Thursday, May 15, 2014

Idaho Falls' sesquicentennial is next year

Matt Taylor's toll bridge at Black Rock Canyon, which opened in 1865, near where the Marriott Residence Inn now is now.
I'm sure there are people who know next year is Idaho Falls' sesquicentennial year, but I wonder how many? I haven't heard much talk about it and, as someone who finds it much too easy to fall a step or two behind on things, I think the planning should start now if it hasn't already.

I was in the Post Register newsroom in 1985 when there was a "Centennial Plus 20" celebration. I thought it was kind of lame, but apparently not much had been done in 1965 and there were people, including my friend Joe Marker, who thought something, even 20 years late, was better than nothing.

For those of you who need an refresher course, here's a brief history of Idaho Falls' origins. They begin in the heart of downtown, at a place that used to be called Black Rock Canyon.

Matt Taylor
James Madison "Matt" Taylor was a teamster from the Midwest who'd begun taking supplies from Salt Lake City to Montana after gold was discovered there in 1862. Taylor would buy tea in Denver, take it to Salt Lake and barter it for eggs, butter and salt pork. This was good business, because there were lot of LDS converts from England and one pound of tea got him 34 pounds of butter.

Although the Eagle Rock Ferry was operating nine miles to the north, Taylor liked to camp at Black Rock Canyon because the swift current of the Snake River there kept mosquitoes to a minimum. It didn't take long for it to dawn on him that it might be a good spot for a toll bridge. In 1864, he and two partners, W.F. Bartlett and Edgar M. Morgan, formed the Oneida Road, Bridge and Ferry Co., the first corporation in this part of Idaho. In the fall, Taylor traveled 700 miles to Lewiston, the territorial capital, where he received a charter from the Legislature to operate the ferry and build his bridge. Under the terms of the 20-year agreement, the state would receive 1 percent of the tolls for the school fund.

Construction went on all winter and the bridge opened in May. Taylor's first advertisement for the bridge ran Aug. 12, 1865, in the Daily Telegraph of Great Salt Lake City.

Once the bridge was open and a trading outpost built, Taylor's wife, LeGrande Anderson Taylor, came west to join him. According to "Bonneville County in the Making," Barzilla W. Clark's history, she was appalled by the primitive conditions, particularly the smell of the hides. Nevertheless, her brother Robert Anderson arrived at the end of October 1865, buying Morgan's stake in the Oneida company and bringing valuable eastern banking connections with him.

The telegraph came in 1866, as did a post office and the first irrigation project. The railroad came in 1879, and I think that really set the table for everything that followed.

Did you know that the first Protestant church between Ogden and Butte, Mont., was in Eagle Rock? It was largely the work of Rebecca Mitchell, a widow in her 40s with a teen-aged daughter. In 1882 she was on her way from Chicago to Bellevue to do Baptist missionary work. Money had begun to run short when the train stopped in Eagle Rock. Surveying the town and noticing no schools or churches but plenty of saloons, she decided this might be where the Lord was calling her to straighten things out. By Sunday she had conducted her first Sunday School class and on Monday, with the same 18 children, she organized a day school using a closed-down saloon on Eagle Rock Street as the classroom.

Before long she had lined up a lot on the corner of Eastern Avenue and Ash Street, and with help from the Baptist Mission Society and private gifts First Baptist Church opened its doors in August 1885. Eagle Rock became Idaho Falls in 1891, reportedly to make it less frontierish and more appealing to people in the Midwest seeking new opportunities.

Bill Holden and Idaho Falls Mayor Tom Sutton, during the push to bring the Atomic Energy Commission headquarters to Idaho Falls.
In the 20th century, I don't think there was anyone more important or influential than William S. Holden, the lawyer who masterminded the campaign to bring the Atomic Energy Commission here in 1949 and the Palisades Dam to Swan Valley in 1957. He was "Mr. Republican," and on the walls at his family spread on Palisades Creek there are there pictures of him with Ronald Reagan as well as an impressive collection of memorabilia from Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign. Holden ran for the U.S. Senate nomination in 1956, but because there was another moderate seeking the nomination they split the primary vote and lost to the McCarthyite incumbent, Herman Welker, who was defeated that fall by Frank Church.

From all the history I've read, I believe that nothing really changes much. The business of Idaho Falls has always been business. Matt Taylor set up here because he had a head for it. The first safety vault of what later became Anderson Brothers Bank was a keg of nails, where he hid surplus gold dust, gold certificates, greenbacks from the store, and depositors' money.

I hope we can get something together to celebrate 150 years here. As much as we like to think we're moving forward, the past matters.