On Feb. 11, Idaho will pass another anniversary, six years away from the centennial mark since it last created a new county. Caribou County, hacked away from Bannock County in 1919, is the youngest, though by only three days: Jerome County was formed the previous Saturday, its territory taken from Gooding and Lincoln counties (Jerome being situated in the middle).
These were not rare instances. Twenty counties, almost half of Idaho’s current 44, were formed in the decade of the 1910s, all carved out of pieces of other counties. Most have in common relatively small geographical areas and small to midsized populations. Idaho’s smallest county, Payette, was formed in 1917 from Canyon County. There was Adams in 1911 (from Washington), Benewah in 1915 (from Kootenai), Boundary in 1915 (from Bonner), Camas in 1917 (from Blaine), Lewis in 1911 (from Nez Perce), and so on. Many more Idaho counties were formed in the 1910s than in any other decade.
One reason may have been a population boom. Idaho’s head count doubled from 1900 to 1910, and by about half again during the 1910s. Many of the counties that split up in the 1910s had experienced huge growth. Lincoln County, which was split three times, went from 1,784 people in 1900 to 12,676 in 1910. In 1920, after the cutups, Lincoln was back down to 3,446, about where it has remained since.
Another reason probably was transportation and transportation expectations. The first two decades of the 20th century were transitional, between an established but lightly-populated state, and a state with significant population. In 1900, Idaho’s population was about 162,000, fairly close to Nampa plus Meridian today. In 1920, it reached 432,000, making Idaho a whole different kind of place. Commerce and other reasons for travel were booming.
Travel infrastructure hadn’t kept up. Early in the new century there were a few wagon roads, but mostly little more than trails. The first state highway commission was not created until 1907. The first stretch of hard-surfaced road (five miles in the Fort Hall-Blackfoot area, on the route from Pocatello to Idaho Falls, roughly the current Highway 91) was built in 1911. Even that was no prize; a state transportation history noted that “so difficult was this stretch of roads for teams and automobiles that it was marked as especially bad on automobile maps. It fully deserved this reputation, for during the greater portion of the year it was almost, if not wholly, impassible to automobiles, and it was impassible for any but the lightest loads over it with a team.” Other roads doubtless were much worse.
Meaning that in 1919 people in Soda Springs may have been getting awfully tired of driving over the mountains separating the Bear from the Portneuf river basins to get to the courthouse in Pocatello, and started agitating for more local county services. Even in flatter country, the difficulties of transportation must have had an effect. Rather than build a new highway system, Idahoans just created more counties.
Leading to question, since for some decades now Idaho has had perfectly passable highways between nearly all of its communities: Does the state still need 44 counties? Might we revisit just how many really are needed in the day of Internet and I-can’t-drive 55? The centennial decade of the rapid creation of so many counties might be as good a time as any.
Randy Stapilus is co-author of Idaho 100: The people who most influenced the Gem State. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.