Thursday, July 16, 2009

Boise, Briefly

July 13, 2009

We only did two things today (well, three, if you count getting our car's 30,000 mile maintenance done). We toured the old Idaho Penitentiary, and we rode 22 miles on the Boise Greenbelt Bike Trail.

The Penitentiary is promoted as a "must see" tourist attraction, with upbeat descriptions about all the jobs the prisoners did to run the place as a self-sufficient little community, and amusing stories about notorious criminals. If we had thought about it a little harder, we might have been better prepared for the gruesome, depressing, inhumane place we visited—it is a penitentiary, after all.

We took a guided tour with a historical society volunteer. The prison was first built in 1870, put in service in 1872, and expanded many times over the years until it was eventually abandoned in 1973. It is made of sandstone cut and quarried by the prisoners on nearby prison property, all the construction was with prisoner labor, and some of the buildings were even designed by the prisoners. Their work is admirable, quite amazing, actually.

Beautiful rose gardens planted by the prisoners still thrive in the central grounds, and our tour guide told us they tested roses for Jackson and Perkins, back in the day. The old equipment they used in their laundry is still on display, leading us to believe that they used the ungainly museum quality early 1900s laundry equipment right up until 1973. There is a section on tattoo art, and one on weapons—interesting, but a bit disgusting.

But, that stuff is all peripheral. The main place in the pen, from a prisoner/s standpoint, has to be the cellblock. And the cells here were grim. Solitary confinement cells had no light or ventilation except for a six inch hole in the ceiling. The regular cells were small cages, many without plumbing, piled on top of each other, with hardly enough space to stand up. Whoever got the top bunk had better be thin, and plan on not rolling over or sleeping on their side. Animal rights activists would be up in arms if kennels kept dogs like this.

We also got to see the gallows, only used once. Again, a sickening sight.

I was disturbed not just by the place, but also by the family entertainment positioning of it. There was a huge group of YMCA campers who looked to be about fourth or fifth graders running about, and several families with kids. This is so NOT family entertainment.

We did learn something very interesting in a transportation museum that is in no way related to the Penitentiary, but is housed in one of its buildings. On exhibit is a boxcar given to the state of Idaho by France, in thanks for Idaho's soldiers' efforts during World War II. Apparently, France put together a train with a boxcar for every state, ran it all around the country collecting gifts from grateful citizens, and then shipped the cars and gifts to this country to be distributed. Inside the boxcar were hand-made dolls, hankies, carvings, and other tokens of thanks. We had never heard of this gracious offering before, and wonder what happened to the boxcars given to the other states.

After a morning at the penitentiary, we were ready to enjoy fresh air and open spaces, so we hit the trail. Boise has a linear park with a paved bike trail that follows the Boise River for many miles both east and west of town. The trail runs right past the back of the Shilo Hotel, where we were staying, so we hopped on it right there, and rode out for eleven miles, then rode back.

There were lots of other people using the path—bikers, joggers, roller bladers, and dog walkers. We passed at least fifty inner tubes and rubber dinghys filled with people floating down the river. There were volleyball and softball games in the parks, and folks out on the golf course. We passed beautiful streamside homes, all with colorful gardens and steps leading to the water. We stopped at historic markers along the way telling the stories of long-gone sawmills and mill towns, and early pioneers and entrepreneurs. We stopped for a snack at a little shelter high on a wild flower covered hill overlooking the river.

In other words, our 22 mile ride was the perfect antidote for a distressing morning.

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