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News & Press: Community Spotlights

AIC Shines Its Community Spotlight on Burley

Wednesday, May 25, 2016  
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
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Burley lies on the fertile Snake River Plain 20 miles downriver from Minidoka Dam. The dam diverts Snake River water to irrigate over 100,000 acres of farmland around Burley and several other Magic Valley communities. Fields of potatoes, beans, corn, grain, alfalfa hay and sugar beets, many irrigated from deep wells, surround the city with a patchwork of color and open space.

The Snake River flows through the city. The Cotterel Mountains, rising to over 7,000 feet, and the Sawtooth National Forest begin about 15 miles southeast.

Burley’s incorporated borders are in two counties. The Snake River forms the border between Cassia and Minidoka Counties. The original city of Burley is in Cassia County, where it is the county seat. The newer part of the city, North Burley, is a commercial area located immediately across the Snake River in Minidoka County.

Historic Tidbits 

The City of Burley owes its origins to the Minidoka Hydroelectric Dam and the railroad.

The Bureau of Reclamation, under the 1902 Newlands Act, constructed the dam on the Snake River 20 miles northeast of the city at a place called "Little Rapids" or "Minidoka Rapids."

Construction of the dam started in 1904 and was completed in 1906. In 1905 the railroad completed a bridge over the Snake River Canyon from Heyburn. In 1909 the dam began to produce electrical power for the area.

The dam diverted water through a system of gravity-flow irrigation canals on both sides of the river. The north side was gravity flow; however, on the south side, which included Burley, the land was too high for the water to flow directly into the canals. Electrical pumps lifted the water into the south side canals.

The public demand for homestead land in the Minidoka Project service area outstripped expectations. On April 23, 1904, the project received approval and homesteaders began filing on the land. The settlers filed to secure their farmland even though they knew there would be no water or power for a few years.

On December 23, 1904, the Twin Falls News reported, "Farm houses on the Minidoka tract...are still going up like mushrooms, upwards of 300 already having been erected." By the spring of 1905 homesteaders had filed on most of the project land on both sides of the river.

The Reclamation Service had set aside land for three town sites on the north side of the river but had not provided for a town site on the south side.

Ira B. Perrine, the lead developer responsible for the Milner Dam Twin Falls Project, and four other investors filled the void. They formed a town site company to acquire the land, plat the village and sell lots. The townsite company purchased land owned by Josiah E. Miller and laid out a one square mile town site. They then surveyed and platted the town into business and residential districts with tracts set aside for schools and churches.

They named the new village after David E. Burley, an Oregon Short Line Railroad passenger agent who promoted the area.

An early resident, C.A. Johnson, recalled the layout of Overland Street as two parallel rows of stakes running north to south for one mile. Main Street had a similar thoroughfare. In the center of town, they cleared the streets of sagebrush. Johnson said that except for the cleared streets and the land around the lot sales office and the house used by the surveyors, "the town site was a sea of sagebrush."

The townsite company drilled a well near the intersection of Main and Overland Streets. A sign on the well tower proclaimed Burley would have 10,000 people in 1910. As it turned out, the prediction was excessively optimistic. The 1910 census recorded Burley’s population at 900. However, by 1918 the city’s population approximated 2,500.

On May 23, 1905, with hundreds of railroad workers still laying ties and rails, the first train pulled into town.

Several weeks later, the editor of The Nugget in Silver City visited Burley. He wrote in his newspaper, "The first lot in town was sold May 1 (1904) and the construction of the first building begun the same day. Now, there is a hotel, several stores, three lumberyards, an established newspaper and several dwellings there, the number of structures counting at least 50. The newspaper, the Burley Bulletin, is still issued from a tent but has a large, two-story home nearly completed. The streets of the town are not yet well defined, only being partly cleared of their sagebrush."

Within eight months, Burley had a population approaching 400, over 100 buildings and nearly two miles of boardwalk. Ed F. Schroeder, an early resident, wrote that the boardwalks were a blessing as continuous travel of wagons, buggies and horses turned the streets into ankle deep dust—or mud when it rained.

On September 4, 1906, the opera house caught fire and spread to other buildings. Schroeder wrote, "This fire destroyed about 20 buildings—but they were soon rebuilt or replaced by others—and Burley continued to grow."

By the fall of 1905, townspeople had erected a three-room frame school building on the northwest corner of Normal Avenue and Main Street. It started with 96 students and three teachers. There were two classes for grades 1 through 4 and one class for grades 5 through 8.

On July 23, 1909, Burley became an incorporated village. The need for a municipal government became evident a few months earlier when a thief robbed one of the stores. Residents identified the thief, but when the citizens sought to bring the culprit to justice, it was not clear who could make the arrest. Burley had no police officer. They got the job done; but the experience exposed a weakness. The people had been so busy developing their businesses, homes and farms that they had neglected to establish a local government.

In 1915 three years before voters moved the county seat from Albion to Burley, the population increased sufficiently to become an incorporated city.

Advantages of Electricity

The first priority for electrical energy produced by the Minidoka Dam was to lift irrigation water into the southern canal systems. Excess electrical energy went to the cities, farms and ranches.

Electrical transmission lines reached Burley in the fall of 1910. Burley voters approved bond issues that financed its own electric distribution system and allowed the city to contract directly with the Reclamation Service for its electricity. In the winter, the irrigation pumps did not run. Then, the cost of electric heat was less than coal.

By 1913 Burley had electric streetlights. Homes and businesses were also purchasing electric heating and lighting systems as well as powering an increasing number of electric appliances coming on the market.

A 1915 issue of Harpers magazine featured the Burley and Rupert high schools in an article about the use of electric stoves in classroom science classes.

Amenities and Attractions Today 

Burley has 19 city parks covering a total area of 190 acres. East, Freedom and West Parks are the most popular.

The Cassia County Historical Society and Museum offer exhibits that include a pioneer village, displays of vintage farm equipment and a stagecoach and railroad car.

The Snake River and the nearby Sawtooth National Forest offer boating, fishing, hunting, hiking and other amenities. Pomerelle Ski Resort is about 20 miles south of the city near Albion. Its 8,000 foot elevation has an average snowfall of 500 inches. The resort has 24 groomed trails and 3 chairlifts.

The City of Rocks National Reserve, located 45 miles south of the city, has unique rock formations, some as tall as 60 stories. Mountain climbers and visitors from around the globe visit the reserve. These high massive granite rock pillars and hills are eroded remnants of a large batholith that erupted millions of years ago.

Near the National Reserve is Castle Rocks State Park, a 1,240-acre historic ranch offering excellent rock climbing, horseback riding, bird watching and hiking. California Trail pioneers used the City of Rocks as a rest stop. Their markings are still visible among these huge granite outcroppings. Oregon Trail wagon ruts are located 11 miles west.

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