A History of the Falls

The story behind the famed landmark

Published online: Jan 26, 2022 Articles, History, Lifestyle
Viewed 3204 time(s)

The name came first. After a strike and a windstorm drove Eagle Rock’s railroad shops (and therefore most of its population) away in the 1880s, the dying town was in desperate need of reinvention. Newly dug canals were just starting to make the high desert arable, and land promoters saw an opportunity to market Eagle Rock as the center of a new agricultural empire. 

Just one problem—what farmer would willingly settle in a place named after not one, but two nuisances—eagles and rocks? The place must be swarming with them! 

The land promoters lobbied to change the town’s name to Idaho Falls in 1891, clearly evoking an abundance of water, the farmer’s most cherished resource. So what if there weren’t really any falls? There were rapids in the dangerous river, and spots where water would cascade down rocks. That’s close enough.

As the city began to re-grow, local leaders gained greater appreciation for the river and the gifts it could offer. In 1909, Mayor E.P. Coltman asked the city council to recommend a spot on the Snake to erect a hydroelectric power plant. The first power plant, on a canal at 10th Street and South Boulevard, had been operational since 1900, but the demand for electricity was increasing rapidly. Coltman wanted to put a plant on the river just below the brand-new Broadway Bridge, and after much lobbying, voters approved a $95,000 bond for a dam and powerhouse in a special election in 1910. 

Coltman soon died in office, and his successor Bowen Curley (the widower of community leader Kate Curley) took up the project. Curley hired two Portland-based contractors to build a dam, but the river proved too swift, and spring floods in 1911 washed away the footings they had placed. The contractors deemed the task impossible. Curley then turned to W.W. Keefer, a well-known local builder who had also constructed several buildings, the town’s first sidewalks, and the railroad facilities, the city’s previous lifeblood. He also oversaw their exit soon after.

Keefer hired three carpenters and eleven other laborers and got to work in October 1911 when the water was low. Keefer paid himself $8 per day, with $4 for each of the carpenters and $3 for the laborers. His son Fred, who would later homestead on an island just upstream, helped as well. Keefer’s crew took less than a year to complete the “impossible” task of erecting a long retaining wall down the middle of the river, channeling water toward a dam equipped with a powerhouse and a turbine generator. 

The project not only created an abundance of renewable energy, but it changed the landscape of Idaho Falls, turning Sportsmen’s Park—formerly connected to the east bank—into an island, dedicating an urban space for waterfowl to roost out of humanity’s reach, and a creating a landmark in the heart of the city that contributes to tourism and quality of life. 

So the falls aren’t natural. 

So it’s more straight than rugged. 

So our landmark doesn’t stand as a testament to God or nature’s handiwork. 

But it’s hard to deny the Western ingenuity that 110 years ago tamed a dangerous river into something productive, while enhancing its beauty at the same time. Besides, if nothing else, it made the name Idaho Falls accurate, just a couple decades late. 

Click here to read more of the January issue of Idaho Falls Magazine. 

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