We Are East Idaho: Pocatello
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POCATELLO — Nestled in a mountain valley on the banks of the Portneuf River is a community that was instrumental in helping shape the Gem State and much of the Pacific Northwest during its early years.
Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad refers to his city colloquially as “The Gateway to the Northwest.” Other residents simply call Pocatello “The Gate City.”
It’s an apt name, as the city was founded in 1889 as a junction point to bring settlers and miners from across the county to opportunities in Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Montana and California.
The Oregon Trail passed through the Portneuf Gap, just south of Pocatello, which brought thousands of wagon trains across the region for much of the 1800s.
But it was the railway that really opened up the Northwest, and Pocatello was at the heart of it.
‘There is no Pocatello before the railroad’
The mid-to-late 1800s were an exciting time for the Northwest. There were mining opportunities in Montana and California, with the possibility of opening up lucrative trade deals with Asian counties along the West Coast in Washington and Oregon.
Union Pacific Railroad was pushing westward, and the Utah and Northern Railway, operated by a group of Latter-day Saint leaders, was being built north to move workers from Salt Lake City to mines in Montana.
The Fort Hall Reservation had been established in 1868 for the Shoshone and the Bannock tribes. At the time, the reservation was 1.8 million acres of land, which included all of present-day Pocatello. One of their leaders, Chief Pocatello (the city’s namesake), played a role in many treaties that were established during that time.
The reservation didn’t halt rail development though. In 1875, U.S. Congress passed the General Railroad Right of Way Act, allowing railroad companies to purchase up to a 200-foot right-of-way along all of their tracks.
“The railroad right-of-way act allowed railroad companies to go through almost anything — even Indian land,” Bannock County historian Arlen Walker said. “(Congress) was trying to get the West going.”
The right-of-way act meant that as Union Pacific began building the Oregon Short Line Railway from southern Idaho into Oregon, Congress allowed them to buy about 40 acres, just enough for limited supply depot along the tracks. It was called Pocatello Junction, and it included the depot, tents and boxcars for workers, some trading posts, a hotel and saloons.
Pocatello Junction was described as a “rough, wide open town” in the beginning with no formal government, according to “The Early History of Pocatello, Idaho” by Robert L. Wrigley Jr.
“One traveler stated it had ‘all the activity, wickedness, and glaring freedom of an awakening metropolis,'” Wrigley said.
With tracks coming in from Utah, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming, the junction quickly became a major transportation hub. Thousands of workers poured in, and there wasn’t room for them to live. Many illegally squatted on the reservation, which caused tension between Native Americans and the workers.
Even though the squatters were eventually removed, they petitioned the government regarding the lack of space in the right-of-way. And gradually, Congress ceded more of the reservation to the train depot.
In September 1888, Congress approved the Pocatello Townsite Bill, allowing for settlers to live unmolested on the reservation, and a year later, some 1,870 acres were laid-out for the building of the village of Pocatello.
The community grew rapidly, and Union Pacific operations in Blackfoot and Eagle Rock (Idaho Falls) were moved to Pocatello.
“There was finally a place for workers,” Walker said, “The new land was not owned by anyone, and railways had a mandate from the government to do what they needed to do … and they needed workers.”
Pocatello becomes a crossroads of the world
Driven by the constant expansion of Union Pacific, Pocatello quickly established itself as a powerhouse in the burgeoning Gem State.
“During the 20th century, Pocatello is by far the largest city in the region, and for a brief time after World War II, we were the largest city in the state,” Idaho State University history professor Kevin Marsh said. “It was the major population center and major economic center for the region.”
The railway brought in workers from all over the world. Thousands of Italians, Irish, Greeks, Mexicans, Japanese, Chinese and Filipinos all came to the area to work, and they brought their cultures with them.
“When a work force strike or a recession in the nation’s economy caused a layoff at Pocatello, a few of the Italians opened grocery stores, Greeks opened small cafes, a handful of Chinese planted gardens or learned how to sell chop suey. Every kind of import became a part of the whole,” Idaho State Journal reporter Perry Swisher wrote in a 2008 story about the era.
Many of these cultural influences can be seen today.
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church was built in 1915 by 641 Greek immigrants, according to its website. The church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest of two Hellenic Orthodox churches in Idaho. To this day, the congregation holds an annual Greek Festival to celebrate its heritage.
The popular event will be held this year on Aug. 24. More details are here.
There is also a monument on Third Avenue and Lander Street to the so-called “Iron Triangle” or later “Triangle” district in Pocatello. The once-segregated community was home to a large number of African American workers brought up from the south to work. It also became home to many of the other ethnic groups brought to the area.
Although the Triangle neighborhood no longer exists, the momument, erected in 2010, honors the people that lived there and bears the names of 512 families from the neighborhood.
“The wording here talks about the neighborhood, how we came together and the hope we all brought,” Idaho Purce told the Idaho State Journal in 2010. “It speaks of hope here.” Purce grew up in the neighborhood.
Marsh, recalling a newspaper article from early Pocatello history, said the city’s multiculturalism was plain in the early days.
“Something outsiders observed about Pocatello, was that walking down the street you could see more nationalities than the capital had in its entire population,” Marsh said.
Besides diversity, one other side effect of the growing city was a desire for amenities, such as churches, theaters, schools and their own university — although that was a bit of a battle.
Idaho State University
If you’re looking through the lens of the present, Marsh admits it may be hard to understand why Pocatello was chosen to be home for one of Idaho’s three state universities. Today, Boise, Nampa, Meridian and Idaho Falls are larger and growing faster than the Gate City, and Caldwell, Coeur d’Alene and Twin Falls are not far behind.
“It’s good to remember that Pocatello was much more prominent in the state, when the railway was so prominent,” Marsh said.
Even so, getting the university was no easy task. Marsh says in the late 19th and early 20th century there was a firm division between northern and southern legislators over the location of the state capital and the University of Idaho in Moscow.
“It was a big fight in state politics,” Marsh said. “There was an agreement … that the south gets the capital (in Boise) and the north gets the university. So when the people of Pocatello asked for a school, the politicians in north Idaho were not polite. They said absolutely not.”
Eventually a compromise was made, and the Academy of Idaho was founded in 1901 as a residential high school. The school would become a two-year technical school in 1915, and then a branch of the University of Idaho in 1927, which served as a feeder campus to Moscow.
“It wasn’t until World War II comes and reshapes the role of universities and demand for them in America that it became a four-year school,” Marsh said.
Idaho State College officially launched in 1947, it was renamed Idaho State University in 1963.
Today, ISU serves more than 14,500 students (more than the University of Idaho) in about 280 associate, bachelors, masters and doctorate programs. It is the largest employer in Pocatello, and has satellite campuses in Idaho Falls, Meridian and Twin Falls.
ISU has students enrolled from 48 U.S. states and 59 different countries, according to its website.
“It’s great to have one of the state’s four-year universities here,” Mayor Blad said. “It blesses us with so much culture and diversity. The university brings so many people into the community, and it’s wonderful to be a part of that mixing pot.”
The Pocatello of today
Today, the city of Pocatello isn’t quite the economic powerhouse it was during much of the 20th century. But it remains one of Idaho’s major cities, with a population of about 55,000 people with another 10,000 temporary ISU students at any given time.
It also still manages to be a “Gate City.”
The city intersects with two national interstate systems, which bring truckers to Idaho from across the country. Interstate 15 runs from the Mexican border in California to the Canadian border in Montana. Interstate 86 is a 63-mile east-west highway, which runs parallel to part of the original Oregon Trail. It eventually joins with Interstate 84 to Oregon.
The Pocatello Airport, which was previously a World War II U.S. Air Force base, has the second longest runway in the state.
“Almost any airplane that flies can land at the Pocatello Airport,” Blad said.
In 2018, the airport recorded about 90,660 passenger arrivals and departures, according to a city of Pocatello news release.
Union Pacific maintains a significant presence in Pocatello, although a large number of operations have been moved elsewhere.
The Gate City also makes sure that residents are reminded of its history. It has three major museums — the Bannock County Historical Museum, the Idaho Museum of Natural History at ISU, and the Museum of Clean.
It also has a wide range of historic buildings and districts, including Old Town Pocatello. Officials regularly hold entertainment events in Old Town and are working to restore the historical neon lights that were placed on many of the buildings in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s called the Relight the Night initiative.
Blad says Pocatello’s unique history, its businesses, its multiculturalism, and its location all make it a wonderful place to live and an attractive place for new businesses and new residents alike.
“There is something about this community that is endearing and that they love,” Blad said. “They feel like they aren’t just a number but are part of the community immediately. People welcome them with open arms.”