Former governor Frank Steunenberg was assassinated on December 30, 1905 when a bomb planted by Harry Orchard blew up as Steunenberg opened the gate to his Caldwell home. Rather than repeat that sensational story, let’s look at one little-known aspect that is our most visible reminder of the Steunenberg assassination today.
Two days after the bombing, on January 1, 1906, Avery C. Moore of Weiser was calling on citizens to come together to honor Steunenberg with a marble statue in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol building, and with a monument in Boise. In his letter to Idaho papers Moore said, “We can do nothing for him now but to keep his memory green, but that much we must do.”
By March the idea had caught on and the Stuenenberg Monument Association was formed to create a memorial in Idaho. A representative from every county in the state was on the committee, which was to determine the cost of the project, raise funds, and commission an artist to carry out the work.
In 1913, Bartlett Sinclair, who had been state auditor during the Steunenberg years, championed the proposition that Idaho use its remaining niche in Statuary Hall to honor the man. By tradition each state could place two statues on display there. Idaho had commissioned a marble statue of the state’s first governor, George L. Shoup and had it placed in 1910. The idea did not initially gain any traction.
It wasn’t until 1917 that the Idaho Legislature approved $15,000 for a state memorial to be used as match for money being raised by the Steunenberg Monument Association. At that point little money had been raised.
Dollars to match the appropriation were still forthcoming in early 1924 when discussions began about the appropriate location for the memorial. The triangle in front of the Idaho Capitol was mentioned, but the committee was leaning toward a location near the Civil War cannon. They raised $14,000 in contributions by the end of that year.
In 1927, Bartlett Sinclair made another pitch for a statue of Steunenberg to be placed in Statuary Hall. Again, his idea remained just that, perhaps due to a reluctance to commit the last space in the hall the state would be allocated.
Meanwhile, Frederic E. Triebel, the man who sculpted the Shoup statue already on display in Washington, D.C., visited Boise and declared the triangle in front of Idaho’s statehouse to be the perfect location for a memorial, pointing out that he had said the same thing 20 years earlier. Coincidentally, he was very interested in gaining a commission for the work.
Triebel, who was from New York, wasn’t the only sculptor who was interested. Oregonian Avord Fairbanks, who had designed the popular “Idaho Doughboy” statue in Moscow, wanted the commission, as did Gilbert Riswold of Chicago, who had designed the Mormon Battalion memorial in Salt Lake City.
Riswold was chosen by the commission. He set up a temporary office in the Eastman Building in Boise and put a model of the memorial on display, along with a clay bust of Steunenberg. The latter was described by family members as “almost a speaking likeness.” The bronze statue would be eight feet tall, mounted on a granite pedestal that would raise the height of the memorial to 14 feet.
The sculptor expressed his excitement, saying in the Idaho Statesman that he was “looking forward with keen interest to the modeling of this calm, dignified, plain western character.”
The bronze was cast in San Francisco and arrived in Boise a few days prior to the unveiling of the memorial, which took place Sunday morning, Dec. 11, 1927, some 21 years after it was first proposed. In those years a world war had been fought, the capitol building itself had risen from nothing to become a grand dome, with its east and west wings added in 1919, and the site of the memorial, once homes and apartments, had been cleared.
Construction of the memorial was a study in patience and its completion a triumph for many who had worked for decades to see it through. Then, oops. The land was owned by the city, the monument was dedicated to the state, but who would finish the landscaping and maintain the site?
Bartlett Sinclair, the man who wanted the Statuary Hall honor for Steunenberg, pressed city and state officials to finally work out the details, allowing the final touches to be added to the memorial.
It would be 1947 before Idaho presented its second statue for display in Washington, D.C. It would be William E. Borah represented in marble there, not Frank Steunenberg.