Idaho History August 28, 2016

Colonel William Dewey

(part 1)

Colonel William Dewey: Mining Investor, Road Builder, and Business Developer

August 1 Evan Filby South Fork Companion

Prominent Idaho pioneer Colonel William H. Dewey was born August 1, 1823 in Hampden County, Massachusetts (some sources give the birth year as 1822). Raised on a farm, he presumably followed that line until he moved to Idaho, by way of California, in 1863.

Dewey turned out to be what the Illustrated History called “a born miner.” A relative late-comer to the Owyhee mining regions, he balked at what he considered exorbitant real estate prices. Thus, in 1864 he and some associates started a new town that became Silver City. The county seat of Owyhee County moved there two years later. A new toll road that Dewey helped build along with Silas Skinner and another partner spurred the town’s growth.

During the heyday of the South Mountain mines, 1871-1875, Dewey, to quote the Owyhee Directory, “owned nearly one-half of that prosperous camp.” In 1875, Dewey, then a widower with a young son, married Belle Hagan. Soon after that, he opened the Black Jack Mine, which developed into a most valuable property.


Wedding photo, Belle seated with her sisters standing. Canyon County Historical Society & Museum.

Dewey suffered a severe setback in 1884-1885. He was first convicted of murder for a shooting affray, but a retrial acquitted him on the grounds of self defense. Winning, however, put him heavily in debt for legal fees. Persistence and his skill as a prospector recouped his fortune, and then some.


Colonel Dewey, Illustrated History.

In 1889, the Colonel began selling off mining properties. He was, of course, approaching 70 years of age and perhaps contemplated a well-deserved retirement. However, Dewey’s overall business activity soon picked up again. In 1896, he helped found the Boise, Nampa & Owyhee Railway, which eventually linked Murphy with the Oregon Short Line station in Nampa.

Booneville, located 2-3 miles northwest of Silver City, had been a thriving town in the late 1860s, but then withered away. In 1896, Dewey purchased the town site and rejuvenated its business and mining operations. That included building the topnotch Hotel Dewey.

Dewey also looked further afield. He purchased interests in several central Idaho mining properties and also organized the Idaho Northern Railway Company. That firm then extended the Murphy-Nampa rail line on into Emmett. Dewey’s railroad projects increased his involvement with the town of Nampa, where he became owner of 2,000 lots through a mortgage purchase deal.

The Deweys moved there in about 1900 and the colonel commissioned the construction of the Dewey Palace Hotel. In his description of it, Hiram T. French wrote, “At the time of its erection it seemed to be a structure all out of proportion to the size of the town, for it was a magnificent building.”


Dewey Palace Hotel. Canyon County Historical Society & Museum.

When the hotel was completed in 1902, he and Belle moved into an apartment there. Sadly, the colonel had little time to enjoy it. He passed away in May of the following year, after a lifetime of intense effort and incredible accomplishment.

Belle managed the Nampa properties for a number of years after his death. Recently, a redevelopment effort began in downtown Nampa: Backers call it the Belle District, in honor of Belle (Hagan) Dewey.

source: South Fork Companion
[hat tip to SMc]
— — — — — — — — — —

The Fabulous Col. W. H. Dewey

by Faith Turner

from “Scenic Idaho”, May-June 1953
(note: “Scenic Idaho,” published by Belcher Publishing Company, Boise, Idaho, has long been out publication and Faith Turner appears to have died in 1979)

Part Two

Synopsis: Col. William Henry Dewey, who was born in New York in 1823, came West by way of the Isthmus arriving in San Francisco in 1852. After a short venture into the contracting business he left San Francisco for Virginia City, Nevada, lured there by dreams of gold. When the hoped for riches failed to materialize Col. Dewey, during the year 1863, walked from Virginia City to the site of Silver City, Idaho, there he staked out a townsite which was to become the center of the gold fields. There he was to spend forty more years of a colorful and eventful life trimmed with diamonds and gold. Col. Dewey, so called because of his prosperity and partiality to the South, always wore a diamond stud in his shirt and many are the tales connected with these diamonds.

On August 5, 1884, a brief paragraph in the Tri-Weekly Statesman appeared revealing that Col. Dewey was being held for the fatal shooting of a man by the name of Koenig.

We take up the second half of the story with this affair. The old West was built out of blood and sweat and tears and whiskey and gunsmoke. Dewey was built to use them all.

Here is an episode as related by his son, Con Dewey: “My father and Andy Brennan fast friends were drinking one day in the Summercamp saloon, a big building which afterward was destroyed by fire. Brennan and Henry Koenig, the bar tender, had an argument and quarreled. Father berated Koenig for his abusive words; they finally apologized and he thought the incident was closed, but several of Koenig’s lodge brothers kept agitating the matter, urging revenge.

“Sometime later, on my father’s 61st birthday, August 1, 1884 (when I was only a few weeks old) he walked into the saloon and Koenig announced : ‘You are the man I am looking for. We have a shipment of whisky in the basement we are in doubt about, and knowing you are a good judge I’d like to have you test it.’ (Father could put a few drops in the palm of his hand, rub it, and tell the quality by the smell without even tasting it.)

“Koenig preceded father into the basement. Koenig went into a partitioned room and started to close the door, but our little dog that accompanied father bounced out and began barking a warning. Father, standing at the doorway of the cellar took two steps down to the basement floor, then a shot came through the partly opened door of the partitioned room, striking the wall above his head. A second shot ploughed through his hat and a third glanced off his side, hit a trouser button and went through his underwear, searing his skin. He drew his revolver and emptied it at the partition door.

“Koenig was wounded in the groin and died two days later. Father was arrested and tried for murder; he was convicted on false evidence and sentenced to the penitentiary for seven years, for second degree murder.”

(ED. NOTE: Due to lack of space complete details of the spectacular second trial which exonerated Col. Dewey in the shooting of Koenig cannot be given. Below is a brief description of this re-trial.)

Account of the trial rests in the archives of the University of Wisconsin at present; early files of the Silver City Avalanche were purchased by the University at a sheriff’s sale.

But in a collection of odd copies of the Avalanche in possession of the Idaho State Historical Museum can be found the following data:

“Saturday, May 16, 1885. Trial of W. H. Dewy for killing of Joseph Koenig last August began on Wednesday. Over 100 jurors were subpoenaed before the panel was filled.

“Jurors are : Ezra Mills, George Glass, John Boynton, Steve McElmeel, John Hearndon, P. McCormick, James Greer, Frank Swisher, J. J. Connelly, James Hay, David Williams, and Joseph Shawen.

“The prosecution is conducted by C. M. Hays, District Attorney, and George Kittrell, with Hon. R. Z. Johnson conducting the defense.

“May 25 — Dewey, who was found guilty of manslaughter in September, was granted a new trial last week and acquitted. It is needless to say that he was defended by one of the best lawyers on the coast, Hon. R. Z. Johnson of Boise City, and that the Disrict Attorney was assisted by one of the best criminal lawyers to be found west of the Rocky Mountains—Gen. John R. Kittrell of Modesto, California.

“The court-house was packed with ladies and gentlemen eager to hear Mr. Johnson and eager to hear Gen. Kittrell. The District Attorney opened the argument in an address to the jury lasting one and three-quarters hours, in review of the testimony, followed by Johnson . . . who held the jury spellbound for the same length of time with logic and eloquence, and concluded by telling the jury that Gen. Kittrell who would follow him would repay them with his eloquence for their long patience and attention.

“The jury was not deceived, for the first three words that fell from his lips proclaiming him an orator—not only that but a lucid and logical reasoner. He carried his audience with him and drew from the ladies and gentlemen hot tears by his pathetic remarks and bitter invectives. It was said to be the best argument known to have been presented to a jury.

“But with all his eloquence and lucidness as to the testimony in the case, the jury would not look at it as he did and as he showed it, but returned a verdict of not guilty — and the defendant walked forth a free man and received the congratulations of his friends. “It was reported afterward that on the first ballot there were 11 for acquittal and one (J. J. Connelly) for conviction, but the latter changed his vote.”

In the reminiscences of the Hon. Fred T. DuBoise also to be found in the State Historical Museum — is the following paragraph:

“W. H. Dewey was tried and convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to the penitentiary, but attorneys secured a new trial for him. And as I was satisfied that he was justified in killing the man with whom he quarrelled, having acted in self defense, I treated him more like a guest than a prisoner during the five or six months he was with me. At the second trial he was acquitted.”

Knee Pads and Grit

This happened during the dark days that fell upon Silver City after the failure of the Bank of California and the natural recession of development because of lack of capital. The great mines were fading, machinery was stilled and abandoned slag heaps glistened in the sun like ancient bones once a part of some mighty giant.

After Dewey was exonerated he found himself $40,000 in debt to E. H. Moore, the local merchant, and of course he had no credit . . . his enemies had attended to that. The only way he could get back on his feet financially was to find a new mine. Previously, while operating the Black Jack, he had found small particles of rich float which showed only gold. The Black Jack only producer up to that time on Florida Mountain was chiefly silver. This fact puzzled Dewey and he decided to find the source.

Since this “float” was found on the side of the mountain Dewey resolved to follow it by crawling no easy feat for a heavy man so he had his wife make knee pads for him to use. For a whole summer he prospected, setting small stakes at intervals as he covered the ground. From dawn to dark he worked, and then when spring came again, he resumed his novel method of prospecting without a shovel. He cached his lunch each day in a tree down in Blue Gulch below the Black Jack mine, along with his gold pan, and picketed his mule. The “float” was gradually forming a pattern down the side of the mountain. His wife, Belle, began asking, “When are you going to begin digging, William?”

“Not until I find the right spot!” he insisted. Finally, late in July, he came home one night and announced that on the morrow he would take his pick and shovel. Now he was sure of the pattern formed by the gold-bearing float. He was right. When he dug down a few feet he had hit the main ledge of the Empire State right on the nose. This Empire State mine proved very rich and entirely gold. Dewey then went to E. H. Moore, told him he had three and a half feet of this ore and that if he would supply him with food and necessary equipment for nine people for the winter he had six men who would take their pay out of the first production. Moore agreed to the proposition. Dewey then built cabins, mine shed, ore bin, and blacksmith shop. They drew a cross cut tunnel into the vein, and by November of the following year he had paid his men together with one month’s bonus paid Moore his debt which by then amounted to nearly $50,000, and had a $9500 surplus left. Eventually he took about $450,000 from the Empire State and finally included this mine in the deal when he sold the Blackjack to the Pittsburgh Company, in 1889.

In 1890 the old Colonel bought the Trade Dollar mine from Frank St. Clair and James Douglas. He was satisfied that the Blackjack and the Trade Dollar were one and the same vein and that the latter could be developed, so he went to Pittsburgh to do some promoting. The first ore, produced in 1901, proved very rich. He started the Blaine Tunnel to tap the Trade Dollar at lower depths; when his objective was reached he built the Blaine, or Trade Dollar, mill. From 1892 through 1895 this mine was producing heavily and paying big dividends.


Dewey was ambitious to put his money into a railroad to develop southern Idaho. While in Boise during the fall of 1895 he was approached by some of the leading business men (Tim Regan, Peter Sonna, Eastman, etc.) as to the possibility of building a railroad from Nampa to Boise he told them he intended to extend such a road south to Silver City.

These business men assured Col. Dewey that they would furnish the right-of-way free to Nampa and that they would give him the block of ground across from the present site of the Pinney theater provided he would build a modern hotel on that block. He agreed to do so and left at once for Pittsburgh to sell his Trade Dollar stock in order in finance the deal.

It took him until spring to dispose of his stock. When he returned to Boise he was prepared to keep his promise . . . but the group of business men told him they had decided not to go through with the deal. Dewey was terribly upset, for he had made a sacrifice when he sold his Trade Dollar mine stock. He lost his temper and told them “he hoped he would live to see the grass grow in the Main street of Boise!”

Immediately he sent word for Con to meet him (Con was about eleven years old at the time but he drove the team all the way) and together they stopped in Nampa where the Colonel negotiated for the purchase of the Nampa townsite from Alexander Duffes who had homesteaded it in the previous decade. It consisted of more than 2000 lots. Then and there Dewey decided to build a city at Nampa, to start his railroad to Silver City, and to build a modern hotel at Nampa to enhance the value of the townsite he had bought.

Ed Dewey, oldest son of Col. Dewey became vice-president and general manager of the Boise, Nampa and Owyhee railroad which had been constructed as far as Guffey, Idaho. The town being named in honor of J. M. Guffey, the Pennsylvania oil man.

On the run between Boise and Nampa was a special car called the “Geraldine” in honor of Ed’s daughter, which was elaborate with red plush and brass fittings. It was an extra fare car, costing ten cents extra for the trip.

His objective was to extend his railroad east to Butte, Montana. The road to Murphy was completed in 1899 and the road north from Nampa to Emmett in 1902, a combined distance of eighty-eight miles. In time this was sold to the Union Pacific with the stipulation that it be completed to McCall, which it was, by his sons, in 1910.

Back In Silver City

Before the curtain falls on the epic of Silver City there should be a glimpse into the gay ’90’s. In that last decade before the century ended there was great activity in this patriarch of Idaho mining towns that had known an influx of 10,000 adventurers, had built a city of homes, schools and churches, and a newspaper with the first leased telegraph line in the territory. The whistle of hoists and mill engines and the roar of giant powder blasts were music in the ears of her citizens.

Col. Dewey had already tried his hand at hotel building. He had taken over the old town of Booneville a few miles below Silver, in 1896, and given it a thorough face- lifting, re-naming it “Dewey.” Here he constructed an ornate hotel of sixty rooms with three verandas and a cupola, installing every modern convenience known to the times so that it was considered “unequaled by any hotel in the state.” There was a residence built for the superintendent of the Florida Mining and Milling Company which had its 20-stamp mill close by . . . a general store, laundry, post office, livery stable, etc.— all with “ample fire protection.” But the fine hotel burned just after the turn of the century, and the town became deserted. A few people are still living who remember Silver City in the days of its glory people like Lem York, born in Maine in 1866, who became publisher of the “Avalanche” and printed the now prized “Historical, Descriptive and Commercial Directory of Owyhee County, Idaho,” in 1898, from which some of the data in this story is obtained. There is also Elisha Lewis, born in 1872, still spry and active ; he makes his home in Silver, still, coming down to Boise only when the snow lies deep in the canyons of War Eagle. He, and Will Hawes (self-appointed guardian of the ghost city) and Fritz Dorst are about the only ones left who now claim all-year residence up there. In summer it is a mecca for tourists.

Another Dewey Diamond Story

When the Deweys lived in Silver City their residence was slightly above the town on the slope of the mountain. One winter night the Colonel and his wife attended some function in town. After they had returned home and he had removed his coat Mrs. Dewey exclaimed,
“Why, William where is your diamond stud?”

The Colonel shouted, “I got it on me!” Then he peered at his shirt front and added: “But it’s sticking me in the belly!”

Search failed to reveal anything except the spiral of the stud inside his shirt. He was furious. No diamond. Just then he heard the sound of horses’ hooves and the thud of the mail stage as they struck the bridge across Jordan Creek and because he had been vainly looking for a $30,000 dividend check from the Trade Dollar Mining and Milling Company it didn’t help the present situation any. He yelled,
“Con go get the mail!”

Con, who was a small boy then, took an old smoky lantern from the hook, put on an overcoat, and started down the hill. He decided he might as well search for the missing diamond while he was gone. His father’s trail was easy to trace because of his peculiarly-soled overshoes. The expected letter was not there because blizzards in Wyoming had held up train service for several days.

Slowly he followed his father’s tracks. Suddenly, about 200 feet below the house he saw where the old gent had stopped to get his breath and lean on his cane. In a foot track he saw something glitter!

He had been gone two hours, so it seemed expedient to go to the back door. His mother was in the kitchen, explaining meals to the Chinese cook. When Con entered she said to him:
“Connie I hate to see you go in the front room. Your father is in a terrible humor!”

Sure enough, the old man was fuming.

“You been in a fight? How many windows have you broken this evening? I have notion to take a strap to you! Why did it take you so long?”

“I been looking for your diamond, father,” Con answered.

“Huh. It’ll be down in Jordan Creek when the snow melts. It’s gone!”

“But I found it, father!”


As Con produced it. Dewey shouted “Belle ! Belle ! Come here. What do you think this boy found my diamond ! Isn’t that wonderful ? I want you to give it to him when I die!”

Which is why Con has worn a three-and-a-half carat diamond for fifty years. He had it reset in a ring, in 1903.

Now, Nampa

With the complete closing out of his mining interests in Silver City in 1900, the stage was set for the Nampa chapter in the life of Col. Dewey. He was ready, now, to begin the realization of his dream of an Aladdin-like hotel set in the midst of sagebrush. The excavation for this hotel was begun in August, 1900.

Actually Nampa was incorporated and already on its way before Dewey started building, but it was considered a “dismal crossroads in the wilderness.” If the old Colonel did not build the city he certainly gave it a shot in the arm. And he was old by this time . . . seventy-seven years but, he could pass for a man much younger because of his immense vitality.

The palatial hotel was built in the southern style of architecture that the old Colonel admired, with double verandas and white pillars. It had eighty-one sleeping rooms, each with outside windows. W. K. Johnson of Chicago was the architect, and Joseph A. Graef from the same city did the interior decorating and the wood paneling and the solid oak doors, casings, and staircase made it unique and durable. It was the first building in Idaho to use steel lath.

All the furniture came from Grand Rapids, the linens and silver and carpets from Marshall Field’s. Every dish was stamped with a picture of the hotel in its design and, today, one is a collector’s item!

The “Dewey Palace” was completed in 1902, at a cost of $242,000 in a day when dollars bought more than they do now. The grand opening was held February 20, 1903. It was a gala occasion. People came from as far away as Omaha and San Francisco to attend.

About 1500 Boiseans came on a special train of seven coaches packed to the bellcords the Nampa crowd met them and escorted them to the hotel where William E. Borah stood at the door beside William H. Dewey to greet the mob of guests . . . about 2500 in all. The “millionaire mine owner and promoter” finally had to sit down in the corridor to shake hands . . . until his arm gave out.

“The great hotel was inspected from basement to tower by the guests,” said the Idaho Daily Statesman next day. “The Democrats were interested in the bank vaults at the east end. The Republicans were attracted by the slot machines. They saw the assembly room, and danced in the ball room until midnight when a magnificent banquet served two hundred at a time.” The party broke up at 8:15 a.m.

In 1903 it was considered the finest hotel between Denver, Omaha and Portland. Traveling men made it a point to stop over there, and it became a weekend paradise for mining men on the way to and from Silver City and Delamar.

Many famous people have stopped at the Dewey Palace : President Howard Taft, when he was Secretary of War; William Allen White; Diamond Jim Brady, Lillian Russell, among them.

When Governor James Hawley and Senator W. E. Borah were preparing their case against Haywood, Moyer and Pettibone in the Steunenberg assassination case, they came to the hotel at 1:30 in the morning, Con Dewey meeting them at the depot and taking them to their rooms. For four or five days they “hid out” while they worked, and no one in the whole Northwest knew their whereabouts ; the newspapers speculated that they had been kidnapped. They came and went only through the basement. Con Dewey himself carried their meals to them ; no one else was permitted to answer their bells. James McParland, the Pinkerton detective who caught Harry Orchard after Governor Steunenberg was killed, stayed at the Dewey Palace for two or three weeks under an assumed name during that exciting time. He kept a double-barreled shotgun in his room.

It was during 1900, the year excavation started for the Dewey Palace, that Col. Dewey took an option on mining properties in the Thunder Mountain district up in the primitive area of Valley County. The $100,000 option was paid to the Caswell Brothers, who had made a notable gold discovery there the previous year; Dewey then organized the “Thunder Mountain Gold and Silver Mining and Milling Company.” Then the gold rush started to this new bonanza—a colorful and unforgetable episode in Idaho’s history. The strike, at first, seemed to be so rich that a bill was brought before the legislature proposing that the area be set aside to pay the national debt!

Col. Dewey (with the Midas touch) did not name the mine after himself—but it soon became known as the “Dewey.” The Thunder Mountain story is a fabulous epic in itself, which will be only mentioned in this narrative without elaboration, due to two reasons. The old Colonel never visited this area. It was an exceedingly arduous trip over some of the most rugged terrain in the state, and his health was failing. His life had been one of intense activity, and of later years a gain in weight—285 pounds distributed over a 5-foot 71/2 frame —had resulted in an advanced case of dropsy. In April of 1903, following the formal opening of the Dewey Palace, he made a trip to Hot Springs, Ark., with only temporary benefit.

On May 9 — in his eightieth year — Col. Dewey died, with his son Con at his side. His was the first death to occur in the palatial hotel which had been the realization of his dream. The Thunder Mountain activity, supervised by his son, Edward Dewey, soon began to lose impetus, then. The city of Nampa went into mourning for the man who had promoted it so lavishly.

The End

source: AHGP Owyhee County
[hat tip to SMc]

see alsoColonel William H. Dewey (part 2)

page updated September 17, 2020