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News & Press: Community Spotlights

AIC Shines Its Spotlight on Basalt

Friday, February 23, 2018  
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
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Basalt Post Office

The City of Basalt is named for the nearby black basalt rock formations that lie along the Snake River. The city is located on the southeastern side of the fertile Snake River Plain about 20 miles southwest of Idaho Falls. Basalt’s sister city of Firth lies about a mile southwest. The Snake River flows less than a mile west of the city.

The Blackfoot Mountain Range of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest begins three miles east and the Fort Hall Indian Reservation lies a few miles southwest.

Historical Tidbits

In May 1863 prospectors found gold near what is now Virginia City in southwestern Montana. Virginia City was part of Idaho Territory until Montana Territory was created on May 26, 1864.

The ensuing gold rush brought a steady flow of traffic between Utah and Virginia City on a wagon road named the "Gold Road." People on horses, stagecoaches and freight wagons passed through what is now Basalt and Firth on the Gold Road that crossed the Snake River and turned north at Eagle Rock—now Idaho Falls.

In 1862 Congress passed the Homestead Act and in 1877 the Desert Land Act. The Homestead Act allowed conversion of up to 160 acres of federal land to private ownership to those filers who improved and lived on the land for five years. The Desert Land Act allowed settlers to file for up to 640 acres, with the condition that they bring the land under irrigation within three years.

In 1878 the Utah and Northern Railroad Company (U&N) began laying railroad track from Utah to Montana, generally following the Gold Road. By the end of the next year, they had extended the railroad through what is now Firth, Basalt and Idaho Falls to Spencer, about 15 miles south of the Montana border at Monida Pass. The railroad reached the Montana gold fields the following year.

One of the construction workers building the railroad was John R. Poole of Ogden, Utah. When Poole returned to Ogden, he praised the farmland potential of the Upper Snake River Plain. Many families living in northern Utah were recent converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church)—coming from the Eastern United States and emigrants from foreign countries—looking for good farmland to settle.

Poole’s fellow railroad workers, returning to Utah, confirmed Poole’s account and, within a short time, several groups of northern Utah families were making preparations to travel north to settle in Eastern Idaho.

In 1882 Church leaders asked 54-year-old Thomas E. Ricks to be an ecclesiastical leader (Bishop—later Stake President) of the immigrant settlers going to what is now the Rexburg area. By that time, Church members had over three decades of experience in Utah Territory building small irrigation water conveyances needed to turn arid sagebrush-covered land into productive farms.

Ricks accepted the call, and, by the end of the year, Church records listed 815 members living in Ricks’ geographical jurisdiction, initially called the Bannock Stake. By the end of 1884, the number of members over the age of eight had increased to 1,420. (Children are not baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints until they are eight years old—all members of the Church must be baptized.)

Almost immediately after farm settlement began, plans to divert irrigation water from the rivers and streams and build canals and irrigation ditches began. The farmers benefiting from a canal formed a canal company. The canal companies borrowed money from area banks to construct their canals. The banks filled a dual role—they not only loaned money but also helped resolve arguments over water rights.

Once the canal companies designed the course for the canal, workers—mostly the farmers themselves—dug the water conveyances with picks, crowbars, shovels, horse-drawn Fresno scrapers and chains to move the rock. Occasionally, they used blasting powder.

It was in this environment that in 1885, a few families coming up from Utah settled on a fertile stretch of land adjacent to the Snake River called Cedar Point. Geographically, Cedar Point was part of the Lewisville Ward in the Bannock Stake. The Cedar Point settlement grew rapidly and on August 19, 1888, the Church reorganized the Cedar Point Branch into a ward that they named Basalt after the area’s landscape and the large amount of basalt rock formations lining the Snake River.

By 1900 community leaders started to lay plans to become an incorporated village. As part of that effort, certain of them platted a town on the higher ground overlooking the historic pioneer settlement of Cedar Point.

Their plat consisted of about a dozen ten-acre blocks configured on a north-south, east-west axis and subdivided into one-acre lots. By 1906, the number of citizens in the surveyed community exceeded 200, the minimum number of citizens required to become an incorporated village. On April 11, 1906, they successfully incorporated their village with the name of Basalt.

Importance of the Railroad

The coming of the railroad through the area in 1879 not only caused John R. Poole to take glowing reports of the area back to Utah, but it was one of the attractions that caused the early settlers of Basalt to start establishing homesteads six years later. With the advent of the railroad, area farmers were able to receive equipment and supplies and transport their production to market faster and easier.

Amenities and Attractions Today

The city’s greatest attraction is its location. City residents are able to enjoy numerous outdoor activities in the nearby mountains, the Snake River, streams and reservoirs as well as the vast tracts of public land on the Snake River Plain. In addition, they are close to a wide variety of urban attractions and amenities in the larger cities located nearby.

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