Boise, Idaho’s train depot and bell tower are not to be missed

Like a sentry, the stately, Spanish-style tower watches over the city of Boise, Idaho, from its perch atop a hill south of downtown.

Still, I may not have noticed the modest spire if I hadn’t been staying in that part of the city. And that would have been a shame.

The stunning view of the Boise skyline and its foothills from its 90-foot bell tower is not to be missed.

View from the Boise Depot tower
The view from the Boise Depot tower. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

It’s one of the many grand old train stations that have been renovated across the country.

Railroads helped the nation’s westward expansion, creating much of the network of roads and towns we have today. Many depots closed as autos and planes replaced trains for transportation. Some depots — including those in Denver; Kansas City, Mo.; New York City; and St. Paul, Minn. — still are used for Amtrak and/or a local commuter rail system. Others have been renovated for other uses, such as apartments, retail and event space. And some have been demolished or sit vacant and crumbling per a recent New York Times article.

I have visited a dozen renovated train stations across the country, including seven in the Midwest. I’m no train nut by any stretch, but I appreciate architecture and history.

In Boise, New York architects designed the city’s depot for Union Pacific Railroad. Guide John Devries told me construction began in 1920, with the first train rolling through five years later.

Boise Depot's Great Hall
The Boise Depot’s Great Hall, or lobby, was a cavernous room with a 44-foot high ceiling. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

At the time, the depot was called “the most beautiful structure of its kind in the West.”

“At the depot’s height, there were six trains coming through daily,” Devries said. “There was Amtrak passenger service until 1997, but now the only passenger rail access is in Sandpoint,” Idaho (420 miles or nearly eight hours to the North).

Ceiling in the Boise Depot
Spanish trusses and rafters in the 44-foot-high “Great Hall” lobby are painted in original colors. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Construction company Morrison Knudsen Co. (known in these parts as MK) bought the building in 1990 and restored it. The $3.4 million renovation was unveiled in 1993.

The renovation opened the bell tower to the public for the first time as MK installed an elevator and stairway. The tower’s four bells used to play music; today, only one rings on the hour.

img_4981.jpg

Inside, a large 1945 train schedule graces part of a wall. The old retail counter houses Boise Depot and Union Pacific memorabilia, such as matches, pins, sugar packets and train time tables. (See photos taken by me below.)

In 1996, the city of Boise bought the depot, which is operated by the Boise Parks and Recreation Department.

The Boise Depot is open to the public for free from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays and Sundays. Otherwise, you can rent it for an event.

Idaho offers extraordinary road trips

Idaho is a pretty state, and driving on U.S. Highway 95 in that state has to be one of the prettiest road trips.

I’ll add it to my list of favorite road trips, which I wrote about in July.

US 95 goes from the United States’ border with Canada south to Mexico. Within Idaho, it stretches vertically for more than 538 miles along the state’s western edge. The most stunning sections — traversing rivers, lakes, farm land and meadows — lie within the 304 miles between Sandpoint in the Panhandle south to New Meadows near Boise.

Map Sandpoint to New Meadows, Idaho

You’ll pass through two time zones without ever leaving Idaho. This description of US 95 is driving north to south:

  • As you leave the laid-back city of Sandpoint, you must drive over the Long Bridge, which stretches for nearly 2 miles across large Lake Pend Oreille. The bridge offers stunning views of the sapphire-blue lake and surrounding peaks, which can be dusted with snow from October through May.
Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho
U.S. Highway 95 cuts straight across Lake Pend Oreille for nearly 2 miles in Idaho. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)
  • South of Sandpoint, you’ll pass through farmland and meadows and the city of Coeur D’Alene. You’ll note a large lake here, one of several waterways along US 95.
  • Around Moscow and south to Lewiston, you’ll drive through the beautiful Palouse region of rolling hills (blond in fall/winter and green in spring). The area is a major producer of wheat and lentils as well as other crops. One theory is that the name Palouse comes from French-Canadian fur traders changed the name of the local Palus American Indian tribe to the French word pelouse, meaning “land with short and thick grass.” (See my featured photo at top.)
  • The city of Moscow, home to the University of Idaho is worth a stop for good cafes, art, vintage stores and a campus walk.
Lewiston Hill, Idaho
This is one of the 64 curves on Lewiston Hill, or the Old Spiral Highway, as it drops 2,000 feet in 10 miles. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)
  • Heading into the city of Lewiston, stop at the overlook for panoramic views of the intersection of the Clearwater and Snake rivers and surrounding hills. Opt to drive Lewiston Hill, or the Old Spiral Highway, if you can stomach a drop of 2,000 feet in 10 miles and 64 curves.
Road sign on Lewiston Hill, Idaho
It’s recommended to take some ess curves on Lewiston Hill, or the Old Spiral Highway, at 15 miles per hour. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)
  • After Lewiston, US 95 follows the stunning Salmon River from south of White Bird to Riggins, with many places to stop to camp, fish or just take in the view along the way. Just before Riggins, you’ll leave the Pacific Time Zone and enter Mountain Time Zone as the road crosses the Salmon River.

Two alternative roads off  US 95 in Idaho also are worth a drive for their spectacular scenery.

State Highway 97 near Coeur D’Alene: Starting near Wolf Lodge on U.S. Highway 90, the road meanders along Harrison Slough and some small lakes. Continue to Plummer or loop back on State Highway 3.

State Highway 55 at New Meadows: This road shadows the Payette River, with especially pretty sections at Cascade, Smiths Ferry and Banks.

Payette River, Idaho
Idaho State Highway 55 offers views like this of the Payette River and surrounding mountains. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)