10/11/13 – Revisiting the Great Mud Bath of 1959 in the Boise Foothills

October 11, 2013

One of the things that gives Boise its particular sense of place is the Boise Front, the range of foothills that rise to the Northeast of town and stretch to the Rocky Mountain range.  In 2001, Boise voters approved a $10 million dollar levy dedicated to acquiring open space in the Foothills jumpstarting conservation of this local resource.  This fall, voters will once again be asked to fund park development and open space conservation via a city bond.

While the Boise Foothills are a popular recreation destination and an iconic element of the city, open space management presents challenges.  After this year’s particularly devastating fire season in the West and meteorological conditions in Colorado that caused devastating urban flooding, we were reminded of a piece Jennifer Stevens wrote for our Spring newsletter last year.  Earlier this week, we also found a clip on YouTube that described the same event as our article, Boise’s catastrophic flood of 1959 known as the Great Mud Bath, and the federal response to prevent future floods in the Boise Foothills.

 Archive Archaeology

by Jennifer Stevens

When I was younger, I used to wonder how the horizontal lines across the Boise Foothills appeared there. I knew that the lines were too uniform to be natural, but no one I asked seemed to know anything about them. But, when the City of Boise hired me to research Foothills history for a land exchange it was pursuing a few years back, I discovered the answer.

The devastating Lucky Peak fire burned thousands of acres in the Picket Pin area of the Foothills in August 1959, followed by two torrential rainstorms. Mud poured down the hillside and into the basements of many east and north end homes in what came to be known as the Great Mud Bath of 1959.

I recently stumbled across an entire box of Bureau of Land Management materials at the National Archives in Seattle that detailed the story of and the government’s response to the Great Mud Bath. The Federal Government had increased its activity in the postwar Pacific Northwest, and as part of that trend the newly formed Bureau of Land Management jumped to fix the foothills flooding problem with contour trenching, an old method of stabilizing soil that was being newly applied on high mountain watersheds. Although scientists acknowledged it as the least conservative of all approaches, this was a period of grand intervention in natural resource management. Because the event predated the modern environmental movement, there’s no evidence of any public opposition.

Photos showed the bulldozers cutting into the hillsides to create flat trenches 2-4 feet wide into which the rain could fall and be absorbed by the plants that were seeded there. Today, such a project would generate vast opposition from the environmental community, to be sure. Although the history of flood management is complex, the Picket Pin (and other) trenches you can still see today are a visible reminder of a different era, when the federal government spent money on rigorous intervention with very little public involvement. The BLM find was a “good find” that day in the archives.

Sources consulted: Edward L. Noble, Sediment Reduction Through Watershed Rehabilitation, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Region, 1963.