The old courthouse-jail in Pierce, Idaho, is the oldest public structure in the state. Photo courtesy of J.M. Moynahan

By J. M. Moynahan

Word was out! Gold had been discovered east of the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers. Men hoping to strike it rich flocked to the area. Some found gold, many didn’t. But the boom towns of Oro Fino and Pierce were created on the Weippe Prairie.

(The Weippe Prairie is about 1500 feet above the Clearwater River. There were actually two towns in the area with similar names. The original Oro Fino was established during this gold rush. It was near Pierce and the town has since disappeared. The second town is Orofino, located on the Clearwater River below the Weippe Prairie. This town was founded in 1895. Oro Fino is Spanish for fine gold. The name was probably first used in the area by miners who had come from California or the Southwest.)

As the gold played out, so did the miners’ enthusiasm, and off they went to the next big find. When they went they left behind an important structure — Idaho’s first jail. (Idaho City has the second oldest jail in the state. It was constructed in 1864 for $10,000.) 

Clearwater Gold Rush of 1861

In 1858 gold was found by Capt. Elias D. Pierce on the lands of the Nez Perce Indians. He was reluctant to do any mining because it was on reservation land given to the Indians by treaty.

But three years later, word leaked out and the Clearwater Gold Rush of 1861 began. 

Within six months, over 2,500 miners and their hangers-on rushed to the Nez Perce lands. Short of war, there was no way the Indians could stop this invasion. They choose not to go to war — at that time. (This infringement upon treaty land as well as other events, eventually led the Nez Perces under Chief Joseph to try and escape the reservation and find a new home in Canada. This is questionably titled the Nez Perce War of 1877.)

Mining, then a town

Most of the mining operations were placer. That is, gold on the surface of the land was taken via panning, rockers and sluice boxes. Activities centered around Orofino Creek, Canal Gulch, Rhodes Creek and French Creek. Many of the miners were making from $8 to $80 per day.

By all accounts, Pierce City grew rapidly and by 1862 a number of people were living in the city and the surrounding areas. The town had three saloons, two hotels, two lodging houses, five general stores, three livery stables, a grocery store, meat market, barbershop, drugstore, sawmill and newspaper. A military post followed in 1863.

Missing was a jail and a courthouse. Both were badly needed since the town was the county seat and therefore the center for both civil and criminal legal activities.

Jail specifications

On May 26, 1862, the county commissioners posted notice that a jail was to be built. With the notice, they gave the specifications of the structure along with a proposed completion date. 

Specifications for the Construction of the Pierce County Jail (1862)

The Building to be 30 feet long and twenty feet wide, 16 feet posts, and the roof to be of a square or 1/2 pitch, covered with the shakes of 3 feet long, and 2 feet to the weather, shakes to be well nailed on. The Outside base timbers 12 inches square, the lower floor to be 8-inch square, timber and covered with a 2-inch plank, except under the Sheriff’s office, where sleepers shall be laid 20 inches apart, and planked on top with a 1-inch plank, the whole of the inside of the two small cells to be planked on the sides double with 1 1/2 inch plank, the ceiling of 1-inch plank single and the whole closely spiked, the upper floor to be of square timber not less than 6 inches in thickness, and covered on top with 1-inch lumber, well laid down the timber of the upper floor to be morticed into the side of the building, the sides and back end of the building as high as the upper floor to be of 6-inch square timber, and above the upper floor, not less than 6 in flat hewed timber the front of the building to be planked up and down with 1 1/4 in. plank and battened with 1-inch plank about 3 or 4 inches wide the doors in all the cells (3) to be made of 1-inch plank, double both thicknesses well spiked or nailed closely to prevent cutting (with wrought nails). The outside front door to be of double 1-inch plank the windows n front (3) to be of a size to admit of glazing 10 x 14 glass a hole to be left in each of the cells for light, 4 x 10 inches, the partitions in all or between the cells to be of square timber not less than 6 inches thick and the same at the back of the sheriff’s office, the upper room to be of the full size of the building, the half story ties or collar beams to be each pinned into the rafters at both ends, in the rear of the building will be required a batten door, (in the upper story) and a strong common pair of stairs from the ground up, the lower story to 9 feet in the clear. The whole of the work to be done in a workmanship-like manner and subject to the approval of the Board of County Commissioners and completed on or before the 26th day of July A D 1862 by Order of the Board of County Commissioners at their May term of Court

On June 7 the following bid was submitted: 

                               Pierce City, W.T., June 7, 1862

To the Hon Board of County Commissioners of Shoshone County W.T.

We the undersigned agree to build the County Court House and Jail subject to the approval of the Board of County Commissioners according to the plans and specifications as given by the County Commissioners upon the following terms to wit:

We agree to build the structure all the woodwork of the said Court House and Jail for the sum of Thirty-Seven Hundred Dollars ($3700.00). Good security will be given for the fulfillment of the contract and we furthermore pray that the County Commissioners will grant and allow us a Lenity of fifteen days expiration of the time the contract is to be completed.

 C. Reed, N. Keith

Completed in August 1862

Sureties were supplied that same day and the contract was accepted. Reed and Keith now had a jail to build. The site was secured and the two started construction. By August 1862 the courthouse, consisting of a courtroom, sheriff’s office and jail was completed. Although the building was completed one month late, no one was very concerned. Most important was the fact that there were no cost overrides!

The two-story building measured 20’ wide by a little over 30’ deep. It was made of local hand-hewed logs and had a gable roof covered with wood shakes. A wood-burning stove inside the building provided heat.

The jail cells were in the back of the building. At the top of each cell, there was a 12-inch by 12-inch window with three bars. The ironwork was probably done by one of the smiths in town. 

When conflicts and crime occurred in the county they were handled by the sheriff, his deputies, judges and juries. The jail was an important part of the process as it held individuals both pretrial and posttrial. (This jail is classified as a multi-use jail building It housed the sheriff’s office, court as well as the jail.) 

A tenderfoot’s tale

A story survives of one man who was involved in a crime and probably spent some time in the facility. The year after the jail was built David Elliott was elected judge. During Judge Elliott’s term on the bench, an “Easterner” was tried for murder.

Apparently this young man was being tormented by the town bully. This had been going on since the Easterner first arrived in town. One of the favorite stunts of the bully was to shoot at or near the man’s feet and force him to “dance” for the crowd.

After this happened several times the young man bought a pair of guns and secretly learned how to use them. Once he developed sufficient skill he went downtown where the bully was entertaining a crowd with stories of his greatness. The bully soon saw the tenderfoot and began firing at his feet and commanding him to dance for the group.

The tenderfoot danced for a minute or two, then without warning pulled out his two guns and began shooting at the bully. One of the shots killed his tormentor. He was arrested and taken to jail.

When he appeared before Judge Elliott the tenderfoot was fined $5 and ordered to surrender his guns to the court. He paid his fine, delivered his guns and left the court.

The Easterner’s social service homicide did not go unnoticed by the townsfolk. The miners were so happy to be rid of the bully that they took up a collection and purchased a set of revolvers for the young man!

Gold plays out

As in most mining towns the gold soon played out. First, the placer deposits disappeared and then the hard rock mining became less productive. The original miners and businesses left. Soon a number of Chinese came and settled in the town.

The Chinese bought the old claims and reworked them. They were more patient and were able to find the gold that had been overlooked by the original miners. (Chinese were legally prohibited from staking claims. In Idaho as well as some other territories, claims abandoned by white  miners were purchased or taken over by Chinese.)

In time gold became even more scarce and the Chinese began leaving the area. By 1880, Shoshone County was hard-pressed to find 40 voters.

County seat moves

In early 1880 gold was discovered north of Pierce in the Murray area. A rush began and miners flocked to the area. Soon the population balance had shifted to the new goldfields. The citizens of Murray voted to move the county seat from Pierce. (Murray is now in the area known as the Coeur d’Alene Mining District.)

The county seat and records were transferred to Murray in 1885. As the crow flies Pierce and Murray were only separated by 75 miles. By road it was a long trip of over 240 miles. This was definitely not convenient for transacting legal business, including criminal affairs.

Murray built its own jail and courthouse so legal matters were handled there. (The original Murray courthouse collapsed in 1996 a victim of age, decay, neglect and hard winters. Murray is currently a semi-ghost town with a very interesting history.)

The Pierce jail was apparently used for a short time after the county government transferred up north.

Jail becomes a home

Soon after the transfer, Ed Hammond bought the courthouse-jail building for $50. Hammond was the first of many people who used the building as a home. Timber cruiser Jack Maloney and his family also used the structure as a home. His daughter was even born in the old jail.

Unfortunately, the interior of the building is not in its original state. In the 1920s Helen Larson owned the building. She graciously allowed various town groups to hold meetings in it. To show their appreciation one of the groups offered to make improvements to the structure. But before she could approve their plans she discovered they had ripped out all of the historic interior of the building. Mrs. Larson immediately stopped the work and soon afterward the interior was extensively remodeled.


Eventually, Mrs. Henry Spencer Lawson purchased the building for the sole purpose of preserving it as a historical site. Initially, the government was reluctant to take back ownership of the building, eventually Idaho’s first jail and courthouse once again became a public building.

In 1972, 110 years after it was constructed, this building was transferred to the State of Idaho. One of the sites in the Nez Perce National Historical Park, the Pierce Courthouse-Jail building is an Idaho state historic site administered by the Idaho State Historical Society.

Visiting Idaho’s first jail

This multi-use jail building is being preserved and maintained for present and future generations. It is one of the oldest jails in the West and well worth viewing. The trip to Pierce will take the jailologist through some of central Idaho’s most beautiful country to find Idaho’s first jail.

The old courthouse-jail is located on the northeast corner of Court Street and 1st Avenue in Pierce. Pierce is in Clearwater County in northeastern Idaho. 

J.M. MOYNAHAN is Professor Emeritus in Sociology and Criminal Justice, Eastern Washington University. Emily Matthias assisted the author in gathering some material for the article.