Founded in 1890, the city of Caldwell originally served as the shopping district for much of the western side of Idaho and bordering areas of Oregon. Its downtown featured prominent retailers such as J.C. Penney, King’s, Sears, and the Idaho Department Store. However, two developments nearly doomed Caldwell. First, in response to complaints about not enough parking, the city began charging for it. Second, in 1965 the area’s first mall, Karcher Mall, opened up a few blocks away on Nampa-Caldwell Boulevard. Many of the retailers moved to the mall, and the downtown became a ghost town.
But due to visionary city leaders and a lucky building collapse—yes, really—Caldwell is coming back. Existing businesses are growing, and new businesses are moving into Caldwell as fast as the historic buildings can be renovated. Park on one of its streets—for free—and take a walk to see how the city has blossomed. Here are some of the highlights—old and new—to take in.
Caldwell Train Depot: Like many Western cities, Caldwell was defined by its railroad. Built in 1906, the former Union Pacific train depot, at 701 Main St., was donated to the city in 1989 and restored in 2002. It now includes a museum, opened in 2008, to showcase the history of the railroad in the area. In addition, the building is often rented out for weddings and other events.
The Hat: From 1910 to 1928, Caldwell was served by the Boise Traction Company, typically known as the Interurban, an extensive 60-mile streetcar system that ran in a loop from Boise to Middleton. Sadly, due to the popularity of the automobile, the Interurban is no more, and few traces remain of it. One of them, though, is a Caldwell stop near the College of Idaho, at 2112 Cleveland Blvd., built in 1912. Formally known as College Heights Station, it was called “The Hat” for what it resembles, and it is still a college landmark today.
Cruzen-Murray Library: Just a couple of blocks away, the College of Idaho goes from old to new with its award-winning new library, which opened in 2017. The three-story, 60,000 square-foot building was designed by Phoenix-based architectural firm richärd+bauer and built by Kreizenbeck Constructors of Boise. In addition to 200,000 books and journals, it includes private and group study areas, a 24/7 study space, multimedia classrooms, a café, and public spaces for readings, lectures and exhibitions. It has been designed to be both flooded with natural light and yet not be heated by it. The metal shades surrounding the building reflect the sun in the summer and let it in during the winter.
Indian Creek: When Caldwell was first settled, its downtown waterway was considered an amenity. But as it became a repository for agricultural and industrial waste in the early 20th century it was gradually covered up. Then came 2001, when a dilapidated car wash literally collapsed into the river. At that point, Caldwell took advantage of the situation to acquire the property and decided to “daylight” the river, or bring it back as a downtown amenity. The project began in 2003 with a single block. By 2015, Indian Creek ran five blocks through downtown. Now, the downtown creek area includes a demonstration vineyard, plants and trees, waterfalls, and a five-acre park. It also serves as the home for the annual Indian Creek Festival.
Indian Creek Plaza: In an attempt to draw people downtown, the nonprofit organization Destination Caldwell bought several empty downtown buildings and lots and demolished them in a $7.3 million project to create a 57,000-square-foot civic plaza, surrounded by turn-of-the-century brick buildings. Opened in the summer of 2018, the plaza now includes amenities such as a 1,500-square-foot stage, tables, and a fountain, with up to 200 events per year ranging from farmers markets in the summer to ice skating in the winter. Now, businesses such as the Flying M coffeehouse and the Soda Burst soda shop—aided by the closure to traffic of Arthur Street, next to the plaza—are filling up the vintage brick buildings lining the plaza. The goal is to have at least 10 restaurants within three blocks of the plaza.
Steunenberg Historic District: It isn’t just Caldwell’s downtown that has a wealth of historic buildings. The Steunenberg Residential Historic District contains more than 300 residential properties, many of which are historic. And they’re kept that way through a design review committee that looks over any changes proposed for the buildings to make sure they’re in keeping with their historic nature. Houses generally date from the 1910s to the 1930s but include a wide variety of styles ranging from Queen Anne to Tudor Revival. The pièce de résistance is the site where Frank Steunenberg, governor of Idaho from 1897 to 1901, was assassinated by a bomb in 1905. A walking tour brochure of the area is available from the City of Caldwell website.