City of Ucon
Friday, June 19, 2015
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
Ucon lies a few miles northeast of Idaho Falls on U.S. Highway 20. The city’s agricultural origins are rapidly giving way to residential and mini-farm subdivisions that are filling in between the two communities. Most of the city’s workforce commutes to Idaho Falls for employment.
The city’s population is increasing as families choose to raise their children in the quiet rural environment of Ucon, within an easy commute of the larger city.
Soon after the 1860 to 1862 discovery of gold in what is now western Montana, prospectors, miners and freighters rushed to the Montana gold fields. The primary route—called the Gold Road—came up from Utah, crossed the Snake River at Eagle Rock—now Idaho Falls—and proceeded north into Montana.
In the late 1870s the Utah and Northern Railroad Company began construction of a rail line that generally followed the Gold Road route. In April 1879 the railroad reached Idaho Falls. By December 1881 it had reached Butte, Montana.
Many of those who worked building the railroad were from northern Utah. As they returned home, many spoke with glowing terms of the farming potential of the Upper Snake River Plain.
Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) encouraged immigrants coming into Utah to consider homesteading in the fertile Upper Snake River Plain.
Hundreds of families followed this advice and joined settlers coming from other parts of the country looking for homesteading opportunities.
In 1884 Amos and George Robinson filed homestead claims near what is now Ucon. Tall sagebrush covered the land. It was an arduous task to clear the land and prepare it for planting. The Snake River flowed four miles to the west and Willow Creek was three miles southeast. The land they chose to homestead was strategically located for diverting upstream water to irrigate their lower-elevation farms.
Within a short time, many other homesteaders followed the Robinsons and a community started to develop. Initially, the settlers named their community Willow Creek. In 1901 postal authorities notified the local postmaster and community leaders that the name of their town would have to change. The name Willow Creek, Idaho, was already in use.
The community formed a town naming committee. Unable to reach agreement, the committee decided to put each letter of the alphabet in a jar and draw three letters that would become the town’s new name. They drew the letters A-K-O, thus establishing "Ako" as the community’s new name.
In 1898 the Oregon Short Line Railroad built a branch line northeast from Idaho Falls to Yellowstone National Park. The railroad passed on the west side of Ako. At that time, the business district was forming to the east. Within the next few years, the business community moved west to be near the train depot, water tower, icehouse, coal shed, tool shed, stockyard and four houses.
The growth of the community encouraged construction of other buildings. In 1904 the Church of Jesus Christ built a rock church. In 1906 the school district issued a $4,000 bond to construct a two-story red brick schoolhouse.
In 1907 the Simmons and Woolf Company built a mercantile store and community attraction for its broad range of products and customer service. The store carried products ranging from horse harnesses to fabric, food and clothes. Clerks wrapped customer’s purchases in brown paper tied with a string with a piece of candy tucked inside the package. Tragically, the store could not survive the Great Depression, and in 1937 it closed its doors.
In 1907 the Ako Railroad Depot began telegraph service. However, railroad officials were not pleased with calling their train depot Ako. They, along with the postal authorities, expressed dissatisfaction.
The community leaders formed a new committee that also could not reach agreement. They again resorted to the "letters in a bottle" procedure. This time they came up with the name "Elva." From 1908 to 1911 the community went by that name.
However, post office and railroad officials found that Elva would not work because it was too easily confused with Elba, another Idaho town.
In 1911 community leaders formed a town naming committee for the third time. The new committee used the previous name selection methodology and drew from a jar four letters that spelled U-C-O-N. Postal and railroad officials accepted the Ucon name and the community immediately made application to become an incorporated city.
On February 11, 1911, the Idaho Legislature created Bonneville County. On May 9, 1911, the newly appointed county commissioners made Ucon an incorporated village. The community had two hotels, three mercantile stores, two movie theaters, two restaurants, a post office, city building, potato warehouses and the train depot.
What’s in a Name?
As the community was established, the settlers named it Willow Creek. However, when postal authorities turned down the name as it was already in use. The community was renamed Ako. A few years later, the railroad began telegraph service and decided that having their depot named Ako was a problem. So, the name of the community was changed to Elva. Three years later, railroad and postal officials decided that the name Elva was also a problem. So, once again, the town changed its name—this time to Ucon. Finally, the name stuck, and the town is proudly known as Ucon to this day.
Amenities and Attractions Today
Ten miles southeast of the city is the 31,000-acre Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area. This Area—which includes parts of 1,560-acre Ririe Lake, an irrigation and flood control reservoir created by Ririe Dam and a favorite fishing, boating and camping amenity—collects water from tributary streams; provides habitat for upland and migratory birds; and winter range for thousands of migratory elk, mule deer and moose. Idaho Fish and Game manages the area and oversees public visits and viewing of the animals.
Twenty miles west of the city is the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory’s (INL) 570,000-acre reservation, the nation’s second largest National Environmental Research Park. The INL reservation is mostly undeveloped and is home to 269 species of wild mammals, birds and reptiles and more than 400 species of plants.