AIC Shines Its Community Spotlight on Melba
Monday, April 11, 2016
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
Aerial view of Melba for the community's 100 year celebration, August 2012.
Melba is a small farming community located in the southernmost part of Canyon County. The Snake River flows about five miles to the south and west. Fertile farmland forms a buffer between Melba and Nampa—Idaho’s second largest city that is 12 miles north. Melba area farmers are noted for their production of onion, carrot, pea, bean, sweet corn, alfalfa and clover seed.
Across the Snake River lies the historic South Alternate Route of the Oregon Trail and vast tracts of public lands managed by the BLM, including the Owyhee Mountains. The 590,000-acre Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area (SRNCA), also managed by the BLM, begins about two miles east of town.
For centuries, the sagebrush covered high desert of what is now Melba was the exclusive domain of nomadic American Indians, principally of the Shoshone and Bannock Tribes. Around 1810 the first explorers/trappers began passing through the area.
For the half century following the discovery of gold in the Boise Basin in 1862 and in the Owyhee Mountains in 1863, several events occurred that played important roles in the founding of Melba.
By 1863 the number of fortune seekers and miners searching for gold in the Boise Basin had risen to 16,000. In the same year, the U.S. Army established a new Fort Boise. Settlers around the fort established Boise City.
Mining activity encouraged settlers to divert irrigation water from nearby streams onto their homesteads to raise and sell fresh food to the miners. Some of these settlers established farms south of what is now Melba near the Snake River.
In May 1863 Michael Jordon—the namesake of Jordon Valley, Oregon—led 29 men from the Boise Basin gold fields to the Owyhee Mountains. They found large quantities of gold at Jordon Creek and started a boomtown named Ruby City.
The Owyhee Mountains are named after three members of Donald Mackenzie’s 1814 beaver-trapping party who were natives of the Hawaiian Islands. The name Hawaii was originally misspelled "Owyhee" in 1778 by Pacific Ocean explorer Captain James Cook. Mackenzie sent the three Hawaiians to assess the beaver-trapping potential of the mountain streams. They never returned. Mackenzie named the mountains in their honor.
In December 1863 the first Idaho Territorial Legislature, meeting in the temporary capital of Lewiston, created Owyhee County with the mining boomtown of Ruby City as the county seat. However, by 1867 with the Ruby City mines played out, prospectors found rich ore bodies of silver to the south. They named the new boomtown Silver City and voted to move the county seat and the buildings of Ruby City to Silver City.
In 1934 voters moved the county seat to the former railroad terminus town of Murphy. Today, Murphy is an unincorporated hamlet with a population of around 50. Murphy is still the Owyhee County seat, the smallest county seat in Idaho.
The Territorial Legislature granted mining entrepreneurs a 15-year franchise to build a toll road between Fort Boise and the Owyhee Mountain mines, which was later called the Silver Trail.
In 1863 entrepreneurs built a ferry across the Snake River about five miles southwest of what is now Melba. In 1886 following several changes in ownership, L.R. Walter became the sole owner of the newly named Walters Ferry.
In April 1867 the U.S. Geological Survey established "Initial Point," as the point of beginning of all land surveys in Idaho. It is located on a prominent 3,240-foot-high lava butte that protrudes out of the desert floor about eight miles west of Melba. The Boise Survey Meridian runs north and south through the length of the state. The Idaho Base Line runs east and west through Initial Point. The city of Meridian derived its name from the meridian survey line that passes through the city. Base Line Road is a prominent road in Melba.
In 1881 the Oregon Short Line (OSL) began construction of the railroad line between Granger, Wyoming, and Huntington, Oregon. The rail line, completed on November 17, 1884, angled in a northwesterly direction through what are now Pocatello, Mountain Home, Caldwell and Weiser then crossed the Snake River one last time before reaching Huntington.
In 1883 the railroad intersected the Silver Trail. There, OSL officials converted a railroad caboose into a depot they named Kuna.
In 1898 in order to provide service to the Silver City mines, a new railroad company—the Boise, Nampa and Owyhee Railroad—completed a rail line from Nampa through Melba to a new terminal at Murphy. The railroad’s signature accomplishment was a 500-foot, two-span bridge across the Snake River south of Melba.
In the late 1800s several different Boise entrepreneurs attempted to build irrigation diversion dams on the Boise River with canals designed to deliver gravity flow water to thousands of acres downstream. Most of these ventures were undercapitalized and had limited success.
In 1902 Congress established the U.S. Reclamation Service—now Bureau of Reclamation. The Bureau of Reclamation almost immediately embarked on what would become the "Boise Project." The project provided federal funding and support that, when completed decades later, largely integrated or completed existing Treasure Valley irrigation systems and added a system of dams and water storage reservoirs in the higher elevations of the Boise River, its principal tributaries and the Payette River.
Around 1910 Boise Project construction workers building irrigation canals in south Canyon and Ada Counties established their headquarters in what is now Melba at a location named "Rock Spur."
By 1912 the decline in Silver City mining activity caused the railroad to close its Murphy terminal. However, with the freight demand coming from the development of hundreds of new farms receiving irrigation water from the Boise Project, the railroad company built a new terminal 12 miles north at Rock Spur.
When a Gold Prospector Settles Down
In 1912 Clayton C. Todd, a gold prospector on his way to Alaska, was staying with friends in Weiser. When informed of these events, he purchased 160 acres bordering the railroad siding, including the abandoned Rock Spur headquarters structures. There he platted a new town that he named Melba after his four-year-old daughter who was still in California with her mother.
Todd built the first store and applied to postal authorities for a post office to be operated out of his store. Within a short time, other commercial and residential buildings began to move onto their new city lots.
On August 30, 1935, Melba became an incorporated village.
Amenities and Attractions Today
Melba City Park is a 16-acre facility featuring softball diamonds, children’s playground equipment, a picnic area and restrooms.
The city celebrates Independence Day each July with a variety of events including a parade, arts and crafts fair, food concessions, antique tractor pull and fireworks.
Celebration Park, Idaho’s only archaeological park, is managed by the BLM and located five miles due south of Melba off Idaho Highway 45 on the banks of the Snake River. The park is noted for its thousands of ancient American Indian petroglyphs, melon gravel dating back to Lake Bonneville times and high desert landscape and wildlife. Activities include hiking, fishing, boating, picnicking, camping, bird watching (birds of prey), BLM trails, tours and interpretive programs.
The Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area includes federal, private and state land and 10,000 acres of surface water. Numerous species of small wildlife including rodents and rabbits inhabit the land covered with an abundance of desert brush and grasses growing from the deep silt-loam volcanic soils. These food sources along with the variety of fish in the Snake River and nearby reservoirs attract large numbers of falcons, eagles, hawks and owls as well as water fowl.
The SRNCA has the densest population of breeding raptors in North America. Many raptors nest along rock outcroppings and ledges along Snake River Canyon cliffs, rising to over 300 feet above the river below. SRNCA officials have identified up to 25 species of nesting, migrating or wintering birds of prey. In total, about 260 wildlife species inhabit the area, including one of the nation’s largest concentrations of badgers.
Visitors, bird watchers and outdoor enthusiasts can easily access the SRNCA using the Western Heritage Historic Byway located six miles east of Melba and extending south of Kuna past Swan Falls Dam. The byway passes through diverse topography and ten points of historical interest, including old mining settlements and archaeological sites.
The World Center for Birds of Prey, famous for its conservation and recovery efforts of the Peregrine falcon and several species of rare and endangered birds of prey, is located in south Boise, about 34 miles northeast of Melba.
Kuna Cave, an underground lava tube often explored by Boy Scout troops and other amateur spelunkers, is located 14 miles northeast of Melba.
Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge is located 10 miles north. The refuge encompasses 10,600 acres, including the 9,000-acre Lake Lowell and about 100 islands in the Snake River. The refuge provides habitat for wildlife including thousands of migratory and nesting ducks and geese.
The 107-foot-high hydroelectric Swan Falls Dam is located 18 miles southeast of Melba. It is the oldest hydroelectric dam on the Snake River and has 1,525 acres of reservoir surface area. The dam, built in 1901, initially provided electricity for the restored historic mining town of Silver City. The restored Silver City is about 41 miles south.
The historic Givens Hot Springs is a popular recreation facility about 15 miles northwest of Melba. Oregon Trail immigrants said the water was hot enough to boil an egg. They stopped to bath, wash their clothes and luxuriate in a pond they built. In 1881 Oregon Trail immigrants Milford and Martha Givens returned to settle and develop a resort. Their descendants now own and operate the property. Thousands of patrons come each year to enjoy the modern hot swimming pools and other resort amenities.
Cleo’s Nature Trail at Historic Walters Ferry is open to the public year-round. The trail is a wonderland of displays, hundreds of birdhouses of intricate design and over 100 sculptures and statues that line a mile-long walking path, meandering in a loop through old growth Russian olive and other trees bordering the river. There is also a private museum which includes the historic adobe ferry master’s building. The ferry master’s building, built in 1863, is the oldest building on the property. It served as the ferry master’s residence, a restaurant and a two-room hotel.