TWIN FALLS — Most of the emigrants who traveled the Oregon Trail in 1859 walked right past Idaho. A year before permanent settlers laid roots here and decades before there was a Twin Falls, several hundred thousand people settled in the West.
Today, the booming town of Twin Falls is home to nearly 50,000 residents, serving as the economic base to some 200,000 people in the eight counties of the Magic Valley — a startling number considering the near absence of naturally appearing water in this desert.
In the 2020 U.S. Census, Twin Falls is set to officially hit 50,000 people, defining it as an urbanized area. What does that mean for a place that’s defined itself as rugged and rural, and how did we get here?
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in 1862 — a year before Idaho became a territory — to encourage Western settlement.
In the next decade, a few hardy souls began to stake claims in south-central Idaho. Cattlemen brought in herds to graze the hills and others moved into the Snake River Canyon in search of gold. Others made their livings ferrying miners across the Snake River or selling provisions to travelers.
Homesteaders settled in the South Hills and at the mouths of Rock Creek and Dry Creek, where they raised livestock and farmed. Tiny communities formed at Albion and Rock Creek — both on the Oregon Trail. Other communities such as Almo, Elba, Marion and Oakley formed in massive Cassia County, covering all of south-central Idaho south of the Snake River.
Still, the only sign of population in what would later become Twin Falls was a stage stop — two miles downstream from modern-day Rock Creek Park — called the Desert Station.
By the end of the 19th century, most of the inhabitable land in the West had been claimed. But desert land in Wyoming, Nevada and Idaho remained undeveloped. The U.S. government understood it would take a special effort to attract settlers to such lands that could barely provide a drink of water, let alone raise a crop.
Wyoming Sen. Joseph Carey sponsored the Desert Land Act of 1894, better known as the Carey Act, as a way for private companies to create townsites and large-scale irrigation systems to disperse semi-arid federal lands to settlers.
In short, the land act put south-central Idaho’s progress on fast forward. The Magic Valley’s numerous canal systems eventually made Idaho a crown jewel of the Carey Act project.
The project was heavily promoted throughout the East and Midwest and brought more than 5,000 settlers to Twin Falls just after the turn of the 20th century. Growth was steady through the early decades, but the population of Twin Falls jumped significantly in the 1940s and 50s before stalling in the second half of the century.
But the valley is now in another boom time. As Twin Falls’ population approaches 50,000 and the overall population of south-central Idaho creeps toward 200,000, it’s worth taking a stop back to wonder: How did we get here?
In the early 1880s, a young man from Indiana followed his aunt and uncle to goldfields in the Wood River Valley. Ira Burton Perrine was a small but ambitious man who quickly realized his physical stature limited his ability as a miner, early Twin Falls publisher H.J. Kingsbury wrote in “Bucking the Tide.”
Perrine traded his mining claim for a herd of dairy cows and went to work selling milk to other miners. While searching for land to keep his cows for the winter, he pushed his herd south and found early pioneer Charles Walgamott, who operated a ferry and tent hotel at Shoshone Falls in the Snake River Canyon. Walgamott introduced Perrine to two crystal-clear blue lakes three miles downstream.
Perrine claimed the canyon for his own and built an agricultural paradise. He operated a ferry across the river at his Blue Lakes Ranch, ran stagecoaches from the Shoshone train depot to Shoshone Falls, and sold his fruit and produce all over the valley.
On many trips to the Cassia County seat of Albion, Perrine would stop at the Cedars, some 25 miles upstream from his ranch. The Cedars was a popular rest stop for emigrants on the Oregon Trail; it was the last time they would see the Snake River before it plunges into the 500-foot-deep canyon.
While sitting at his campfire at the Cedars one evening, Perrine envisioned a diversion dam there — where the river was still at ground level. He could see irrigation water flowing into canals on both sides of the river to hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in the desert, Walgamott wrote in his book “Six Decades Back.”
Others had seen the same vision, but the task was considered a monumental folly by those before Perrine.
The Carey Act provided the tools to accomplish such a feat, but Perrine had difficulty finding investors. Even his best friend, Shoshone Journal editor Bob McCollum, told him it was a crazy proposition.
“If you are damn fool enough to think you can dam that water back, I.B., you go ahead and do it but I want nothing to do with it,” McCollum said, as recalled in Walgamott’s book.
Perrine initially filed on the rights to 3,000 cubic feet per second of water entering the Snake River Canyon at the Cedars. He crossed the country gathering support for his project — capitalists, engineers and a steel magnate.
Familiar names such as Kimberly, Hollister, Filer, Bickel, Milner, Murtaugh and Buhl jumped on board Perrine’s vision.
Twin Falls, a new town
While the Twin Falls Land and Water Co. built Milner Dam, Murtaugh Lake and the south-side canal system, the Twin Falls Townsite Co. and the Twin Falls Investment Co. developed the Twin Falls townsite and surrounding farmland.
In 1904, surveyor John E. Hayes set a stake at the center of a school section — at what is now Main Avenue and Shoshone Street — several miles south of Perrine’s Blue Lakes Ranch.
The Twin Falls city limits were defined by Blue Lakes Boulevard to the east, North Road (later called Addison Avenue), Washington Street to the west, and Rock Creek to the south and southwest. For several years until canal water made its way to the new town, drinking water was hauled by the barrelful in wagons from Rock Creek to homes and businesses.
Milner Dam first diverted irrigation water to several hundred thousand acres of newly broken ground on the south side of the Snake River in March 1905. When canal water finally arrived in Twin Falls, household plumbing frequently became clogged with small fish from the river.
The Oregon Short Line railroad established service through the area, connecting new towns along the south side of the river. Burley, Murtaugh, Hansen, Kimberly, Filer and Buhl all came to be shortly after Twin Falls.
Soon, the population base of the county shifted to the west, and Twin Falls County was carved from Cassia County in 1907.
As the irrigation project grew, Perrine relinquished much of his control. But he continued to stay busy by turning his attention to hydropower. With Harry Hollister’s money, Perrine built a power plant at Shoshone Falls, which started producing electricity in 1907.
Twin Falls quickly flourished. Streets were paved in 1910. And soon towns in the former desert looked like any other early 20th-century towns. But one obstacle still blocked Twin Falls from the rest of the world: a world-famous canyon.
The Snake River runs from east to west through the Magic Valley, a slight hindrance for the east and west ends of the valley, but a 500-foot-deep obstacle dividing Twin Falls and Jerome counties.
For decades, ferries carried passengers, livestock, wagons and automobiles from one side of the river to the other. The Shoshone Falls Ferry, Blue Lakes Ferry, Auger Falls Ferry and Clark’s Ferry were the only ways to cross the river in its canyon until I.B. Perrine built, in about 1910, a small toll bridge on the Blue Lakes Grade. The bridge can still be seen today between the Blue Lakes Country Club and Canyon Springs Golf Course.
The second significant bridge was the 1916 Murtaugh Bridge downstream from Milner Dam. The bridge was replaced in 1983.
The first rim-to-rim bridge was built in 1919, connecting Twin Falls and Jerome counties north of Hansen. The Hansen Bridge — once touted as the highest suspension bridge in the world — was suspended 325 feet above the river by giant cables strung from two towers, one at each end of the bridge. The bridge was replaced in 1966.
A second rim-to-rim bridge, the Twin Falls-Jerome Intercounty Bridge, was built in 1927 north of Twin Falls. Traffic could cross the bridge for free from the Jerome County side, but paid a toll to cross from the Twin Falls County side. The Idaho Highway Department, a predecessor of the Idaho Department of Transportation, purchased the bridge a decade later and changed the name of the bridge to the I.B. Perrine Memorial Bridge after Perrine’s death in 1943.
The third rim-to-rim bridge was built in 1976 to replace the Perrine Bridge just upstream from the original. The two bridges stood side by side for a short time before the old bridge was dismantled.
Today, the bridge is a staple of the Magic Valley, showing up on city and county buildings and commerce of all kinds. It also represents thrill-seekers who travel to the Magic Valley, as the Perrine Bridge is the only place in the world where BASE jumping is allowed without a permit.
Coming of age
While the rest of the nation experienced the Roaring Twenties, south-central Idaho experienced what local newspapers called a “trough of depression.” The Magic Valley had barely begun to recover when the stock market crashed in 1929.
The 1930s were the “years that shook the world, bounced it around, left it dazed and jumbled…,” the Times-News wrote in 1940.
“What is there to do in the 1940s? Plenty. The biggest problem of the world in general is to find a new kind of peace — a peace that will outlast the powerlust of selfish men. Whatever America can contribute toward such a peace, it should offer unhesitatingly. There will be plenty to do in the next 10 years. We had better roll up our sleeves and get going before time slips away.”
As Idaho celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1940, Twin Falls had reached a population of 13,000. Reality set in as the Idaho Evening Times reported an alarming number of traffic deaths in the county during 1939 — 14 — twice the number as 1938.
“Leading all other counties in the state in the number of deaths from traffic accidents, Twin Falls County has established a record of which no one can be proud,” The Times wrote on New Year’s Day, 1940.
Nearly two years later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Soon, stories from the front lines would dominate the newspapers.
Driven by wartime hysteria, the U.S. government rounded up 13,000 people of Japanese descent and “relocated” them from their homes on the West Coast to a desolate internment camp north of Eden. While able-bodied local men fought in World War II, men from the Hunt Camp — and German and Italian soldiers from a prisoner-of-war camp near Paul — stepped in and worked the fields, keeping afloat the Magic Valley’s agricultural economy.
Twin Falls had a surge of building permits in 1948, as large department stores — Sears, C.C. Anderson and Falk’s Department Store came to town.
After decades of flood irrigation in the Magic Valley and in the Upper Snake River Basin, the Eastern Snake River Aquifer had artificially filled to within reach of water wells. By the end of the 1940s, Twin Falls County’s tax valuation reached nearly $35 million due to an enormous increase in farmland irrigated by groundwater. Across the Magic Valley, irrigated lands went from 202,000 acres in the Twin Falls tract to more than 600,000 acres.
Sagebrush that hadn’t been cleared during the initial growth of the Magic Valley started to disappear as farms grew in the 1950s and 1960s. And as farms grew, so did the towns. The 1940s saw the fastest growth of any decade in Twin Falls history, as the population jumped nearly 50 percent during the decade.
Over in Mini-Cassia, Rupert was crossed off the “small town” list when mail carriers no longer knew by memory where all the residents lived, wrote the Times-News in 1950.
In 1956, Idaho Frozen Foods opened in Kimberly, joining longtime businesses Amalgamated Sugar Co. and Independent Meat Co.
Rogers Brothers Seed Co. and Gallatin Valley Seed Co. brought the seed-bean industry to the Magic Valley, where the dry weather — and the absence of disease pathogens — were perfect for growing seed stock. Also in the ‘50s, the trout industry helped to stabilize the agricultural economy.
Plans to build an interstate through Idaho eventually created a population shift as traffic moved faster across the state. Big towns became larger and little towns became smaller.
In Twin Falls, residential population shifted from downtown to north and east of town in the mid-1950s through the ‘60s. Some fought such expansion, including the Lynwood Shopping Center and other business centers.
A big push to rezone and annex followed as the city attempted to grow its population to 25,000 for the 1960 census. That milestone would bring in more state revenue from liquor and highway funds.
“It’s encouraging to note that the commissioners and city manager Joe Latimore are making plans to annex as many new areas as possible in the hope of bringing the Twin Falls population to 25,000,” the Times-News editorial board wrote in 1959, pleading with resident living on the outskirts of town to cooperate with the annexation efforts “for the good of all.”
But the 1960 census revealed a population of barely 20,000. Disappointed city leaders then took a more active role in community planning, resulting in municipal water and sewer improvements. In late 1964, voters in Twin Falls County approved a junior college district, which would eventually lead to the College of Southern Idaho.
Several older buildings such as the Hotel Perrine were torn down. Urban renewal took over development downtown Twin Falls, and Main Avenue was given a new face to make the old look new again.
Wages increased significantly from 1965 to 1972, CSI professor Jim Gentry wrote in his book, “In the Middle and on the Edge — The Twin Falls Region of Idaho.” Manufacturing picked up in the 1970s. Numerous factories opened in both Twin Falls and Jerome, including a Tupperware plant, Longview Fibre cardboard factory and Kellwood, a manufacturer of pantyhose. In addition, automobile dealerships and fast-food outlets opened on Blue Lakes Boulevard North.
Beginning in 1980, the Magic Valley experienced a “sour economy,” Gentry wrote. High fuel costs drove up operating costs, while commodity prices and property values fell. By early 1983, the Magic Valley’s unemployment rate was at an all-time high. Residents seemed to be leaving in droves. A sandwich-board sign on Addison Avenue West read, “Last one out of Twin Falls, please turn off the lights,” said former KMVT general manager Lee Wagner.
To jumpstart its regional economy, Magic Valley leaders turned to diversification.
Jim Herrett, owner of Acme Manufacturing, explained in 1986 how he had “reshaped” his business during the sluggish economy to focus efforts away from making complicated machinery and toward fabricating parts — things that made up most of their sales. “Farmers aren’t spending any money on products they don’t absolutely have to have,” Herrett told the Times-News. “We’re being successful at it. We’re a smaller company, downsized from what we were, but we’re hoping we’re working smarter and in the right area” by diversifying out of some agricultural areas.
In the 1990s, California dairymen moved into the area, bringing in more jobs but creating much controversy. Some say the dairymen came to Idaho to escape California’s prohibitive zoning and environmental regulations; others say the high price of land pushed dairies out of the state. Either way, new waves of dairy cows entered the valley. Twin Falls County commissioners placed a moratorium on new large dairies until the wrinkles could be ironed out.
Dairies dramatically changed the Magic Valley’s landscape over the next few decades. Large dairies bought out many small farms to raise corn and alfalfa and to dispose of the large amounts of manure generated by the cows. Only about a hundred small, family-operated dairies — those with less than 200 cows — now exist in Idaho. Nearly half of the 470 dairies in the state house more than 1,000 cows each, according to Idaho Dairymen’s Association’s website.
A whopping 73 percent of the dairy cows in Idaho now reside in the Magic Valley. That’s 422,000 dairy cows.
Idaho’s dairy industry supported nearly 40,000 jobs in 2015, according to the IDA: 8,100 workers in dairies, 3,100 in dairy processing, and 27,600 in supporting businesses.
These supporting businesses, food processors such as Glanbia, Jerome Cheese and Chobani, are what brought wealth to the Magic Valley, said Twin Falls City Manager Travis Rothweiler. As the agriculture base switched from producing a raw product, such as milk, to a value-added product, such as whey protein, the valley’s economy has become more stable.
“Whether it be milk or potatoes, the more times (a commodity) can rotate through the community, the more jobs, wealth and opportunity are created,” Rothweiler said.
While the rest of the nation was experiencing the Great Recession of the late 2000s, the Magic Valley experienced more of a slump than a recession. Reduced numbers of building permits, high unemployment, and delinquent water bills and property tax bills are common indicators of a faltering economy, he said.
“We certainly saw those during the recession to an extent,” said Twin Falls Mayor Shawn Barigar, “but because of our diversity, our highs and lows are balanced more than an economy that relies on only one sector.”
Barigar, as president and CEO of the Twin Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, was part of the team that brought the Greek yogurt giant Chobani to town.
“Chobani presented an opportunity to support the dairy production, to strengthen the food-processing sector, and innovation for the future,” he said. “Chobani gave us a positive outlook for the future, a chance to grow.”
Agriculture has always been the cornerstone of our economy, he said, and, over recent years, the food-science sector has grown tremendously by finding ways to produce more food more economically.
What would Perrine do?
I.B. Perrine, guided by a seemingly impossible vision, transformed the desert into a flourishing “magic” valley. He saw his dream come true during his lifetime, but could he have ever imagined where the Magic Valley is today?
There’s a common saying in municipal economics: If a town isn’t growing, it’s dying. But with the limited availability of water, the Magic Valley also must keep an eye on the aquifer to assure the region’s growth does not outpace its resources.
In an unprecedented agreement to restore the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, surface-water users and groundwater pumpers in 2015 secured the future of the aquifer that supports life in south-central Idaho. Groundwater users agreed to reduce their consumptive water use by 13 percent and the state of Idaho agreed to fund aquifer recharge.
Plenty has changed in the Magic Valley since President Lincoln’s 1862 Homestead Act. The arid desert can now sustain life. The small farming communities — especially Twin Falls — have blossomed into large towns and small cities. And the region’s economy, which experienced plenty of ups and downs over the past century, has been bolstered and diversified.
Now, as south-central Idaho approaches two population thresholds — 50,000 residents in Twin Falls and 200,000 residents in the eight-county region — a new major question has arisen: Where do we go from here?