Gold-Camp Queen

October 2, 2000
Filed under Destinations

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Unlike most towns built on the whiskey-fueled dreams of gold fever, Idaho City, Idaho, had
its boom period but never quite went bust. In 1864, a couple of years after gold had first
been discovered in Boise Basin, Idaho City restlessly contained more than 7,000 people,
making it the largest city in the Pacific Northwest. Today, some 500 people call the
history-filled town home. Not counting the ghosts, that is. Once known as “Queen of the
Gold Camps,” Idaho City was described by a reporter during its heyday as a place with
“angels weeping, men cursing, dogs fighting, and there is murder in the midst of everyone.”
With armed men pulling three million ounces (the equivalent of one billion dollars’ worth
today) of gold from the area, and with whiskey less expensive than water, it is no wonder
that life was cheap. So violent were the times, in fact, that of the first 200 people
buried just outside of town in the Pioneer Cemetery, only 28 died of natural causes.
Modern-day visitors to this town, located on Highway 21, about 45 minutes north of Boise,
need not pack a sidearm, because today’s inhabitants aren’t dangerous, except that tourists
are occasionally killed by kindness. Travelers should, however, bring an appreciation of
times past and a hearty appetite. The place is rich in lore, yet the present occupants,
with their enthusiasm for its history and their generosity of spirit, turn Idaho City into
an undiscovered vein of gold. The town’s golden roller-coaster existence began when a party
that included George Grimes discovered the precious metal near Centerville on August 2,
1862. Grimes was killed within a week, but his death didn’t prevent other prospectors from
quickly attempting to stake a claim. In December of 1862, Bannock City (later renamed Idaho
City, because there was already a Bannock not too far away) was founded. The miners flooded
in, turning this rugged town in a remote region of Washington Territory into the largest
city between St. Louis and San Francisco. In 1863, a San Francisco newspaper correspondent
described the place this way–”Perfect Pandemonium: The town gutted with ditches, sluices,
and hydraulics; the cross streets blockaded by lines of Missouri wagons; gravel and
boulders strewn about; muddy aqueducts, no longer needed, sluggishly rolling to their
natural bed; 33 whiskey shops line the town’s 1 1/4-mile principal street, the average
receipt of the busier ones being $550 per day.” But “perfect pandemonium” soon gave way to
outright desertion once the easiest gold had been hauled away and turned into cash. By the
time Idaho became a state in 1890, Idaho City’s population had plummeted to 454. The
all-or-nothing-at-all mentality of yesteryear does not exist in the town today, though most
merchants would appreciate more business during the winter months. Except for the big
holiday summer weekends, the place does not teem with visitors, so those who want to take
the walking tour (pick up the Bricks & Boardwalk guide at the visitor’s center, the
museum or at most of the stores) can do so without feeling as though they’re in a cattle
stampede. See the state’s first Masonic Temple and Odd Fellows Hall. Attend Sunday Mass in
St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, which was rebuilt in 1867, after it and much of the town were
destroyed by fire. Peer into the Idaho City Jail, originally built to confine people with
contagious diseases and called the “Pest House,” or into the Forrest Read Blacksmith Shop,
which was reconstructed with timber from the Boise County Court House. And since Idaho City
is functional, be mindful of the fact that the Miner’s Exchange now houses the county
commissioners and that the Boise County Courthouse still lets the scales of justice tilt
where they may. If you see a tall bearded man, frequently decked out in turn-of-the-century
attire, say hello to former Idaho State Supreme Court Justice Byron J. Johnson. Then step
back and let him expound–it will be a history lesson that you will not forget. This
“recovering lawyer,” as he snidely calls himself, has chosen to retire in town, and if
you’re good students, perhaps you can persuade him to recite one of his poems about Idaho
City. Whether you choose to take the walking tour, elect to visit the story-rich cemetery
or are just passing by on Highway 21, you’ll be making a mistake if you decide not to stop
at Trudy’s Kitchen. But don’t do so if you’ve eaten recently–like in the last few days.
Trudy Jackson gets flak from Byron about the size of her portions. He says that she could
cut back a bit–by about half–and no one would object. But that wouldn’t be Trudy. Her
food is excellent–try the Philly steak-and-cheese sandwich and treat yourself to her
homemade huckleberry cheesecake–but the meals are only part of the reason why you should
eat there. Trudy is the other. She is a third generation Idaho City resident who seems to
have taken on the task of saving the town from extinction. She’s held a variety of jobs,
from washing dishes in the Miner’s Exchange to felling trees as a logger, and if she
brought half as much enthusiasm to any of those endeavors as she does to her restaurant,
then her fellow employees are better people for having known her. “I love to be in plays,”
she says. “But you can’t make money at it. But with the restaurant, I have a new audience
at every table.” She’s being somewhat self-effacing when she says this, because she’s as
interested in what her customers have to say as she is in performing. She makes patrons
feel so at home that they half want to move in. And they can move in temporarily by staying
in either the adjacent rustic cabin or one of the eight full-hookup sites she maintains on
the premises. No simple country girl but a woman who’s seen the world, Trudy sums up the
attitude of most of the Idaho City residents when she says, “We have a simple way of life
here. I don’t know how anyone could live anywhere else.”

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