The development of the River Street area in Boise has a fragmented historical record; certain parts have been isolated from others. But this space has a history, one that spans back to the beginning of the western American experience in the Boise valley.
In 1834 Fort Boise was constructed near the mouth of the river. Boise began to attract settlers in the late nineteenth century as pioneers travelling the Oregon Trail passed through the valley. In order to meet the needs of this growing population, trading services were established in and around Fort Boise. Homesteaders John McClellan and William L. Thompson claimed some of the first available lands in the Boise area; theirs stretched from the Boise River north to the city limits outlined in the original Fort Boise and Boise City plans (of which the two were involved in creating). In 1864 the two men established a Ferry service at the well-traveled ford where Capitol and Ninth Streets cross the river today. The Ferry provided a necessary service for an aspiring community, as the ford across the river could only be attempted during low-flow seasons. A permanent settlement had to consider a permanent crossing. It may have been a “miserable, one horse affair” but it was, and still is, the main entrance into the city (quoted from Jim Witherell, History Along the Greenbelt printed by the Boise River Greenbelt Historical Education Program, nd.)
As early as 1885, the northern boundary of McClellan’s and Thompson’s riverside property was sold and transferred to John Lemp, future Governor of Idaho and "Boise Beer Baron", whose plan was to secure a right of way in order to attract the Union Pacific or the Oregon Steam Navigation Company to Boise. In 1893 tracks were laid along modern day Front Street just north of the River Street area, it was a “significant event in the development of River Street” (Brian McCarter, A Rebuilding Process for the River Street Neighborhood in Boise, Idaho. A Comprehensive Project, University of Oregon (1975) p. 3).
Once the city’s viability had been fully secured, an infrastructure was sure to follow. In 1902 Theodore Roosevelt passed the Reclamation Act, which used money from the sale of public land to construct and maintain irrigation lines to homesteads and private lands, several of Boise’s canals and surrounding dams were constructed during this period. This boost of federal works money gave life to the Department of Reclamation, and the Boise Project. It also boosted the demand for labor. McClellan, Thompson, A.O. Miller (of the adjoining property), and Thomas Davis (across Ninth and Capitol streets) began to sell their land for residential development.
The Riverside Addition, City Park Addition, and Miller’s Addition were all uniformly drawn and divided. The plots of land were long and narrow, just twenty-five feet wide and one-hundred-twenty-two feet long, which meant to maximize development, without taking into consideration the personal space of those who would inhabit it. Some homes were constructed on double plots, or even triple and quadruple plots. These buyers tended to own their own homes and considered their personal space necessary, many of these families were white business-owning families who had invested in the creation of Boise since the beginning. Doris Thomas, long-time residential family owned a high-value home that was centered on four lots, but few homes in the neighborhood took up that much space. (Pam Demo, Boise’s River Street Neighborhood, Lee, Ash, and Lovers Lane/Pioneer Streets, the South Side of the Tracks. (Thesis MA: University of Idaho, 2006) p. 77).
The population explosion between 1890 and 1920 are mainly attributed to the railroads, which made plausible a federal works program, which not only provided irrigation water to more and more distant desert farming operations, but also provided a number of blue-collar trades to immigrants and other minorities as well as war veterans and out-of-work laborers. By the turn of the century, the orchards and open spaces that were once owned by men such as Thompson, McClellan, and Miller were subdivided and developed for residential housing. The new neighborhoods were separated from downtown Boise by twelve tracks of rail, as well as the surrounding warehouse districts that grew around the rail yards. These included the lumber yards, coal yards, and other industrial operations that took place along the tracks. Even as the city of Boise boasted a modern urban transportation system, the electric trolley did not extend their services to the River Street neighborhood, leaving those residents who worked downtown to find their own means of transportation to and from the neighborhood. As the neighborhood grew more and more isolated from the rest of the city, the demographics began to experience a visible shift.
The development of the railroad had an impact on the aesthetic quality of the emerging neighborhood as well. Their social status was reflected in the “modest working-class architecture” of the neighborhood that they occupied (Demo, p.41). The homes were being built to accommodate the arrival of tenant laborers, and working class families, and were representative of the forces that brought them there. The completion of the transcontinental rail services allowed goods to be shipped across the country quicker than had ever been possible. Entrepreneurs took advantage of this expedition and by 1906-1910 warehouse companies like Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, and Aladdin Homes were selling and shipping prefabricated homes across the nation. Alonzo Eastman was a carpenter employed at a Coast Lumber, a local lumber yard, who built several homes in and around Lee Street in the early twentieth century (Lee’s addition was developed just to the west of Miller’s Addition). Each “ready-made” looked exactly like the next. In her thesis on the decline of River Street, Pam Demo shows that the aesthetic makeup, the physical space, and the population all reflected the “transience that characterize[d] the neighborhood” (Demo, p.64).
There was some respite to the monotony of such a reproduced aesthetic. In 1902 McClellan opened the Riverside Park, located on what little space was left along the river, between Miller’s Addition and Riverside Addition at the southern end of 11th Street. The park had a dance pavilion, a grand stand, an outdoor roller rink, and a baseball field as well as picnic areas. But by 1914, the park declined due to the creation of other city parks and alternative forms of recreation. The baseball field was used until 1928 when the property was rezoned, and the area was no longer a specifically residential area (McCarter, p. 3). In the 1960s the city sold the baseball fields to a trucking warehouse firm. The massive structure consumed what was left of the open space by the river, and the neighborhood was officially surrounded by industry, and left without means to transportation or recreation. In 1966 River Street became a through-street, the city “reclaimed” several homes from black families on Ash and Pioneer Streets in order to connect the east and west side of River Street between Americana Boulevard and Ninth and Capitol Streets. Americana was quickly being zoned to embrace commercial buildings, like K-Mart, which quickly put the local River Street grocers out of business. The threat was recognized and by 1972 the River Street Neighborhood Development Program attempted to create an urban renewal and preservation operation that would invest in home improvement, recreation, and other services in the area. But due to financial strain on the city, the program was canceled, leaving the neighborhood in decline without hope of improvement.
The transformation of River Street is often viewed solely within the framework of Boise’s larger Urban Renewal issue. In the 1970s the city was looking for a way to modernize and accommodate big business. This poorly managed operation demolished blocks of historic buildings in the hopes of luring in business developers. In several cases the empty lots remain that way today, and the program’s board has been severely criticized for their decisions. But this history, viewed alongside its economic and social development is much older than Urban Development. The neighborhood has a rich history that is underscored by its impersonal and run-down quality. This is a later manifestation, and one created by neglect, not nature.
Once the territory of adventurous homesteaders, and ‘founding fathers’ the River Street neighborhood resembles very little of its historic past. During each phase of its evolving nature, it reflected the needs of the community that surrounded it, thus human demand has altered its physical makeup and its aesthetic qualities every step of the way. Today the River Street through-fare is just that. What is left of these dilapidated (and dilapidating) homes go scarcely noticed as commuters pass through as part of the flow of automobiles going here and there. Through the history of one neighborhood, we can trace the changes, and see how we alter our space to meet our demands. In every instance, the land down by the river has given to Boise exactly what was needed to make it a habitable, viable, and growing community.