Boise Places Worth Seeing

Boise Depot - Still Waiting on a Train

The Boise Depot is the city's trophy wife. The trains stopped rolling through town in 1997, so the Depot doesn't have any grand purpose right now except to be there, look pretty, and host a party every once in a while. It also has some cool gadgets to gawk at and enjoy, and the view from the top isn't bad either.

Built in 1925 to service the Oregon Short Line (the precursor to the Ontario Short Bus), the Depot was eventually absorbed into the Union Pacific empire. For many years the Boise Depot was the grand entrance to Boise or the fastest way to get to the hobo camps in Temecula. Eventually the family truckster and the Boeing became the preferred methods of American transportation, so the Depot fell into disrepair and was later bought by the erstwhile Morrison Knudsen Corporation in 1990. They did their civic duty and renovated the place in 1992, but it wasn't long before they realized that owning an old railroad depot, even a nice one, is like owning a boat. Which is to say, they're great when they belong to someone else. So they sold the Depot to the city of Boise in 1996, just in time for the trains to stop coming the next year. Life is all about timing, right?

These days, a trip to the depot usually involves a picnic on the shady lawn, enjoying the view down Capitol Boulevard toward the statehouse, or it involves a walk around the Platt Gardens, which, believe it or not, have been around in some form since 1927. The gardens feature an impressive pond that is fed by a waterfall and framed by many large rocks and shrubbery. It's also filled with golden salmon, which is what we like to call the multitude of large koi fish that are easily visible among the lily pads. Keep an eye on your kids, because if something falls into the water those seemingly placid fish turn into a swarm of piranhas. I've seen it with my own eyes.

The Platt Gardens also feature a nice flat rocky overlook that is a great place to have a press conference if you're the mayor announcing the possible return of train service to the city, or if you're a US senator who wants to tell everyone that you're not gay after getting arrested for playing footsy in an airport men's room. The Boise skyline and foothills lend such gravitas to those types of events.

The Depot building itself is only open in the summer on Sundays and Mondays, so your visit might be limited to strolling around the outside and admiring the Spanish-style architecture and its tall bell tower. You can also get a close look at "Big Mike", which is a Mikado-type steam engine built in 1930 and given to the city in 1956. It was moved to the Depot site in 2007 after spending many years in Julia Davis Park watching geese fertilize the grass. There's a new interpretive kiosk in front of Big Mike, so go ahead and fill your head with trivia so you can keep winning those Boise Trivial Pursuit games with the neighbors.

If you make a point to go to the Depot in the summer during visiting hours, you can go inside the building and marvel at the Great Hall, which contains a snazzy tile floor, a high wood-beam ceiling, old wooden benches, and many other curiosities.

The Great Hall

Back when the Boise Depot was abuzz with travelers from 1925-1962, the Barkalow Brothers newsstand sold newspapers, cigars, hemorrhoidal cream, and anything else you needed for that long trip to Portland. The newsstand is still there at the west end of the Great Hall, and its display cases contain many historical artifacts from the Depot's heyday. If you're looking to scare small children, be sure to take them to the demon face on the wall in the northeast corner of the Great Hall. Back in the day, this sculpted visage spouted fire, the blood of Daniel Webster, or drinking water; no one seems to remember which. Now Mr. Mephistopheles just hangs there, mouth agape, daring little fingers to investigate its orifice.

The true treat of the Depot is a trip to the top of the bell tower. It still contains the original staircase, but strangely enough the fire code now requires that all visitors must be escorted to the top in the Depot's Wonkavator. Unlike the Wonkavator at the chocolate factory, the Boise Depot Wonkavator does not go side to side, but it does contain plenty of glass so you can see the innards of the tower as you slowly ascend. And if the escort hits the wrong button, you could very well zip up right through the roof and get a bird's eye tour of the town, just like they did at the end of the movie.

The infamous Wonkavator!

It's a short ride to the top, and for some reason the signs at the ground floor lie and tell you it's only three stories tall. In reality it's nine stories, but someone made the decision awhile back that an ignorant acrophobiac is a happy acrophobiac, so everyone wins. Seriously. Ask your escort about it.

After you get to the top you can get out of the Wonkavator and walk around it, taking in a 360° view of Boise. Except for the safety netting covering all the viewpoints, it's one of the best views in town. You'll notice numerous large bells, but only the west one is still used today. Apparently the neighbors grew tired of hearing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" at all hours, so they made a fuss and got them silenced. I bet they'd say the same thing if the trains showed up again. The return of train service could happen, I suppose, but it's not likely, no matter what Mayor Dave Bieter says. So enjoy your trophy wife, Boiseans, because it will likely be the only one you'll ever be able to afford.

Place worth seeing: Boise Depot
Where: 2603 W Eastover Terrace
Boise, Idaho 83706

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Hours: Outside
Dawn to dusk, 365 days a year  
Sundays 10-6
Mondays 12:30-8
Cost: Free
Website: City of Boise
Fun fact: A few years ago all the koi in the depot's fish pond got a type of fish herpes. Really. Look it up. The ponds had to be drained and sanitized.