Gustavus P. Glenn knew an opportunity when he saw one. He was a freight hauler with teams of oxen and horses moving needed goods along the Kelton-to-Boise section of the Oregon Trail. Gus’ huge freight wagons were pulled in long trains with as many as twenty yoke of oxen per wagon. He moved along the Snake River Valley and the dusty desert in what became an almost continuous line of travelers. There were covered wagons, horseback riders, and stage coaches dropping off people and goods at places like Rye Grass, Bennetts Creek, Rattlesnake, Blacks Creek, and Boise.
In 1869 Gustavus Glenn built a ferry boat so that his wagons and others could cross the Snake River without the danger of driving horse and oxen teams through the treacherous waters. By this time traffic on the Oregon trail was heavy in both directions. His ferry crossed the Snake River about a mile down stream from where Glenns Ferry, the community, is today.
Gus was from an upstanding Eastern family. He came west as a single man, referred to in some texts as a “rover boy.” He came into Idaho at a time when white women were scarce and there were many single Native American women. In 1869 he married a Native American named Jenny Toms. Her loyalty to Gus is unquestioned. She stayed with him through many rough times and the couple had four sons and three daughters.
When the Oregon Short Line Railroad was extended to Huntington, Oregon, by 1884, Glenns Ferry had become an important rail hub. In 1886, on land given to the railroad by William and Nancy Stockton in 1883, a roundhouse, shops, depot, coal platform, ice house, store, and an office building were built. Glenns Ferry had become a railroad town.
The Stocktons platted the original Glenns Ferry townsite in 1888. It was not long until there was a second ferry across the Snake built by Joseph Rosevear and Ernest Eichholz. Two fires, in 1893 and 1897 destroyed most of the original townsite including the Stockton’s hotel. The only building left standing after the fire of 1893 was the one until recently used as a Health and Welfare office.
By the early 1900s Glenns Ferry was on the move. There was a new lumber yard, druggist, and butcher shop. In 1904 the King Hill tract was opened by an Act of Congress, and work was begun on an irrigation system that would draw water from the Malad River onto the fertile fields of the area. A water system and electric plant were built in 1905 and a steam boat named “Helen” began plying the waters of the Snake River that same year.
Long before there was anyone at a place called Glenns Ferry, there were Native Americans using what was to become the Oregon Trail. The trail of Chief Buffalo Horn, the Shoshone Indians, the Bannocks, and other Native American tribes was the link between the Indian Cultures of the Plains and the Midwest who hunted buffalo, and the ways of the Northwest tribes whose dietary staple was salmon and other fish. At the Three Islands, these cultures met.
The Three Island Crossing of the Snake River by immigrants was more than just a test of will, stamina, and brute strength. The crossing was a transformation from one culture to another, from one country to another. The crossing was the place where you either committed to the new West or you went back. Those who crossed had clearly committed to their right of Manifest Destiny.
When Gustavus P. Glenn found this place, built the first ferry boat, and helped build this town that is named for him, he etched into history the crossing of the cultures of the east and west, Native American and white, explorers and missionaries.
The Glenns have left Glenns Ferry. The ferry and the steam boat are gone. Floods on this stretch of the Snake River are a thing of the past. The fishing, trapping, and hunting are good, but nothing like they used to be. However, the Three Island State Park and adjoining Interpretive Center, and the Glenns Ferry Historical Museum provide opportunities to relive portions of the past that is the foundation of this great community.
The railroad decided to move its hub in 1972 as the diesel locomotives with longer legs no longer needed to get water and coal and switch crews here. So, Union Pacific subsequently tore down the depot and huge round-house that had been major fixtures in town for so long. They left behind five spurs, switched on both ends, on the western edge of town, and the two main lines that run through town. The Idahoan potato dehydration and flake processing company consolidated its operation in Burley, leaving their plant here idle and vacant. Idahoan had provided employment to more people in town than any other business since the railroad, up until 2007 when they moved. But now, with Family Dollar building a store here, a Subway Sandwich Shop on the near horizon, and renewed interest in the vacant plant and the rail spurs, a new day is dawning in Glenns Ferry. Come have a look!