Everyone loves the Wild-Wild West! Hundreds and hundreds of page-turning books, classic movies, and action-packed TV shows have been a huge part of popular culture for a very long time. People love to hear facts and stories about the old west, and many of those great tales you will hear come from the Gem State itself… Idaho! Old penitentiaries, ghost towns, and museums all across the state will show you the great history about the Idaho wild west!
A famous old jailhouse in Boise known as the Idaho State Penitentiary (built in 1872 was home to some of the most infamous of wild west criminals, including “Bub” Meeks, Lydia “Lady Bluebeard” Southard and “Diamond” Jack. The prison has been home to around 13,000 inmates (It would hold about 600 at a time. The facility offers a fascinating tour, where you will learn all about inhabitants like Harry Orchard, who was locked up for Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg, and you’ll get to check out eerie places like the gallows and solitary confinement, you’ll even learn all about inmates who managed to escape from the old prison. Several riots have occurred there over the years, in 1952, 1971, and 1973, due to inmates being upset about the facility’s living conditions. This ultimately led to the prison’s close in December of 1973, and the current residents were moved to the Idaho State Correctional Institution (ISCI). The facility is now on the National Register of Historic Places and has museums and very interesting historical sites to check out. This penitentiary is absolutely a must-see for those wanting to learn more about Idaho’s old west history.
In late 1860, Elias D. Pierce and others with him discovered that there was gold in the Gem state along the Orofino Creek. Word spread quickly and soon the Idaho Gold Rush had begun, which would turn out to be the largest gold rush since the famous one in California a decade earlier. The discovery of gold in Idaho drew about 20,000 prospectors to search all across the state, building many mining towns. Things really started to pick up when, in 1962, gold was found in the Boise Basin. Even long after gold prospecting had ended in Northern Idaho, Boise basin and Southern Idaho still had mining for another 90 years! In 1963 Silver mines were found in what is now Silver City, Idaho, which turned out to be a wealthier prospect for many in the area.
The mining towns that resulted from all of this prospecting now results in many “ghost towns” all over the state. Anyone with interest in the old west should definitely pay one of these towns a visit. Silver City, like we mentioned earlier, is one of the more interesting towns in the state, as it has been left pretty much the same since the early 1900s, with many old buildings there outlasting the 19th and early 20th centuries, and are still there for you to check out today. Another great mining town to check out is Idaho City, which, because of the gold rush, was the biggest city in the Northwest in the 1860s. There were more than 50 businesses in the town, from saloons to barber shops to opera houses. While Silver City remained intact after the gold rush, not being destroyed by fire, Idaho City was victim to wildfires on several occasions after the gold started to dwindle and the town was abandoned. Luckily, the town has been beautifully and accurately reconstructed in the years since and Idaho City is still a great tourist attraction in Idaho, especially to anyone wanting to pay a visit to the old west.
We would be remiss to discuss the history of Idaho’s wild west without talking about some of its most dangerous outlaws. The population growth of Idaho in the 1860s led to all kinds of people popping up in the Gem state, including those who didn’t always have the best intentions in mind. One of the most infamous of these is a gambler named Henry Plummer, who, after moving to Idaho became the leader of a gang in Lewiston. Plummer basically ran all of the crime in the area, essentially being chief among all the outlaws. Born in Maine in 1832 he was originally brought to the west by his desire to go to California in the 50s. He had what is called the “gold rush fever” and wanted to make a profit that way. After spending time in Nevada County trying to earn money, he became the town marshal of the area. Plummer’s reputation as a criminal began when he shot a man named John Vedder, allegedly in self-defense. Eventually, the gold rush led him north, which is what brought him to Lewiston. Famous members of Plummer’s Idaho gang included a cattle thief called Bunton and gunfighters named Charles Ridgley and Charley Reeves. There is a lot to learn about Henry Plummer and what his true intentions were.
Butch Cassidy might be the most legendary outlaw of the wild west, and, while not a native to Idaho, was certainly not a stranger to the Gem state. The Bank of Montpelier near the Utah border caught Cassidy’s eye in the early 1890s. A mere five years after the bank opened, Cassidy and his gang barged through the front doors and while the gang backed everybody up against the wall, Cassidy made his getaway with $15,000. What results is a fascinating place to visit to see the life of an outlaw in Idaho, as the original bank has been restored and stands as a museum today, with evidence of Cassidy’s heist. What makes this attraction so great is that it is the only bank that the infamous Butch Cassidy robbed that still stands today.
So, whether you find fascination in old ghost towns, the gold rush fever of the 1800s, outlaws and the crimes they committed, or the old prison where many of these criminals were kept, there is plenty of attractions to bring wild-west history buffs to a fun and worthwhile trip to the Gem state.