When we talk about how to make our communities grow—and the state, and the nation—we often get fuzzy. Ideology tends to take over, and it seldom teaches us much.

We learn a good deal from hard, concrete data, and in Idaho’s case there’s a load of it in a new multi-volume history book project just out from the Association of Idaho Cities, edited and partly written by former legislator Hal Bunderson. (Disclosure: I am the publisher.) The books in the series called “Idaho’s 200 Cities”—one each for the north, southwest and east regions of the state, plus three books of trivia questions and answers—include about 1,600 pages of fine grain detail about the founding and development of each of Idaho’s cities, from Boise to barely-there Warm River.

The sections that most grabbed my attention were those in each city’s chapter called “turning points.” In these, each city outlined what development, for good or ill, most contributed to developing the city in the direction it ultimately went, especially those that founded it and set it on its course. These sections were contributed by the cities themselves.

The most influential simple development by far, to judge from the number of times it was listed as the top or second turning point, was the arrival or departure of the railroad. We look at railroads now and tend not to see them as especially basic elements of most communities. But they once were.

Some Idaho communities are well known even today as railroad towns, such as Nampa, Pocatello and Shoshone. We don’t often associate any more most small and rural communities with an important rail presence. But places like Spencer and Leadore, Donnelly, Arimo, Parma,Troy, New Meadows, Ferdinand, Homedale, Kooskia, Glenns Ferry, Fruitland, Stites, Acequia, Cambridge, Tensed, Oldtown, Moyie Springs, Midvale, Mountain Home, Huetter, Bliss, Rathdrum all said the railroad’s arrival was central to their existence. Blackfoot “owes its origins to the Utah and Northern Railroad.” Clark Fork “had its origins as a railroad town.” Caldwell “had its origins as a railroad town.” And on and on.

Sun Valley too, and not just because of the Harriman family connection in founding the resort there.

Even in places like Moscow, where the University of Idaho was soon to be a major shifting point, railroad was listed as the initial turning point,

What was in a distant second place after the railroad? Acts of Congress, mainly the Desert Land Act, the Homestead Act, the Dawes Severalty Act and (especially in the Magic Valley and the Carey Act, for expanding irrigation. Many of the Magic Valley and southwestern Idaho communities called these pivotal, even above the railroads.

State laws relating to alcohol and gambling were the specific reasons a number of cities, including Chubbuck, Garden City and Island Park, were created. Forts were the main reason Boise and Coeur d’Alene grew where they did. For the 43 cities which are county seats (little Murphy in Owyhee County is unincorporated), those government offices were highly important too.

Developing resource industries were critical components too, of course. Mining was the pivot for a number of mainly mountain communities (Salmon, Bellevue, Hailey, Pierce, Idaho City and the Silver Valley communities among them). And similarly, sawmills were the seed for a number of others, such as McCall, Elk River, East Hope, Winchester and Cascade.

But most of Idaho’s cities, like many cities elsewhere, were planted or designated by outside forces, a national railroad or federal government, as much or more as they were by local people. An uneasy reality, but worth pondering as Idahoans plan for their communities in the generations to come.

Randy Stapilus is a former Idaho newspaper reporter and editor and blogs at www.ridenbaugh.com. He can be reached at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.

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