A Brief History of Caldwell, Idaho
The valley is surrounded by the Owyhee, Weiser and Boise mountain ranges that rise steeply to 8-9,000 feet above sea level and range in distance from eight to twenty miles away from Caldwell, surrounding the Treasure Valley. The slopes are partly covered with sagebrush, which gives way to chaparral, then to ridges of fir, pine, spruce and juniper. Recreational activities are a highlight of Idaho and the Caldwell area provides access to a variety of enthusiasts from rock hounds to river rafters, skiers to hot springs lovers, trail riders to hikers and much, much more.
For residents, Caldwell is a pleasant mix of old and new, with many things close to home such as schools, churches, parks and downtown. Even as we grow, a strong sense of community remains integral to life in Caldwell.
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click here to visit the City of Caldwell Website for more information about our fair city.
A Historical Walking Tour
“Welcome to the Cleveland Boulevard and Upper Dearborn Street neighborhood of Caldwell – an area rich in the lore of our town. This is not the oldest residential district of Caldwell, but grew between 1900 and 1940. Carrie and Robert Strahorn founded the town in 1883 as a commercial center for the Railroad, and it didn’t take long for many settlers to ‘move up’ from a tent to a modest house, and then to a fine home. This area represents a ‘fine home’ phase of Caldwell’s growth.”
– A Historical Walking Tour. Caldwell Historic Preservation Commission, Susan M. Stacy, n.d. Print.
CALDWELL AT THE CROSSROADS, 1840s-1920s
By Madeline Buckendorf and Chuck Randolph
The Snake River and its tributaries created rugged, rich corridors through southwestern Idaho. Before non-native peoples arrived, indigenous Indian tribes had established well-worn paths along the Snake and Boise rivers. The river’s banks offered rich resources—camping spots, food, fuel, and places to establish trade between nomadic tribes.
Explorers, trappers and hopeful emigrants eventually followed these trails into Idaho. Some came to partake of the region’s riches and leave; others decided to claim land and stay permanently. As the native tribes had already discovered, the settlers found that the Snake and Boise river valleys provided opportunities for sustenance and growth. Permanent communities formed, first shaped by geography and transportation networks, and later by common occupations, family ties, and mutual interests.
BEFORE CALDWELL, 1840s-1880s
The main route of the Oregon Trail followed the Boise River northwest through present-day Caldwell. Alternate paths formed around and over Canyon Hill, with emigrants sometimes crossing the Boise River southwest at Fort Boise, located near the juncture of the Boise and Snake Rivers close to present-day Parma. Other emigrant wagons crossed the river at the Dixie Slough, approximately 2 1/2 miles downstream from Canyon Hill. A few travelers decided to settle along the river and it tributaries, rather than continue the long and onerous trek to Oregon Territory.
Gold discoveries in Boise Basin during the 1860s brought a backwash of settlers into Idaho Territory. Prospectors poured into the area from Oregon, Washington, and California. Several disenchanted gold seekers found they could make a living running stage and way stations along established trails. They also raised crops and stock to sell at the mining camps. The Oregon Trail route near the Dixie Slough developed into an early supply and ranching hamlet; its name of Dixie indicated the Southern roots of it earliest residents.
Caldwell Depot – 1907
THE COMING OF THE RAILROAD—1880s-1890s
Wagon trails and freight roads in Idaho territory would soon compete with tracks of steel. The race of the Union Pacific and the Southern Pacific railroads to span the West was completed and the golden spike driven in 1869, only 14 years before the townsite of Caldwell began to pull itself from the desert. The Oregon Shortline linked the Union Pacific Railroad to the Pacific Northwest, but bypassed Idaho’s territorial capital of Boise City, which would not receive a rail link until 1925. The Caldwell townsite was platted in 1882 by Robert Strahorn, an advance man for the Oregon Shortline Railroad, and his associates in the Idaho-Oregon Land Improvement Company. The new town’s location offered an easier railroad grade than the one into Boise City, and the site was an ideal crossroads for area mining and ranching communities. Strahorn and his company had developed the townsites of Shoshone and Mountain Home, and would later plat the Hailey, Weiser and Payette communities. Caldwell was named after Strahorn’s friend and business partner, U. S. Senator Alexander Caldwell of Kansas.
Robert Strahorn’s wife, Carrie Adell Strahorn, was not enamored with the choice for Caldwell’s location when she first saw it in 1882. She described it as “…a place deserted by God himself, and not intended for man to meddle with.” However, she could also envision the community’s future: “There was pictured so enticingly the commercial streets, the residence locations, the parks, the places for churches and schools, the railroad, the depot and hotel, the wagon roads leading in various directions, and even the shade trees were there, and it all looked so complete that I fairly strained my ears to hear the toot of the engine and the ring of bells.”
As part of showing their investment in the new Caldwell townsite, the Strahorns moved here and established their new home, called Sunnyside Ranch. The site was located on present-day Fillmore Street (with the back door facing what is now Caldwell Memorial Park). It became the town’s model home, where visitors were entertained and encouraged to move to Caldwell. Under Robert Strahorn’s direction, 500 trees were planted and the race was on to attract business, industry and permanent residents. Carrie Strahorn worked on “planting” the seeds of Caldwell’s first religious, cultural, and social institutions.
Boise City’s newspaper, the Idaho Tri-Weekly Statesman, did not share the Strahorn’s enthusiasm for the new Caldwell townsite. They called it “Bugtown,” and described the village as having “eleven saloons and one pump in successful operation.” Much to the disappointment of Boise’s newspaper editor and business leaders, early Caldwell started to boom. Soon settlers and businesses moved from other Boise Valley communities, as well as from all across the United States, to take advantage of Caldwell’s new railhead status. By early 1884, Caldwell consisted of 600 people, 40 businesses, 150 other structures, a telephone system, and a public school with 30 pupils. Ada County Commissioners incorporated the city in 1890, and it became the county seat of newly formed Canyon County in 1892.
AN AGRICULTURAL TOWN WITH CLASSICAL TASTES-1890s-1910s
The fortunes of most early Caldwell businesses were tied to agriculture. Initially the care, feeding, and shipping of livestock dominated downtown commerce. Several livery stables, blacksmith shops, feed and supply stores, butcher shops, and harness and farm equipment stores set up in wood buildings along Main (then called Front), 7th Avenue, and Kimball streets. A lumberyard was needed to serve this construction; the ever-entrepreneurial Robert Strahorn started the first one. Soon Caldwell had enough of a population to build retail and service businesses, such as barbershops, jewelry stores, shoe shops, bakeries, dry goods and hardware stores.
Saratoga Hotel and City Hall
Bricks became the building blocks of a new downtown after several businesses burned down in the fire of 1888. As the town prospered and the population grew, business and civic leaders began to follow the latest architectural trends by constructing more substantial and ornate buildings in Caldwell. Caldwell’s location near transportation routes fueled development. Four hotels were built in Caldwell to serve rail travelers, since the train did not usually run at night. The first two, the Pacific Hotel (1884) and the Hotel Calvert (c. 1890) were wood frame buildings. By the 1900s, a pair of two-story brick hotels dominated the downtown: The Saratoga Hotel, built in a French Renaissance Revival style in 1904, was located on the southwest corner of Main and 7th Avenue. The Lavering building, constructed at 720 Arthur Street in 1907, housed the Idaho Hotel (later called the Alturas) in its second story. Other downtown businesses followed suit, until most of Main, Arthur, Kimball and 7th Avenue were lined with brick and sandstone-trimmed buildings, matching the Classical Revival architectural styles popular at the turn of the 19th century.
Private and federally funded irrigation projects created new water arterials and extended systems that “made the desert blossom” in Canyon County. For Caldwell, the years 1900 to 1910 were a golden decade of expansion and prosperity. Caldwell’s population tripled between 1900 and 1910, from 997 to 3,543 inhabitants. During this time, Caldwell leaders built major institutions of civic pride—a courthouse, a railroad depot, city hall, a high school, a college campus, and an electric railroad that ultimately formed a transportation loop for Boise Valley communities. Stub lines were developed to Lake Lowell, Sunny Slope, and Wilder. Caldwell became a different crossroad—one where electrical power and interurban rail lines converged to serve agricultural, commercial, and residential needs.
More permanent and inspiring buildings were constructed in Caldwell during this decade of prosperity. A new Canyon County Courthouse replaced the old wood frame structure at Twelfth and Belmont streets in 1906. It was a two-story building with an elaborate clock tower and Greek-inspired pediment and columns surrounding the entryway. The brick and sandstone-trimmed Caldwell depot, completed in 1907, was designed from standard Union Pacific Railroad plans featuring classical architectural ornamentation. That year Caldwell’s leaders selected the architectural firm of Tourtelotte and Hummel, the same firm that was planning the Idaho State Capitol building, to design a “signature” city hall. This seat of city government was to stand in the middle of 7th Avenue, facing the railroad depot. The new city hall, constructed of granite-colored brick and sandstone trim, was designed with an imposing bell tower and embellished with ornamental trim. The Caldwell Tribune described this grand entrance to the city in glowing terms: “The scene that will present itself to a person as he steps off the train will be the most beautiful in the city. City Hall will…remind of Trinity Hall, Boston.”
Van Buren School
INSTITUTIONAL GROWTH, 1880s-1910s
Education played an important role in the Caldwell ’s development. Construction of a public school building began in 1884. Lincoln School, located between 5th and 6th avenues on Cleveland Boulevard, was built out of brick in 1887. As Caldwell’s population grew, Van Buren School was erected in 1904 and Washington School in 1906 at their present locations. In 1910, Caldwell citizens approved a high school building to be constructed at 12th and Dearborn streets (the present Serenity Park, located east of Caldwell Public Library). At the time, it was one of the largest school buildings in the state.
The first college established in Idaho, The Presbyterian-affiliated College of Idaho started in 1891, moved from its original location at 9th and Albany streets to new brick buildings at 20th Avenue and Cleveland Boulevard in 1910. City leaders donated 20 acres of land for the new college campus as early as 1891. These same leaders capitalized on the college’s planned relocation, platting residential additions between the business center and the new campus along Cleveland Boulevard. Plans were also made to extend the electric interurban railroad to Nampa along the boulevard, which was accomplished by 1912. One year later, an independent stub line laid tracks along the college’s southwest boundaries to a new resort at Lake Lowell.
THE MAGIC CITY, 1910s-1920s
Caldwell business and city leaders traditionally formed associations and clubs to promote the community’s development. Numerous fraternal associations, women’s civic improvement clubs, and commercial associations served the mutual interests of members. By the mid-1920s, organizations such as the Masons, Eagles, Elks, Kiwanis, Women’s Forward Club and Harmony Club conducted civic improvement projects. Club members worked on many concerns: creation of parks, city beautification, a permanent library building, cultural and social activities, and increased recreational and educational opportunities for children.
Commercial associations formed to promote economic growth in Caldwell. One of the earliest in Caldwell was the Board of Trade in the 1880s and 1890s. Next was the Caldwell Commercial Club, formed in 1903. They created advertising and slogans that promoted Caldwell as the “Magic City.” By the 1920s, Caldwell had plenty to boast about—a business district with major department stores, restaurants, theatres, two newspapers, automobile dealerships and repair shops, and a major publishing firm.
Main Street – 1910
Agricultural businesses continued to flourish in downtown. Major dairy and poultry-related operations were built near the railroad tracks, along with feed and seed businesses. Large farm equipment dealerships replaced harness shops and livery stables, as agriculture was mechanized.
Caldwell entrepreneurs dreamed of expanding its city limits and becoming the fruit-growing center of southwest Idaho. As early as the 1920s, “Orchard Homes,” tracts of land 5-10 acres in size, were platted in some of Caldwell’s early residential divisions and widely advertised. Small orchards thrived on Canyon Hill and along the interurban railroad stubs to Wilder and Lake Lowell. Caldwell became known as the “home of the perfect Jonathan Apple,” with an apple logo on the city’s business letterhead and promotional literature. Holding and forwarding companies formed to ship fruit from Caldwell’s railhead. Later the orchards receded into rural Canyon County, while former Caldwell fruit farms became residential neighborhoods.
As with many agriculture-based towns in the United States, the fortunes of Caldwell fluctuated during the rest of the 20th Century. The 1920s national agricultural depression and subsequent Great Depression slowed the community’s growth until after World War II. Intensive mechanization of agriculture, nationwide urbanization and changes in transportation systems caused Caldwell to adjust its economic base and reinvent itself several times. A community of hard workers, good planners, visionary entrepreneurs and strong city leaders guided the city through the ups and downs of the last century. These community efforts created a pathway to future crossroads of the 21st century.