A rail town grows with a sense of its past
Pocatello was settled in 1882 on a small strip of land along the railroad right-of-way through the Fort Hall Indian Reservation. The small size of the original townsite was just the beginning of a history of constricted growth that continued through the early years of the 20th century. The history of the Lincoln-Johnson Avenues Neighborhood, recently nominated as a historic district to the National Register of Historic Places, reflects the struggle to provide housing for Pocatello’s frequently booming population of railroad workers.
As Pocatello plans for its future, it is important that it first understand its past. The community owes its existence to the growth and change of an earlier century. Acknowledging the city’s blue collar past provides a sense of place that can help sustain the community. In a practical sense, preserving historic areas can help attract tourists, businesses and new residents to a town. But beyond the practical considerations, connecting with the past shows us that we can also be connected to the future, and that everything we do and build is part of the place.
Born when the Oregon Short Line (OSL) Railroad built tracks to the area in 1882, Pocatello is now the second largest city in Idaho. With a population of 55,000 people (75,000 in the greater Pocatello vicinity), the city is located in the Portneuf River valley at the edge of the Snake River Plain — 150 miles north of Salt Lake City, Utah, and 250 miles east of Boise, the capital city.
The OSL, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Railway, did not originally intend to establish a town at the location, but was building through from Granger, Wyo., to Huntington, Ore. At Pocatello (called Pocatello Junction) the OSL tracks crossed tracks coming north from Utah on the Utah & Northern Railroad, a line built to connect Utah with the mining communities of Montana. Pocatello was simply a stop with a water tank and a makeshift depot; OSL officials planned to set up headquarters and repair shops at McCammon, about 20 miles southwest of Pocatello, on land purchased from rancher H.O. Harkness. When Harkness and railroad representatives were unable to agree on the sale, the OSL decided to establish headquarters at Pocatello. The plan required negotiating with the tribes of the Fort Hall Indian Reservation for a railroad right-of-way and room for a depot and some additional buildings. In 1882, the company purchased 40 acres and built a small freight depot.
As a distribution point for travelers and freight, railroad operations at the junction grew. At first, railroad workers lived in tents and boxcars along the tracks.1 By 1883, the railroad had constructed the two-story Pacific Hotel to accommodate overland travelers who disembarked at Pocatello Junction. Increased operations, especially the removal in 1887 of the railroad shops from Eagle Rock (now Idaho Falls) to Pocatello, brought in more workers. Within a few short years resident workers were illegally squatting on reservation land surrounding the original 40 acres. Many of the workers had brought their families with them and wanted to establish permanent homes at Pocatello. In 1886, 41 residents signed a petition that was sent to the Secretary of the Interior, begging for an accommodation to build houses on reservation land. Under pressure from the railroad and its employees, Congress negotiated the purchase of an additional 1,840 acres of land from the Fort Hall tribes and in 1888 passed the Pocatello Townsite bill authorizing the purchase. The townsite was surveyed in 1889 and lots were sold at auction in 1891.2
Pocatello’s relationship with the railroad ensured its continued growth in size and regional importance, but other developments also helped
secure its position as a regional center. In 1890, Pocatello incorporated as a village in Bingham County. In 1893, when the state Legislature voted to split Bingham County and create Bannock County, Pocatello was named county seat. In 1901, the town was selected as the site of the Academy of Idaho, a state institution that began as a high school but evolved over the years into Idaho State University. That same year, an additional section of the Fort Hall Reservation was opened to settlement. The land located south and east of Pocatello, toward McCammon, was opened to settlement with a land run in July 1902, and Pocatello’s need for more land was solved.3
As Pocatello gained stature as a central community, it also gained business and industry. Progress was made despite a long struggle to develop a consistent, clean and safe water supply, a problem that caused much grief until 1914 when a court decision awarded ownership of the water supply system to the City of Pocatello. Many businesses and a few small industries were established by 1905, including brick plants, planing mills, a meatpacking plant, and others. The J.C. Kraft brothers relocated their plant to Pocatello from San Francisco in 1924, and by 1925 a printing plant, a flourmill and a bakery were among the growing number of businesses and factories in operation.4
In 1889, using a standard system, General Land Office surveyor Samuel G. Rhoades laid Pocatello out with the railroad tracks at the center and streets platted on both sides perpendicular and parallel to the tracks. This initial layout divided Pocatello into two separate but united communities — Eastside and Westside. For the first few years of the town’s existence, the Eastside was seen as the marginal area, where
immigrant and minority workers lived and where cheap lodging and low class entertainment were available to transient workers and traveling salesmen. A few businesses also developed on the Eastside, but gradually the business district began to grow on the Westside in relation to the Pacific Hotel, which for many years was Pocatello’s most prominent landmark building. Community leaders and prominent citizens tended to build their houses just to the west of the business district.5
Pocatello’s growth continued through the 1890s, despite the slowdown of the national economy following the Panic of 1893. Pressure was exerted to make even more reservation land available for settlement. In 1900, an additional 416,000 acres of reservation land was ceded to the federal government; that land was opened to settlement with a June 1903 land rush. In July, remaining land within five miles of Pocatello was sold at auction. By 1910 the area of town west of the tracks and east of the Portneuf was filled with residences and businesses.6
Thomas Olive, a railroad worker, moved to Pocatello in 1892 from Rock Springs, Wyo. Like many other railroad workers, Olive brought his family to Pocatello with him. The Olives lived for a number of years in a house on North Arthur Street. In 1902, Olive purchased 40 acres from the General Land Office. The parcel was located adjacent to the Pocatello Townsite, on the west side of the Portneuf River, just below the foothills of the West Bench at the end of West Center and West Clark streets. He and his wife, Annie, had the land surveyed and platted as the Olive Addition, recording it in Bannock County October 29, 1902.
The Olive Addition is divided into five blocks (A-E). The blocks are divided into lots of a standard size, but varying in number due to the configuration of the addition. The houses in this addition are among those located on steep slopes within the Lincoln-Johnson Avenues District.7 Records show the Olives immediately began selling lots in their addition; purchasers included several prominent businessmen, railroad workers and other residents.8
Pocatello’s housing shortages
The lack of land for settlement that dogged Pocatello in its early years marked the beginning of a trend toward periodic housing shortages in the community. Prior to the 1887 land acquisition, a group of citizens petitioned the Secretary of the Interior to provide more land for houses for workers and their families. After the townsite was created, housing shortages continued to occur intermittently; when the shops were moved from Eagle Rock, an influx of workers put an immediate strain on the available housing. Following World War I, members of the business and trade communities met to discuss the urgent need for more housing, and as late as 1956 an article in the local paper described the serious problems caused by the lack of available housing in the community. These shortages resulted in many houses showing multiple residents in census records and city directories. Homeowners rented rooms in their houses or remodeled to add space for renters. One study noted that in 1940 Pocatello appeared to have more residents in apartment buildings and more apartment buildings to house them than other cities of similar size.9
In addition to renting rooms or dividing their houses into multiple-family units, some Pocatellans simply built additional houses on their property. As Pocatello matured as a community and passed zoning ordinances and permit requirements, this practice of stuffing lots with housing seems to have disappeared.
As noted earlier, Pocatello was platted on either side of the railroad tracks, which had the effect of creating two separate communities. In the early years, when the community was restricted to the narrow railroad right-of-way, residents lived in temporary quarters on either side of the tracks. Even after the townsite was platted, it was more than a year before the land was opened for purchase, so construction of permanent residences or commercial businesses was delayed. During this transitory period, the areas east and west of the tracks began to develop as separate communities. Railroad officials and “better class” businesses clustered on the west side of the tracks near the Pacific Hotel, while the east side developed as home to transient laborers, with rooming houses, saloons and other “objectionable businesses” to cater to their needs.
Once the community achieved a more permanent status in 1891 and land was made available for purchase and settlement, the business community began to gradually develop, first on East Center Street, then over on West Center. Residential areas developed on both sides of the tracks, with the Westside attracting the more prominent residents such as railroad officials, business owners, lawyers and doctors. The Eastside became home to the laboring classes — service workers, railroad laborers, etc., and was the area where immigrant workers settled, particularly those from Italy, Greece and Japan. When the Academy of Idaho was established in 1902 on land on the east side of the tracks, a gradual change in residence desirability began to evolve, with homes near the Academy becoming more attractive as permanent residences for community leaders and those affiliated with the school. The fact that the most desirable area of the Westside, the area east of the Portneuf River, was almost fully developed by 1910 might have further contributed to the growth of the Eastside as home to Pocatello’s elite. Whatever the reason, the development of these two separate areas of Pocatello contributes to its unique character and remains in effect today.10
The construction of the Pocatello General Hospital in 1907, on the southwest corner of North Johnson and West Center, made the neighborhood an attractive location for doctors and hospital employees. A small nurses’ dormitory was built next to the hospital, but some nurses rented rooms in nearby homes. In 1919, the hospital, under joint ownership of the city and the county, was remodeled and expanded to a 65-bed facility and renamed Bannock County General Hospital. In 1929 a larger brick nurses’ dormitory, designed by architect Frank Paradice, Jr., replaced the original frame cottage. Several doctors were drawn to the neighborhood, because of its convenient location near the hospital. The hospital remained in use until 1951; when a new facility was built on the Eastside near what is now Idaho State University, the Idaho Farm Bureau purchased the hospital and the nurses’ dormitory. When the dormitory was remodeled into offices and the hospital was torn down in 1956, the site was converted into a parking lot. The Farm Bureau has left the location, but the office building and parking lot remain. 11 (Photograph 26)
From 1910 on, although most neighborhood residents were employed by the railroad, in sales and service occupations or in the building trades, a small but steady stream of businessmen, attorneys and civic leaders made the Lincoln-Johnson Avenues neighborhood their home, most along Johnson Avenue, although a few built or purchased homes on the cross streets and Lincoln Avenue as well. None of these people built lavish homes, and no evidence has been located identifying any architect-designed homes. Their locating in this neighborhood rather than in the more established areas along North Grant, Hayes and Garfield streets may have had to do with a lack of available land for new homes — that area was filled up by 1910. The Lincoln-Johnson Avenues neighborhood was also conveniently located near the business district, which extended over to West Center. 12
City directories and census statistics indicate that most people moved into the neighborhood between 1910 and 1930, although articles in the newspaper indicate periods of low house construction. World War I created a shortage of building materials as well as the placement of building restrictions by the government. Just after the war there was a severe housing shortage, prompting local business leaders to call for action and explanations from landowners and builders. According to the Commercial Club, Pocatello was in danger of losing population unless building started immediately. Whether the group’s efforts had a real effect is hard to discern, but a 2004 reconnaissance survey of the neighborhood estimated construction of more than 230 of the houses (or 80 percent) between 1910 and 1930, with the majority of those houses constructed after 1915.13
Builders and materials
In Pocatello, a railroad town, building materials were more easily available from the earliest days than they were in some of Idaho’s more remote communities. The first buildings in town were moved from Eagle Rock or consisted of tents and boxcars supplied by the railroad, but once the community was secure with the addition of land and the platting of the townsite, it wasn’t long before more substantial and permanent structures began to appear. By 1900, when the first few houses were built in the Lincoln-Johnson Avenues District, builders had access not only to lumber, but also to brick and stone for construction. The 1901 city directory listed two local brick manufacturers, M. E. Parkey and Theodore Swanson. Concrete block, or “pressed brick,” became available locally in 1907 — the general hospital, completed in 1907, was constructed of the material. But despite the availability of brick and stone, most of the houses in the Lincoln-Johnson Avenues District are of wood frame construction on concrete foundations, both affordable materials.14
The Lincoln-Johnson Avenues District was home to a number of carpenters, plasterers, masons and general contractors. Many of them were employed by others, but several worked on “their own account.” R. L. Poynter, who lived just beyond the border of the District on West Center Street, built three houses on North Johnson Street in 1918. The paper reported the construction and sale of the three houses in March and April, noting that the houses contained the most modern conveniences. Guy Nielson, a brick mason who moved to Pocatello in 1929, built two houses in the district. The first, a brick duplex located on South Lincoln, provided a home for his family and was a source of income during the difficult years of the Depression. In 1939, working with local draftsman Frank Briggs, Nielsen built another home on South Lincoln and the family remained in that house for many years.15
During the 1930s, Pocatello suffered the effects of the economic depression along with the rest of the country. Although community leaders maintained an attitude of optimism and the newspaper published articles that emphasized progress and success, unemployment was high. A local bank failure in 1931 underscored the community’s vulnerability to the global economic situation. Pocatello benefited from the programs of the New Deal and a number of public works projects helped bring work and civic improvements to the community. The Lincoln Johnson Avenues District benefited directly from the construction of the Center Street underpass, which improved the efficiency of cross-town traffic across the railroad tracks that had always presented an obstacle, even after the construction of a viaduct crossing in 1911. The creation of the Federal Housing Administration in 1934 made guaranteed mortgage loans available, which encouraged the construction of a few new houses in the late 1930s. At least one house in the district, the home built by Dr. O. F. Call at 315 N. Lincoln, was built with an FHA guaranteed loan. Along with several other new houses built statewide with FHA loans, the house was featured in an illustrated article in Seeing Idaho magazine in 1937.16
With the rest of the country, Pocatello began to move toward economic recovery in the 1940s as the nation entered the frantic pace of wartime production. In 1942, the Army and the Navy both located important industrial facilities in Pocatello — the Naval Ordnance plant and the Army Air Force base. In 1944, frozen food magnate J.R. Simplot invested in a phosphate processing plant near Pocatello for the production of fertilizer. In 1948, Westvaco (later FMC), built another phosphate processing plant that eventually became the largest such plant in the world. The construction of these plants brought Pocatello into an era of prosperity.17
By the 1950s, most lots within the Lincoln-Johnson Avenues neighborhood were built upon. Few houses have been constructed since then. The space once occupied by the General Hospital remains a parking lot, and vacant buildings and empty lots mark the two blocks of West Center that formerly housed small businesses. Although some of the houses in the district have suffered from neglect, most have been maintained, at times at the cost of adding asbestos or metal siding to provide ease of maintenance. The area within the boundaries of the Lincoln Johnson Avenues Residential Historic District reflects its development as an enclave of Pocatello’s middle class with modest, affordable housing.
Features: Becoming Urban • Kellogg Redefined • Ustick • Old Pocatello
1. Merrill D. Beal, Intermountain Railroads, Standard and Narrow Gauge, (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1962), pp. 141-153; Paul Karl Link & E. Chilton Phoenix, Rocks, Rails & Trails, (Pocatello: Idaho State University Press, 1994, second edition 1996), pp. 112-116.
2. Robert L. Wrigley, Jr. “The Early History of Pocatello, Idaho,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 4 (October 1943), p. 353-65.
3. Robert L. Wrigley, Jr., “The Occupational Structure of Pocatello, Idaho,” dissertation, University of Chicago, Department of Geography, 1943, pp. 84-90.
4. Wrigley, “The Occupational Structure...,” pp. 91-94.
5. Link, Rocks, Rails and Trails ..., p. 112-117.
6. Betty Hale, “Railroad Work Dominated Pocatello From 1910-1920,” Idaho State Journal, Centennial Edition, June 21, 1982, section 1, p. 13 (originally published 1972).
7. R.L. Polk & Co.’s Pocatello and Bannock County Directory, 1901-02; Bannock County Deeds, Plat of the Olive Addition to Pocatello Townsite, surveyed by Oscar Sonnenkalb, Bannock County Surveyor, October 29, 1902, recorded November 6, 1902; legal description of the Olive Addition is: SE _ of the NE _, Section 34, Township 6 South, Range 34 East.
8. Index to Deeds, Bannock County; Polk’s Directory, 1905, 1907; Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, Pocatello 1915 (Sheets 8 and 11).
9 Leigh Gittens, Pocatello Portrait, The Early Years 1882-1928; “Pocatello Westside Residential Historic District,” National Register Nomination prepared by Suzanne Julin, 2002; Wrigley, “The Occupational Structure...,” p. 31; “City Loses Population Because of House Shortage,” May 31, 1919, p. 2, col. 4; “Help Wanted is Call of Builders,” June 11, 1919, p. 1, col. 4; “Unions Ask Action on Housing Project,” Idaho State Journal, December 9, 1956, p. 21, col. 5-6.
11. Census 1910, 1920; Polk’s Directory, 1915, 1923, 1927, 1931-32, 1940-41; Pocatello Tribune; “Home Spotlight: Maynard family home maintains its rich history,” by John O’Connell, June 30, 2005; Idaho State Journal Online, accessed July 2005.
12. Census 1910, 1920; Polk’s Directory, 1915, 1920; Sanborn Maps, 1915, 1921.
13. Census, 1910, 1920; Polk’s Directory, 1915, 1920, 1929, 1931-32; Pocatello Tribune, “Building Operations Suspended,” Oct. 3, 1918, p. 1, “City Loses Population Because of House Shortage,” May 31, 1919, p. 2, col. 4; “Help Wanted is Call of Builders,” June 11, 1919, p. 1, col. 4.
14. Polk’s Directory, 1901-02, 1907; Idaho State Journal, “From Old General to Bannock Memorial...Pocatello’s Public Health Care History,” by Juanita Rodriguez, sec. E, p. 12, December 10, 1976.
15. History of Bannock County (Logan, Utah: Herff Jones, Inc., 1993), vol. III, p. 819; personal correspondence (email), Donna Looze, July 31-August 1, 2005. Guy Nielson’s company, Guy Nielson Masonry, remains in business in Pocatello today.
16. Merwin Swanson, “Pocatello’s Business Community and the New Deal,” Idaho Yesterdays, volume 21, number 3 (Fall 1977), pp. 9-15; “How the F.H.A. Builds Homes in Idaho,” Seeing Idaho magazine, volume 1, number 7 (December 1937), pp. 6-10. The F.H.A. was created by Congress in 1934 and made a division of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (H.U.D.) in 1965. According to the article in Seeing Idaho, by October 1937, the Idaho Office had insured or committed to insure 1,229 loans totaling $3,861,500.
17. Link, Rocks, Rails and Trails..., pp 128-129.