Idaho is amid an anniversary that may get no public acclaim but should: Really, it marks the unification of Idaho, one century ago, and a generation after statehood.
The project involved was completed 99 years ago. But it was well underway before that, and one of the key developments that allowed it to happen at all came in 1919.
It was the building of the Whitebird Hill grade, built that is, to motor vehicle roadway conditions, which in turn allowed for a road system that for the first time provided a practical link between northern and southern Idaho.
Up to then, the advocates arguing for breaking off northern Idaho and attaching it to Washington or Montana had an excellent point: There was no good way for people to travel, even by the rugged and uncomfortable standards of the time, between the northern and southern parts of Idaho. The area between the Camas Prairie (the northern one, in Idaho County) and the Meadows area seemed all but impassible. A rough trail had been cut through, and horseback riders could make their way over the hill; in the best weather narrow carts could roll, with great care taken, slowly and sometimes accumulating damage. But the old Magruder corridor, which despite use since the early 1860s never has been made into a real road, was probably easier to navigate than the area south of Grangeville.
Major rivers – the Snake, the Salmon, the Clearwater – run through the region, but none of them allow for any substantial transport between north and south. The one case that looks good on a map, the northern-running Snake River, has been a popular recreational path for many years, but wasn’t much good for long-distance transport then (or now).
Building a road over White Bird Pass would be a formidable challenge, but it was the key to creating a north-south roadway. The earliest work on it started in the mid-teens a century ago, but proceeded slowly at first. Local efforts needed a stronger push from the state.
In 1919, as part of a state government reorganization, a Bureau of Highways was created, and both governor (D.W. Davis at the time) and the legislature made clear that the roads needed to be improved. That was the final piece in what had been pushed for by people in the region for some time.
A November 1918 article in the Lewiston Tribune talked about the prospective project from the mouth of White Bird Creek to Grangeville, and the problem it addressed: “The only means of travel between these two points at the present time is over a narrow, precipitous mountain road of heavy grades – some pitches as steep as 25 percent – and sharp, dangerous turns. Though it is a very important mail route, supplying all the Salmon River country to a distance of 90 miles to New Meadows, it is practically no more than a poor trail and almost impassible to auto traffic except under the most favorable conditions.”
Those of us who remember the “old” White Bird grade – the switchback-laden white-knuckle road that held you to 25 miles an hour (if you didn’t have a death wish) – may think that not much had changed. But a lot did. The pre-1920 trail was really not accessible at all to motor vehicles, which was not so big a deal a decade earlier but, as the car-driven 1920s were about to arrive, became a very big deal.
The grade we use now, in place at this point for more than 40 years, is a sleek, high-speed modern highway, far ahead of what came before. But that earlier version, which you can still see snaking its way up the mountain from the town of White Bird, was the predicate.
Look a century past and you’ll see that, yes, we can make progress.