Red Lights and Silk Stockings
Blaine County's Ribald Past
Photography: Courtesy of Idaho State Historical Society and The Regional History Department of The Community Library
Prostitution thrived just off main streets across Blaine County, but things changed around WWII. A photographer captured this parade down Hailey's Main Street, 1883.
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Before North & Co. became the Hailey bastion for fashion, one of the city’s former foremost clothiers stocked luxury items that were sold after hours to the town’s ladies of the night. Cornerstone Realty sells houses where once love and lust were for sale. There was a time when mothers whispered to their children that Hailey’s River Street, where preschools now reign, was a “no no.”
When men raced to the West seeking gold, prostitutes were right behind them. Brothels were staples of nearly every new Western town, including those that sprang up here during the Wood River Valley mining boom.
Jewelry stores thrived and most other avenues of commerce were so in demand that they created unofficial shopping entrances and hours for these hard-working women, who spent their hard-earned dollars lavishly and enjoyed a good smoke with their drinks.
Galena was the first established community in the Valley, with a population of approximately 800 in 1879, many of them miners employed at two nearby mines. Among the dwellers there were two women known only as Emma and Enid, who entertained the workers until they were asked to leave town. According to Wendolyn Spence Holland, who wrote, Sun Valley: An Extraordinary History, the pair supposedly “retreated” up nearby gulches that were later named after them.
And in a short time, the towns of Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue were founded and soon had their own history-making red light districts.
“Every town had its thriving ‘sporting district’ conveniently located on a live-and-let-live basis, like that of Hailey on River Street,” Clark C. Spence wrote in his book, For Wood River or Bust: Idaho’s Silver Boom of the 1880s. He notes: “The girls were beyond the pale of respectability and legally or implicitly limited to specific areas. Some worked in fancy houses, some out of rooms in the dance halls, and some in squalid cribs just off the sidewalks.”
In 1884, just four years after the town was established, Ketchum had all the trademark businesses of early mining towns, including “13 saloons, four restaurants, two hotels . . . two banks . . . and many establishments euphemistically referred to as ‘female boarding houses,’” according to historical literature. >>>