This deep red state would not exist but for a Democratic president and a Democratic Idaho governor.
It might have been shaped like a square or a rectangle, the way most other western states are, or nearly are; in fact when Idaho Territory was first created in 1863, it was: It then included what is now Montana and most of Wyoming, which sounds ridiculously large but still is only a little larger than Texas. Montana and Wyoming were sloughed off after about a year.
What was left of Idaho did not look like promising state material. In some ways, the Nevada experience soured many people on remote, oddly-shaped and lightly populated states. Nevada had been admitted in a rush during the Civil War, after which its mining industry went crash and the state largely depopulated; it was so poorly run as to be called a “rotten borough.” Idaho as a territory was a little better than that after its first decade or so, but still more a collection of pieces than a logically coherent entity. The mountains in the center seemed to bar direct transportation and communication across its farther reaches, and even the relatively flat desert in the south was forbidding for travelers between its growing eastern and western reaches, where farming was taking hold. (The hospitable Magic Valley was still in the future.)
And the northern part of the state, which never got over losing the territorial capital, felt little connection to the south. Economically, socially, politically, the pieces were distinct.
So plans for splitting Idaho into pieces started early, and continued up to the advent of statehood.
It almost happened. The closest call came in the 1880s.
Nevada was still struggling, and among the ideas circulating there was a territorial expansion. It had few options. California and Oregon already were states, and unlikely to give up territory. Utah to the east was nearing statehood itself, but the Mormon identity of the area was holding it back in Congress; Nevada would never get approval for that annexation. But southwest Idaho was gaining in population and developing a stable economy. From Nevada’s point of view, it looked scrumptious.
Washington territory was nearing statehood as well, and like other territories found that larger population bases always helped the case in Congress. Northern Idaho once had been part of Washington Territory, and even then Spokane was something a regional economic base. Why not a reunion?
And if those pieces were gone, the chances for Utah statehood would be improved if it gobbled eastern Idaho.
Does this sound implausible? Here’s some history: A bill to split Idaho among its neighbors in just this way (with Nevada getting most or all of southern Idaho) actually passed Congress in 1887 (when Republicans controlled the Senate, and Democrats the House), and only the signature of Democratic President Grover Cleveland was needed to redraw the map and eliminate Idaho.
There’s some evidence Cleveland was leaning toward signing the (bipartisan) bill. He was dissuaded by the man he had appointed as Idaho’s territorial governor, Edward Stevenson, who like Cleveland hailed from New York and was a member of its leading political families. (He was a relative of two-time Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson.) Cleveland pocket-vetoed the bill.
Idaho unionists counterattacked by trying (unsuccessfully) to annex western Montana.
Three years later Idaho was admitted as a state.
History does take its twists, a point to ponder as Idaho this month reaches its 124th year as a state.Share on Facebook