Boise Places Worth Seeing

Old US Assay Office - Idaho's First Piggy Bank

Boise's old US Assay Office always seems to be overlooked when it comes to sightseeing. After all, there's nothing to buy there, nothing for the kids to play on, and nothing to entertain you except the bare facts of history. I'd venture to say as well that most people only have a slight inkling as to what an assay office is/was, and why they should care.

To be brief, after they started finding gold and silver in the 1860's in them thar hills around us, they needed to get it someplace official so the Black Bart and Jesse James types wouldn't be able to steal it, and also so they could analyze it, weigh it, and do all that other stuff they need to do to gold or silver when it comes out of the ground. Since the nearest mint was in San Francisco and the feds didn't want to build a mint in podunk frontier Boise, the US congress appropriated $75,000 in 1869 to build the assay office you see today. It was their way of saying, "You boys collect all the gold and silver and do all the work, and then we'll take it off your hands." Sounds familiar.

Since it was intended to house mass quantities of precious metals, the building was constructed of the most solid construction materials available at the time, namely Idaho sandstone from the nearby quarries. You'll notice the resemblance to the State Capitol, the Old Idaho Pen, and the old Children's Home on Warm Springs Avenue, all of which were constructed from the same type of rock from the same quarries. The walls of the Assay Office are two feet thick, and iron bars were put on the windows to keep the riffraff out. It's safe to say that there were armed guards also present in the building and on the grounds, but their efficacy in deterring would-be robbers is highly questionable, considering that armed guards didn't do much for Abraham Lincoln just a few years earlier and he was, you know, the president and all.

On the whole, the building is rather impressive and looks almost the same as it did when it was built. According to my sources, the Assay Office site, which takes up a whole city block and is ringed with some very impressive trees, is the last undeveloped block in the original 1863 Boise City townsite. You can celebrate that fact by taking a picnic lunch to the site and spreading a blanket on the nice shady lawn, which probably has all kinds of nice artifacts underneath its roots.

On a recent visit to the site with a fellow explorer of historical sites, we wanted to see if we could actually get inside the Assay Office. Let's face it, the outside, while impressive, is only about a five-minute diversion for me and the great proportion of our society suffering from ADD. When my friend went up to the front door and attempted to open it, he found it to be unlocked, after which he reminded me that an open door is an invitation. There were no worries, however, because the Assay Office is actually the current home of the State Historic Preservation Office and the Archeological Survey of Idaho. Apparently, after they had run about $75 million of gold and silver through the Assay Office, it was no longer needed and was closed in 1933. Then the Forest Service set up shop in the building until 1972, after which, in true hand-me-down fashion, it was transferred to the Idaho State Historical Society, who still have it. So yes, you can go inside during business hours without committing a B-and-E.

While we were reading some of the posted information and doing a lot of gawking at the old woodwork and such, we were accosted by a grad student who gave us some information about how the inside of the building was used back in the day, and he then encouraged us to have a good look around. The building has a basement and a second floor, and it only felt slightly odd walking through rooms that are now people's offices. Luckily no one else was around, but I'm sure they don't mind the six or seven visitors they get per year.

Place worth seeing: Old Assay Office
Where: 210 Main St.
Boise, Idaho 83702

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Hours: Outside
Dawn to dusk, 365 days a year  
Government hours
Cost: Free
Website: Idaho State Historical Society
Fun fact: I giggle every time I hear the word 'assay'.