The City of Eagle: Yesterday and Today
By Laurie Baker, Curator, Eagle Historical Museum
All photos courtesy of Eagle Historical Museum
Nowhere in Idaho can you find a community as dynamic as today’s City of Eagle. Well-planned, family-oriented and with a finely-honed appreciation of both small-town aesthetics and its rural roots, the modern City of Eagle has grown from a sleepy village of 350 in 1970 to today’s bustling community of just under 20,000. Located near the Boise River, it has as much to offer newcomers today as it had to offer those who came in the mid-nineteenth century.
Eagle’s early history was set in motion when gold was discovered in the Boise Basin in 1862 as well as in other Idaho mountain locations farther north. Many chose to seek their fortune mining, but a select few came to understand that the mining towns desperately needed the agricultural products that were fast becoming the mainstay of Boise and its river valley to the west, and they centered their efforts on those needs.
Truman C. Catlin was one of those farsighted settlers who quickly realized that his real gold was to be found in farming. An Illinois native, Catlin used a preemption claim to acquire 160 acres on Eagle Island during the last half of 1863. Originally naming his island home after his native state, Catlin was soon persuaded to rename the island to reflect the large number of bald eagles that made it their home as well.
Together with his neighbor, Polete Mace, Catlin also built the first irrigation ditch in the area in 1864. This original attempt at irrigation diverted enough water from the Boise River to irrigate 700 acres on the island and initiated a 40-year effort by local settlers to bring water and crops to ever higher elevations. The natural outcome of these efforts was the nine major canals that by 1903 had been constructed to irrigate what is today’s Eagle.
Despite these early efforts of Catlin and Mace, the development of Eagle as a settlement owes its place in history to a Nova Scotian surveyor by the name of Thomas Hugh Aikens. Although the year of Aikens's arrival in the area cannot be neatly pinned down, his first water right to the Boise River involving property on Eagle Island can be dated to mid-1877. Just six years later, in 1883, Aikens married Mary Conway, daughter of Henry B. Conway, a founder of Boise who had a home and stage station east of Eagle's present downtown, and moved with his new bride to a homestead on the island.
In the early 1890s Aikens began to purchase property on the north bank of the Boise River, directly across the channel from his Eagle Island holdings. This property made him the proud owner of frontage on the south side of Valley Road (now State Street), at that time the main highway between Boise and the small towns to the west. Moving his family from the island to his new development, Aikens began a lengthy campaign to have the county build a bridge across the Boise River that would anchor his two properties. His sparring partner in this effort was the settlement of Star, six miles to the west.
When Star questioned the need of a largely empty town site to have a bridge, the county commissioners decided to take the issue to the voters. Aikens responded with a little act of theatre that definitely proved to his advantage. Without hesitation he hired a fancy touring carriage and proceeded to transport residents of the Old Soldiers Home on what is now Veterans Parkway to the polls, offering them a complimentary picnic as a bonus. As a result, Eagle emerged victorious in the bridge site vote.
The mere prospect of a bridge proved a boon to the fledgling community. In 1900, carpenter William Goodall and other local fathers built Enterprise School to keep their children from having to travel three miles to the next closest school. This was followed by a grocery store in 1902 and an Odd Fellows Hall, built by retired teamster John Carpenter.
In 1904, Aikens and Carpenter joined forces in their development efforts. Their partnership resulted in Carpenter's agreeing to plat and sell fifteen acres as a part of Aikens's new Township of Eagle. Shortly thereafter the first, small class in a newly organized high school held a vote on the township name. "Eagle" was the name proffered by Aikens’s daughter, Clara, and so the township was officially named.
Other than the construction of the Eagle Island Bridge, nothing affected the future of Eagle as much as the coming of the interurban trolley down Valley Road on August 7, 1907. Used by commuters, freight movers and "day tourists," the trolley would, by 1915, connect Eagle to all the cities and towns in the valley via the "Boise Valley Loop."
The economic boost the trolley line provided the small township is written in its business development. In 1906, a young pharmacist by the name of L. B. Harris opened the Eagle Drug Store. In 1916, the drug store moved into a new commercial block and, with this relocation, expanded to include a soda fountain and became a popular draw for trolley passengers. In the 1920s, Orville Jackson would further expand Harris's original Eagle Drug Store into a general store of regional fame.
Eagle also acquired a bank and hotel early in the trolley era. Operating for its first three years from the Eagle Drug Store, the bank moved in 1910 to a handsome bank building that was built at the northwest corner of Valley Road and 1stStreet. Not to be outdone, Thomas Aikens built his two-story, 16-room residence hotel across Valley Road from the bank. Both the bank and the hotel still center Eagle's downtown, the former as Da Vinci's restaurant and the latter as commercial office space.
The 1910s also played host to Eagle's development as a food processing center. In 1913 the Boise Valley Packing Company introduced custom meat cutting. The "Eagle Brand" label was first introduced by this company and, despite flooding and fire disasters, it remained viable for 76 years. The Boise Valley Cooperative Creamery of Meridian started a branch operation of its cheese factory in Eagle the same year the packing house began operation and during the teens O. F. Short ran a prune packinghouse near his cobblestone home west of downtown.
In 1928 the trolley became a victim of the automobile, but this did not seem to hurt the developing community financially. Just two short years later, in March of 1930, the State of Idaho opened the Eagle Island Prison Farm with 40 prisoners, a facility that was expanded continually throughout the decade. Then, in 1937, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game opened the Eagle Island Fish Hatchery right next door to the prison farm.
Following World War II, the community continued to grow and flourish, though the 1960s were witness to a previously unparalleled spurt of institutional and infrastructure growth. Just one example was the founding in 1963 of the Eagle Public Library. Begun originally as a volunteer effort, its growth trajectory steadily made it the thriving public library it is today with a collection of over 98,000 volumes and a circulation of over 301,000 items per year.
When Eagle's community businessmen decided to form an incorporation committee in October of 1970, they were likely motivated by a variety of factors, some of which gave them pause. Voicing their concerns, they were able to convince enough of the citizenry of the need for incorporation that a successful petition to that affect was brought before the Ada County Commission and on February 26, 1971, the County Commissioners approved Eagle as a new city.
The new little metropolis got off to a bumpy start. It received no property tax revenue until January, 1973; in fact, until that time the city was little more than the mayor's telephone and what he could store in the trunk of his car. In May of 1974, however, the Eagle Library Board turned over the deed of its small, storefront building to the city. The City then spent $1,500 remodeling the building, placing a small city hall office at the front of the library. Over the next fifteen years monthly meetings of the city council were held around a desk at the back of the library as attendees sat in the aisles between the bookshelves.
From these modest beginnings, today's City of Eagle emerged. The Eagle Historical Museum, currently located in the original public library building, opened in October of 2001 and attests to modern-day Eagle's sense of its current place in the Idaho landscape as well as the debt it owes its past. No community exists in a vacuum. Its continued growth and development reflect not only the visions it has for the future, but what also was brought to these possibilities by those who came before. Were Thomas Aikens, Truman C. Catlin, Polete Mace and those many other determined settlers who envisioned a community worth striving for still with us today, they undoubtedly would be very pleased with Eagle's living reflection of their efforts.