but it did not occur.

After losing the election Sumner left Idaho City to visit his dying mother in Illinois.

By the end of the year, the town’s population of 7,000 surpassed Portland, Oregon in size, making it the largest community in the Pacific Northwest.

The winter of 1864-65 was severe and the snows and cold were followed by heavy rains. The roads were impassable and pack trains could not get through. The early Spring of 1865 saw a large immigration into the Boise Basin before supplies were brought in. The increased population and scarcity of provisions precipitated a food riot. There was no starvation but the prices were high. Flour sold for $1 a pound. Street meetings were held, incited by those who had recently arrived.

A mob of 60 men went to some of the stores in Idaho City and seized the supplies. Jack Gorman, a deputy sheriff, arrested and disarmed the leader, a big man from Missouri, and placed him in irons, despite the threats of the rioters. In a short time order was restored, the merchants reduced the price of flour and soon, with the incoming pack trains, there was an abundance of all necessities.

On the night of May 18, 1865, disaster struck Idaho City. A fire erupted about 9:00 p.m. near the center of town, believed to have started in the upper story of a dance hall. Since all of the buildings were made of pine, the fire moved swiftly. Miners from all over the Basin came running into town when they saw the sky lighted by the fire. Looters took what they could carry from stores before they were engulfed in flames. The fire lasted about three hours destroying most of the businesses and better residence parts of the town. Many men who had been considered wealthy were left penniless though some merchants who had underground cellars were able to salvage a few items.

Of the public buildings, only the Catholic Church, the Jenny Lind Theater, the office of the Idaho World, and the I.O.O.F. Hall remained standing. The homeless were housed in homes that escaped the flames and the Catholic Church was converted into a hospital. The loss was estimated at $900,000. An indictment of arson was found against one man, but the matter was later dropped.

The townspeople immediately began rebuilding and a few weeks later business activities were being carried on as before.

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