We are East Idaho: Idaho Falls

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EastIdahoNews.com is spending the year introducing you to places and people that make east Idaho special. In our We Are East Idaho series, we're going on a road trip and sharing things you may not know about this beautiful place we call home.

IDAHO FALLS — Sid Larkin was plastered when he entered the brothel on the island that Christmas Eve morning in 1894.

“He came to my room with a crazed look in his eyes. He was ranting and raving and shouted, ‘Remember what I told you?'” an actor portraying Josie Hill, Larkin’s wife, says in a dramatized history produced by the Museum of Idaho.

The couple had not been married very long. They met in a Salt Lake City jail three years before, where Hill was held for her suspected part in a Utah killing.

Hill’s mother told her “business was good” in the brothel on the island and persuaded her daughter to return to “her former ways of life.” Larkin did not approve of his wife’s occupation, and his drinking took a downward turn as a result. If he ever saw her with another man, he swore he would kill her.

They came to the “City of Destiny,” as it was advertised back then, seeking escape and a new way of life. Their troubles, however, were about to get a lot worse.

Photo Gallery: Idaho Falls

Larkin, a notorious gambler, had just returned from dealing faro, a gambling card game, at one of the saloons in town. When he entered the house that morning, he found his wife in her “night clothes.” There was another man in the room, and the two of them were chatting.

Larkin grabbed his gun, pointed it at his wife and pulled the trigger. The bullet went right through her back and lodged in her stomach.

“(Two men) saw him running out the door without his hat,” the museum’s dramatized history says. “He tried to shoot himself twice, missed both times. He high tailed it down the river. Four hours later, Deputy Sheriff Boyles and Constable Cline found him hiding in the willows with a four-inch gash in his neck. That didn’t finish him either. A half dozen stitches was all it took to patch him up.”

Larkin was arrested and taken to jail in Blackfoot.

Three doctors attended to Hill’s wounds, but she died 13 days later, on January 6, 1895.

“He was a real treasure with the ladies,” Hill says in the museum’s dramatized account. “He could get away with just about anything with his easy manner and good looks.”

Blaming his actions on drinking and “dissolute women,” Larkin gained sympathy from some of the town’s female crowd. Nearly three years later, after standing trial and being found guilty of murder, Larkin was sentenced to hang. He was executed on April 30, 1897.

An artistic rendering of Sid Larkin and Josie Hill from an early newspaper clipping | Courtesy Museum of Idaho

The memory of the violent murder has faded over time but remains a distinctive part of Idaho Falls’ early history. Carrie Anderson Athay, the curator at the Museum of Idaho, says the story is reminiscent of something you’d see in any western film. But this one is true.

“To begin with, maybe not your highest class of people were coming to town. It really was a rugged, wild west town with a lot of saloons, a lot of prostitution and everything you can think of was going on,” she tells EastIdahoNews.com.

The brothel that was once a thriving place of business no longer exists, but the bridge that led to it is still in use today. The island in the historical account is now the location of the Japanese Gardens in downtown Idaho Falls.

The beginnings of Idaho Falls

Matt Taylor built the bridge in what was then Eagle Rock in 1864 to freight goods across the river more efficiently. Once a permanent bridge was in place, a small community began to grow. The advent of the railroad in 1879 attracted a lot of new business, and by the mid-1880s, several thousand people were living in Eagle Rock.

“In 1890, (the city fathers) began debating on changing the name (of the town) because the railroad had pulled out and had taken their machine shops to Pocatello,” says Athay. “This town shrunk when the railroad shops left, and there was a great fear that the town would fold.”

The name Eagle Rock did not entice people to come here, she says, so in 1891, the name was officially changed to Idaho Falls: The City of Destiny.

The giant waterfall is the city’s most distinctive feature today, but at that time, it was nothing more than a small set of rapids that led into a canyon where the river narrowed.

“But when you think about the idea of a falls, you think of big waterfalls and lots of water,” Athay says.

The waterfall concept was attractive to people looking for new opportunities in a desolate land, and it brought a wide variety of people. Larkin and Hill came, and five years earlier, a woman named Minnie Gibson had purchased a one-way ticket out west and ended up becoming one of Idaho Falls’ most respected citizens.

A fixture in Idaho Falls’ history

Gibson arrived in Idaho Falls in 1889 with her mother and sister. She was 17 years old and got a job clerking in the Anderson Brothers store. She demonstrated keen skills with numbers and worked her way into a teller position at the bank. She eventually became a loan officer and later a member of the bank’s board of directors.

“She helped a lot of people who struggled. There were people who had been swindled by purchasing land that was overpriced (because it was not in the condition it was promised),” Athay says. “Minnie helped many of them by providing loans based on character, not collateral. She had the lowest number of bank defaults of any banker in the entire region.”

One of the people Gibson helped was a man named Frank Hitt. Hitt had come to Idaho Falls to get a start in sheep ranching. Gibson invested some of her own money in Hitt’s cause.

She had a special affinity for the nightlife and often was about town at parties and dances. She loved wearing fancy gowns, and would occasionally run into Hitt in these settings.

“He was well known around town and was well thought of by the ladies because he was a handsome, dapper young man,” says Athay.

The two began dating, and in 1901, were engaged.

Frank and Minnie Hitt | Courtesy Museum of Idaho

In July of that year, Hitt decided to attend the wedding of a friend in Blackfoot. He went in his brand new carriage and while there, offered a ride to several ladies in attendance.

“One lady declined, but another lady hopped right in there, and she went on a ride with Frank for several hours. Later, Frank dropped her off at her home, where she was met by her husband,” Athay says.

The husband had a shotgun in hand. He shot Hitt several times for “galavanting” around town with his wife.

“Word got back to Minnie. It looked like Frank was not going to survive the shooting. So she went to Blackfoot, brought him back to Idaho Falls, and married him as soon as they got back here,” says Athay.

Hitt did survive, and according to Athay, Frank and Minnie had a wonderful marriage. But questions still surround Minnie’s intentions when she married him that day.

“Perhaps this is the greatest love story, or perhaps (her decision to marry him was) because she invested heavily in his sheep farms and wanted to protect her investment,” Athay says.

Either way, the couple remained a fixture in the community for the rest of their lives. He died in 1918. They never had any children, but the home they built in 1903 is still standing. It’s at 288 North Ridge Avenue across from the First Presbyterian Church.

This home at 288 North Ridge Avenue in Idaho Falls was built by Frank and Minnie Hitt in 1903, and is used today for people transitioning out of homelessness. | Natalia Hepworth, EastIdahoNews.com

“Before she died, (Minnie) left it to the church so it could continue to serve the community and be a house for people who needed it,” Athay says. “It’s used today for people who are transitioning out of homelessness, so (Minnie Hitt) continues to serve the community today.”

Hitt Road, one of Idaho Falls’ busiest streets, was named in her honor and carries on her memory today.

“Idaho Falls started as a place of opportunity,” Athay says. “It was a wild west town. There were crazy things that went on here. In some ways, we still have a little bit of the wild west mentality where you can come out and work hard, and you can accomplish all sorts of things. I think we see that in our community today.”

Resurgence in downtown

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in downtown Idaho Falls, which overlooks the Snake River, and the surrounding greenbelt trail on the Idaho Falls Riverwalk is a far cry from the city’s violent beginnings as a western frontier town. Today, Idaho Falls is an active family community with a large faith-based population and serves as a gateway to many outdoor recreational sites.

Downtown Idaho Falls was the center of activity for many years and has seen a resurgence recently with many development projects.

“(Nationwide), downtowns tell a community’s story, and there’s renewed interest in being there,” says Brad Cramer, executive director of the Idaho Falls Redevelopment Agency. “In Idaho Falls, people were waiting for that first project, something to push it over the edge and get the ball rolling on redevelopment.”

One of the projects intended to spur growth in downtown, according to Cramer, was the renovation of the Bonneville Hotel.

RELATED: Bonneville Hotel renovation on track for fall

The Bonneville Hotel was built in 1927. The Chamber of Commerce and members of the community wanted to offer first-class accommodations to people traveling through town on the railroad. They came together and raised funds for the project.

Bonneville Hotel historic photo | Courtesy Idaho Falls Downtown Development Corporation

“That building is a story of a community coming together and providing what they thought the community needed,” Cramer says. “To have this be a private-public partnership again (for the remodel) is a nice tribute to that original history.”

At the time of its construction, The Bonneville Hotel was the largest hotel in eastern Idaho. It functioned as a hotel for more than 40 years before it was converted into apartment housing. A popular Chinese restaurant remained in operation on the main floor until the mid-1990s. People were still living there until renovations began last year.

Cramer says the remodel will maintain the building’s historical appearance. The completed project will include 35 apartments on the top floor, with multiple vendors on the main floor. It is slated for completion this fall.

Another project that’s contributed to the growth in downtown is The Broadway development on Memorial Drive and Broadway.

RELATED: Downtown Idaho Falls celebrates opening of The Broadway

Developers and city officials celebrated the opening of The Broadway several weeks ago. Several tenants currently occupy the new development, including Smokin’ Fins and Lucy’s New York Style Pizzeria, as well as Bank of Idaho and Parsons, Behle and Latimer law office. The middle of the plaza has a splash pad, and an underground parking garage is on the north side of the development.

Steve Carr, a business partner with the development company, Oppenheimer Development Corporation, said The Broadway was set in motion about three years ago, but it’s been a vision for about 20 years.

“The hope was to engage more people in downtown Idaho Falls. It’s been 30 years since downtown has had any new construction. We’ve had a lot of remodels, and we love the historic part of downtown, but marrying something new with the historic was important to bring new life and excitement in downtown,” Carr says.

The development still has vacant property. Developers plan to offer an ice skating rink in the plaza during the winter months to continue engaging people all year round.

“The city is growing. It’s dynamic,” Carr says. “Private-public partnerships are essential to growth, and it all comes back to benefit the city in multiple ways. It’s a win-win.”

Other projects happening in downtown include renovations on the old Ferrell’s building, which was a popular clothing store for more than 68 years. The owners, Dana and Teneal Wright, opened a new store at 3194 South 25th East in March. Jayce Howell, the developer overseeing the remodel, says a new tenant has not yet been determined.

RELATED: Ferrell’s clothing store in downtown I.F. moving to new location

The Colonial Theater, another historic building in downtown, is celebrating its centennial this year. The Idaho Falls Arts Council is inviting you to celebrate with a number of events happening throughout the year, including a concert with Emmy and Tony Award winning actress Kristin Chenoweth in October. More details and a full schedule of events is available on the theater’s centennial website.

Several beautification projects in downtown got underway last month and will be completed later this summer. Multiple murals are in the works as well.

RELATED: Where have all the trees gone? Beautification project in downtown Idaho Falls getting underway

“We’ve had people in downtown Idaho Falls for more than 20 years working so hard to get (all the redevelopment) going. It’s a lot of hard work over many years of momentum growth,” says Catherine Smith, executive director of Idaho Falls Downtown Development Corporation. “It’s our duty to continue to work hard and (keep the momentum going).”

Idaho Falls today

From the construction of that first bridge in 1864, Idaho Falls has grown into a thriving city for business and continues to be a place of opportunity for those who live there.

More than 61,000 people call Idaho Falls home, according to the United States Census, and tens of thousands of others visit for camping, fishing, skiing or other activities every year. One draw is the annual Melaleuca Freedom Celebration every Independence Day at Snake River Landing. It’s proudly billed as the largest fireworks show west of the Mississippi River and visitors have a blast (literally).

“We started small. We started with an idea of how we could use resources to our benefit and then how we can grow that into a strong and thriving community,” Athay says. “I think we continue to do that.”

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