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.

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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.