City of New Plymouth
Monday, August 3, 2015
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
The historic 1897 planned community of New Plymouth lies at the north end of the Treasure Valley. Midwestern promoters seeking to demonstrate the use of irrigation in reclaiming the arid West designed the horseshoe shaped townsite to achieve their idyllic concept of a model farming community.
The Payette River flows about two miles east of the city. The city of Payette is 10 miles northwest. The Snake River, separating Idaho and Oregon, is about five miles west.
Fruit orchards and fertile fields of alfalfa hay, sugar beets, onions, potatoes, corn and wheat surround the city, forming a checkerboard of color.
Brush and grass-covered mountains and foothills, mostly public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), lie five miles west. An approximate 30-square-mile tract of public foothill land, also managed by the BLM, begins about two miles south of the city.
In 1881 the Oregon Short Line (OSL) began construction of a railroad line between Granger, Wyoming, and Huntington, Oregon. This railroad link would complete another transcontinental railroad, connecting the commercial centers of Omaha, Nebraska, and Portland, Oregon. Railroad interests completed the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 at Promontory Summit in northern Utah.
The rail line, completed on November 17, 1884, angled in a northwesterly direction through what are now Pocatello, Mountain Home, Caldwell and Parma then headed north to Payette and Weiser then crossed the Snake River one last time before reaching Huntington.
Most of the early settlers in what is now Payette County established homesteads along streams where they could more easily divert water to irrigate their low-lying farmland. However, the arable land around what is now New Plymouth had a higher elevation and remained covered with sagebrush until the 1890s. Unique among Idaho cities, New Plymouth began as a planned agricultural community.
Around 1884 William E. Smythe, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Northern Irrigation Congress, led a group of like-minded individuals to form "The Plymouth Society of Chicago" (Society). The Society sought to find an ideal location in the West where they could divert water for irrigation and build a self-reliant agricultural community where farmers had homes at the center of the community with farmland located around the city. Smythe lectured throughout the East encouraging settlers to go West in colonies to build irrigation systems and reclaim the West.
The Society identified several potential reclamation sites in the Western U.S. where they could build their model colony. They chose the Southwest Idaho location and acquired about 325 acres near the Payette River and the railroad. They named their community New Plymouth Farm Village after one of the first colonies in America—Plymouth, Massachusetts.
The Society platted the town in the shape of an arch or horseshoe with the open end facing north. The area at the mouth of the horseshoe was the industrial part of town. Around and within the horseshoe they platted two semi-concentric streets fronted by one-acre lots with parks and public areas in the center. A main thoroughfare bisected the city.
In February 1896 the Society offered the platted lots for sale. Generally, colonists purchased a one-acre lot in town and a 20-acre farm lot outside of town. Colonists cleared the sagebrush off their property and planted their fields. Most of them planted apple trees.
They formed a irrigation district and diverted Payette River water to their colony. To get adequate elevation to the water so that crops could be irrigated using gravity flow, the irrigation district placed a series of water wheels in the fast flowing canals to lift the water into the lateral irrigation ditches or pipes—five of these water wheels are still in use.
The coming of the railroad in 1883 provided the impetus that led to the founding of Payette and the underlying basis for its subsequent economic success as an agricultural community.
In 1906 the Payette Valley Railroad Company, later acquired by OSL, constructed a branch line from Payette through Fruitland to New Plymouth. In 1910 the Payette Valley Extension Railroad Company, later acquired by OSL, extended railroad service from New Plymouth to Emmett.
On October 19, 1908 with a population of over 200—the 1910 U.S. Census reported a population of 274—and using the shortened name of New Plymouth, the community successfully applied to the Canyon County Commissioners to become an incorporated village. On February 14, 1917, the Idaho Legislature divided Canyon County, creating Payette County. Forty years after the town’s incorporation, the Payette County Commissioners approved changing its legal status to a city.
Taming the River to Irrigate Crops
A key criterion for the Society to select its New Plymouth location was the availability of irrigation water from the Payette River. However, the uncontrolled river did not always provide an adequate supply of water through the entire growing season.
In 1924 the Federal Bureau of Reclamation completed construction of the hydroelectric Black Canyon Dam about five miles east of Emmett where the Payette River narrows between black basalt walls. They also built or integrated the new source of irrigation water into new or existing canal systems including those serving New Plymouth farms.
The 183-foot-high Black Canyon Dam had a profound effect in improving the availability of irrigation water throughout the growing season.
Amenities and Attractions Today
The city has two parks that comprise 13 acres.
Clay Peak County Park and Recreation Area is a regionally popular 750-acre facility owned and operated by Payette County. The park’s principal attractions are motocross races and mud drag races for pick-ups and quads. The facility is located about nine miles northwest of the city.