The phrase popped up often in newspapers of the 1880s and 1890s in Idaho. The Lewiston Teller on February 17, 1887 had an article rich in opinion that went like this: “Tramps are a great nuisance, and should never be left at liberty. It is unjust to the industrious portion of society that they should be compelled to support a horde of strong and healthy idlers. The out-and-out tramp hates work, and never was known to sing that Negro melody, ‘Root hog, or die.’”
In an 1887 opinion in the Idaho Statesman about the Indian “problem,” the author suggested that they be left to “root, hog, or die.” Perhaps he had forgotten that Indians had been the definition of self-sufficient before the idea of land ownership came along with white settlers.
More important to Idaho history, there was a stage station called Root Hog, or Die built in 1887 near the Big Southern Butte by Alexander Toponce. The route it was on started in Blackfoot and served the copper mines near Mackay and north to Challis. Like the phrase it was a reference to, the stage stop was named because they let pigs roam about and fend for themselves on the site, allegedly to keep the rattlesnakes in check. Its name eventually became shortened to Root Hog.
The Wood River Times in 1882 mentioned a road crew grading from Root Hog toward Hailey, and “advancing about 20 miles per day.” The Ketchum Keystone gave us a clue about where Roothog (one word in that article) was located. They reported in 1886 that a salesman for the Lorillard’s Climax Tobocco (sic) Company had an odometer on his buggy. He measured “Blackfoot to Roothog, 24 miles; Roothog to the Buttes, 14 1/2.” An 1890 Blackfoot News article mentioned a surveying effort that might bring irrigation to the area between Root Hog and Blackfoot. That never came about.
In June, 1887 the Idaho News had a single cryptic line from their Challis correspondent reporting that “Root Hog is as lively as ever.”
The original Root Hog stage station was near what today is Atomic City. But the name later became attached to a stage station further north at Kennedy Crossing. Residents of the area were, for some reason, not wild about the name Root Hog. They decided on a fancier name, more in tune with their sophistication, when they applied for a post office. They wanted to call it Junction, because it was at a junction of a couple of roads. Creative as that was, the Postmaster General thought there were already enough Junctions, so he suggested the community be called Arco, in honor of Georg von Arco, of Germany, who was visiting Washington, D.C. at the time. Arco was an important inventor in the field of radio transmission.
There are no other towns in the U.S. named Root Hog, which is surely just an oversight. There are also no other towns named Arco in the U.S., so the folks there still have that distinction.