Feature March 13, 2017

‘Walking Out’ of Boise

How a park system blossomed with the growth of a city

Across the once-unbridled Boise River from that unnatural patch of blue turf where the Boise State Broncos scrum is the elaborate, cosmopolitan and meticulously nurtured Julia Davis Park. As of last summer, the park has the first of four new “River Nodes,” quiet places set off from the popular Boise River Greenbelt. The nodes are designed as windows on the river where a person can simply sit, read a book and listen to the river, the songs of birds, one’s thoughts or the boisterous shrieks of inner tube and raft floaters traveling the six river miles between Barber and Ann Morrison parks.

Since 1980, the Bob Gibb Friendship Bridge has connected the Greenbelt and the park with Boise State University on the south side of the river. The apex of the bridge is a treat for pedestrians and a great vantage point for Boise’s river of trees. It’s a central point from which a person can walk out of the city in a morning. The Boise Parks and Recreation Department, in cooperation with many agencies and nonprofits like Ridge to Rivers, has been working to expand and make interconnected ever more open space in public and private partnerships. Property tax dollars are going toward open space projects again this year.

In Julia Davis, some of Boise’s biggest trees are near the Gene Harris band shell where the Velvet Underground played in 1968. In the western part of the park, where “Art in the Park” takes place each summer, are English or American elm. Despite disease that has killed so many of the species, the city has been able to maintain a solid core of elm trees, said Brian Jorgenson, the city forester. “There are plenty of big beech trees in the park. Other big trees include maple, silver and Norway, ash, London plane trees or sycamore.” Along the river, the park lays claim to the famed black cottonwood, native trees found before western expansion following the adventures of Lewis and Clark. The top of the dune at Camelback Park just north of the historic Hyde Park neighborhood gives a real taste of the city’s forest canopy that helps to cool residential streets, clean the air and serves as a photosynthetic carbon sink.

A New Territory, A Budding City

The Davis story goes that Ms. Julia McCrumb from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, met Thomas Jefferson Davis after arriving in 1869 to visit relatives in the Idaho Territory, newly minted during the Civil War in 1863. This was a year after Tom Davis had arrived from the Midwest seeking gold with his brother Frank. Their adventures coincided with President Abraham Lincoln signing the Homestead Act of 1862.

Also in 1869, Union Pacific, in grand ceremony, completed the eastern leg of the Transcontinental Railroad by meeting the Central Pacific on May 10 at Promontory Summit, Utah. Train service to Boise wouldn’t be completed for 18 more years, but Ms. McCrumb arrived in Boise nonetheless, presumably by stagecoach. The couple married in 1871, the year that the federal government built the now historic downtown U.S. Assay Office to fill the great processing need of mining ore coming out of the region. It was also the year John Hailey, an entrepreneur, stagecoach baron and former soldier fighting Rogue River Indians, was elected mayor. He never took office, presumably too busy with his business ventures that often kept him busy elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, but he was elected U.S. Representative for the Idaho Territory for two terms before Idaho became a state in 1890. Hailey described the Davis property in his 1910 book, “The History of Idaho.”

“Thomas Davis’ selection for a farm was also fine, commencing at the Boise River and extending up and down the river quite a distance opposite the barracks, thus leaving a strip of land between his ranch and the barracks only about one-half mile wide. It was on this strip of land the townsite of Boise was located,” Hailey wrote, describing how centrally located the city is to other points in the West. “The growth of Boise was slow for many years, owing to the fact that many of the people who came to Boise did not intend to remain. The idea seemed to be, as it is in so many new towns, that they would make some money and return to their old homes. Among the first who built and started in business was J. D. Agnew and H. C. Biggs. These men built an adobe house on the northeast corner of Main and Seventh street, where they opened a saloon and had a feed and livery stable in the rear of the building.”

Hailey describes a pivotal time fueled by the promise of wealth, western expansion by strong pioneers who took pains to tackle “Indian troubles.” In the book Hailey clearly views Idaho settlers as superior to others, good people not to be judged harshly by younger generations or, at least, honored for their service in settling the West and allowed to rest in peace. It is important to note that while Hailey’s stories are often exciting and show unique depth of knowledge about his most energetic time in life, he is highly denigrating in most of his descriptions of aboriginal people, which, from a founding father of the West, is also instructive.

The Davis brothers shared a cabin near the current park site on Cottonwood Creek. Cultivation of today’s campus for the arts, science, history and recreation began when Tom Davis planted 7,000 trees and dug rudimentary irrigation into the once-wild riparian zone. When mining didn’t pan out, land development in conjunction with irrigation measures proved a great opportunity for pioneers like Davis.

Nearby, a small group of settlers laid out the Boise town site (established as the Idaho Territory Capitol in 1864) as Hailey describes. The Davis family owned vast acreage in the original town site area, on bench land where BSU now stands, and down river to Garden City.

At the time, there were some 1,500 farms between Boise and the Snake River confluence. Owing to the unpredictability of the floodplain, Main Street was established away from the river’s edge, as Susan Stacy writes in her history of the Boise River, “When the River Rises.” Pioneers platted Main Street in 1863 sensibly about three-quarters of a mile north of the river. Spring runoff would tear down riparian cottonwoods that wreaked havoc downstream, damage that farmers grew to expect. Earthen levees helped to stem the tide. Maintenance was a constant battle for the single farmer. It was clear that control of the water was the key to prosperity.

Managing Water and Fostering Growth in the New Century

Up river, at the east end of the Greenbelt, is Lucky Peak Dam, part of federal organization under the Bureau of Reclamation’s Boise Project and its Board of Control that makes the park and recreation system possible and feeds the agricultural riches that produced Simplot potatoes. The infrastructure demanded corresponding construction skill that also drove the career of people like Harry Morrison and Morris Knudsen, of Morrison-Knudsen Co., another benefactor of Boise park space. In its time, the company, as part of the construction consortium Six Companies, Inc., built edifices like the Hoover Dam.

Lucky Peak Reservoir, great for water skiing, is also a flood control measure, part of the extensive system that manages upstream impoundment at Arrowrock and Anderson Dams. Downstream from Lucky Peak is the 1909 Boise River Diversion Dam, the New York Canal, Lake Lowell and thousands of other river controls installed above the Boise’s confluence with the Snake. River management of the past century defines the flow of the river through the city. It is the essential element in the story of how the city has, by and large, prospered and grown.

As the Davis’ family continued to help build Boise and entrepreneurs wrestled with irrigation projects to “make the desert bloom,” timber was milled full tilt and nearby mining towns like Idaho City and Silver City brought riches to some. Union Pacific was forging new rail lines to further open the West. Mule teams and ore wagons were still the great beasts of burden until Union Pacific helped finance the Idaho Central Railway between Nampa and a mile west of Boise in 1887.

In the wake of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1492, interest in public gathering places was growing. The world’s fair came just three years after Idaho was admitted as the 43rd state, the same year a young artist, Emma Sarah Etine Edwards, a Californian on her way home from art studies in New York, arrived in Boise for a visit. Edwards ultimately stayed, taught art and won a commission to paint the Great Seal of Idaho, the only woman to create a state seal, which includes a hint of the long fought women’s suffrage movement (Idaho would be one of the first states to grant women the right to vote). Edward’s Great Seal painting was installed in the popular Idaho Building at the Chicago fair.

Walter E. Pierce, another founding father and Boise mayor (1895), thought of recreational space as a commercial venture. The year Julia Davis died, 1907, the W.E. Pierce Company bought 185 acres downriver from Boise for an amusement park. It opened on Labor Day and was named after Pierce. The park was also venue for some of Edwards’ paintings. By about 1912, the park included a bandstand, refreshments, tennis courts, croquet, a shallow, man-made lake used for row boating and a dance pavilion. Visitors bought tickets and entered through an arched gate on Valley Road, now called State Street. The open space remained private and eventually became today’s exclusive Plantation Country Club.

‘Idaho’s Central Park’

August 29, 2016 – Boise’s Municipal Park has a new name after the city dedicated the 28-acre park to three-time Olympic gold medal cyclist Kristin Armstrong.

Davis donated the first 43 acres for Julia Davis Park after his Julia died in 1907, the year the Idaho State Historical Society was created as a state agency. John Hailey was its first secretary and librarian. Family connections to Idaho heritage in its parks run deep, as it does at Julia Davis. Davis descendants are still active raising funds for upcoming projects and maintenance on the property that was purposefully also a town dump of sorts as the city worked to shore up the veritable wetland for today’s amenities.

Seasonal docent tours at Julia Davis tell the history of Boise’s ever-expanding urban park system. Julia Davis, at 89.4 acres today, is home to the Boise Art Museum, Zoo Boise, the Discovery Center of Idaho, the Idaho Black History Museum, Richard & Annette Bloch Cancer Survivor Plaza, pedal boats, and, of course, the exquisite Rose Gardens. The Idaho State Historical Museum building is currently undergoing renovation. Interpretation and programing is temporarily being conducted in the original Bureau of Reclamation building completed in 1912 on Broadway Avenue nearby.

Now in its second century of development, Julia Davis is “Idaho’s Central Park,” said Janet Gallimore, executive director and state historic preservation officer for the Idaho State Historical Society. As a node of intersection, Julia Davis Park offers a window into history of the entire state. It even promises a first nations’ sanctioned look at tribal origin stories when the Idaho State Historical Museum reopens on the park campus in March 2018 with a 16,000 square-foot facelift. Again, parks are going hand in hand with Boise’s story.

Honoring Community Leaders

Projects in honor of community leaders are a big part of the Boise park story. A dedication of one of Boise’s first parks took place last August just upstream from the football stadium and Julia Davis Park in honor of Boisean Kristin Armstrong, a strong advocate of youth athletics, director of community health at St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center and the winningest of U.S. cycling’s Olympic gold medal winners. She won her third consecutive Olympic time trial gold in Rio de Janeiro earlier in August.

The New Kristin Armstrong Municipal Park is on former Boise School District property that was slated for a baseball stadium in 1910 and became a favorite riverside car-camping site named the Boise Tourist Park campground in 1918. According to Boise’s Parks and Recreation historians, “By the end of World War I, traffic to the campground increased to 20,000 cars a year and it became difficult to maintain the park … In 1927, the city of Boise bought the land and named it Boise Municipal Campground. Over the next decade, the park gained a reputation as a “hobo and gypsy jungle,” so it was closed in 1938 … and then turned into a day/general use park.”

“The pride we’ve all felt each time Kristin won will forever be memorialized here in the name of this park,” said Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, at the naming ceremony in the park. “Future generations of Boiseans will always know her name, her accomplishments and her meaning to our community.”

Replete with namesake green spaces like Julia Davis, the other big honorific parks are Ann Morrison (construction) and Kathryn Albertson (groceries), parks that join at Americana Boulevard, and the newly named Esther Simplot Park (potatoes) that opened last fall. By their names, ten “Ribbon of Jewels” parks honor the city’s matriarchs in a tradition that marks successful moments when commerce, service and community have come together to create public outdoor space.

Boise’s extensive park system, which ranks 43rd in the Trust for Public Land’s latest ParkScore of the country’s top 100 city park systems, is a source of civic pride with ongoing public and private support. Boise’s parks and recreation sites include parks, pools, off-leash pet areas, and projects like the Boise River Park, an expanding whitewater park constructed with automated, in-stream wave-shaping equipment (see story on page xx). Phase one of the river park is complete with two more community supported, in-river projects on the way.

The popularity of River Park project is one of the latest testaments to the city’s goals for sustainable growth, and an example of how development of the river and parks go hand in hand. Consider one of many side notes about Boise’s numerous action-oriented parks: for those willing to step off their skateboards at Rhodes Park, adjacent parcours obstacles are due this summer.

The Greenbelt and Beyond

Zoo Boise is part of the now 89.4-acre Julia Davis Park. Other attractions in the park include the Boise Art Museum, the Discovery Center of Idaho, and the Idaho Black History Museum.

Although the original Idaho State Capitol wouldn’t be completed until 1912, the start of the 20th Century was an optimistic beginning for Boise settlers who learned to master their environment on cheap land, but it wasn’t without its setbacks. Efforts to create a public recreation and alternative transportation corridor along the river wouldn’t begin to coalesce until 50 years ago, 1967, when three small parcels of land were donated to the city to launch the notion of a Greenbelt. The Board of Parks Commissioners adopted the first Greenbelt plan and guidelines in 1968. The first Greenbelt Ordinance, adopted in 1971, required a minimum setback of 70 feet for all structures and parking areas. The City of Boise continued to piece together land along the corridor through purchase, exchange, leasing, and private, civic and corporate property donations.

“Acquiring and preserving adequate open space for the benefit of the public is an uphill battle,” writes former parks director Gordon S. Bowen (1956-1978) in his 2002 book, “Boise’s Parks: A Trust and A Cause.” “Powerful interests seek to exploit lands that are ideally suited for public use. The message I hope to convey is that, against the odds, the battle is winnable. Many selfless people are engaged in this effort. I hope to encourage many more to take up the cause.”

A small product of dedication to the pro-parks platform is the Gordon S. Bowen Park, a mini-park with a playground, drinking fountains and bike racks named in honor of Bowen. Bowen Park was acquired with funds from the Federal Housing and Urban Development’s Model Cities Program, developed in 1983, and dedicated in 1991.

Since Bowen’s book was published, Boise has continued its push for park space. When counting the great number of people who travel to the Capitol for work and play, data shows that Boiseans themselves are actually the minority of people who use the parks.

Daily, thousands of commuters pass through or along Boise park boundaries. Many stop to enjoy everything from bird watching and cricket matches to mountain biking or even a smoke in one of the rectangles of the park space or on the public golf courses where that’s allowed.

There have been many champions of Boise’s parks, beginning with Tom Davis and continuing on today with Mayor Dave Bieter. His message is one that speaks to the future, promoting the parks as part of the city’s sustainability goals. It is an approach that stresses “lasting environments, innovative enterprises and vibrant communities.”

For those living and working in the City of Trees, the ethic of open and public spaces is a time-honored one. It is belief that burgeoning commerce and places for repose don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, they may need each other for a community to thrive.

Boise Park and Tree Statistics

The Boise park system comprises 90 park sites (77 developed, 13 undeveloped), six pool sites, three cemeteries, two golf courses, 27 rights-of-ways, the Boise River Greenbelt, 16 open space sites and eight other facilities and miscellaneous properties.

There are approximately 1,646 park and pool acres, 68 cemetery acres, 301 golf course acres, 86 rights-of-way acres, 4,331 open space acres, 19 facility owned properties and 25 miles of Greenbelt.

Kristin’s Park (not the same as Kristin Armstrong Municipal Park) is the smallest at 0.04 acres. Simplot Sports Complex is the largest with 159.04 acres

According to the 2015 Community Forestry Strategic Management Plan, Boise’s community forest:

  • Reduced storm water runoff and erosion, which saved $485,000 in reduced storm water infrastructure costs.
  • Provided shade that saved $381,300 in summer cooling costs
  • Improved air quality that resulted in $3.3 million in reduced health impacts
This article appears in the Spring 2017 Issue of Territory Magazine.