Pend Oreille County -- Thumbnail History

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 1/22/2006
  • Essay 7618
Pend Oreille County, in the extreme northeast corner of Washington, was the last county created in the state. The long narrow strip of land bordering the Idaho Panhandle comprised the easternmost part of Stevens County until designated a separate county in 1911. In 1912, Newport, the largest town, defeated three other contenders to become county seat. The name Pend Oreille derives from a French-Canadian fur trade moniker for local Indians who probably wore large ear pendants. The area that became the small, sparsely populated county was in many ways the last frontier in the state. Its inhabitants were first the indigenous peoples, then fur traders and explorers, followed by missionaries, then miners, loggers, and homesteaders. Industries such as timber, mining, and cement manufacture provided employment, but most of the profits flowed to outside investors, leaving little for local development. Today the county is working to upgrade its economy, while its scenic beauty and recreational opportunities are attracting tourism and settlement.

First Peoples

The earliest inhabitants of the land now within Pend Oreille County were Indian tribes: Archaeological evidence shows Native American presence as early as 11,000 years ago. In 1809 the North West Company explorer David Thompson (1770-1857) made his first trip down the Pend Oreille River. The Indians he found were the Kalispels, which means “camas people,” after a root that was their staple food, and the Pend Oreilles. The Kalispels currently have a reservation near Usk, the smallest in the state, while many Pend Oreilles now live in Montana. In 1950, the Bureau of Indian Affairs combined the Kalispels and remaining Washington Pend Oreilles into a single tribe. David Thompson and the fur traders who followed did not establish any forts or permanent settlements in present Pend Oreille County.

Protestant missionaries, with their rather austere version of Christianity and failure to understand traditional Indian ways, met with little success among the Kalispels. The Jesuits fared better, and most of the Kalispels are still Catholic. Few of the Kalispels were involved in the Indian wars following the massacre of Protestant missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman at Waiilatpu in 1847. The diseases brought by traders and settlers decimated the population. White settlement and the reservation system forever altered the traditional Kalispel way of life. The strength of the remaining approximately 340 Kalispels lies not in numbers but in determination and vision. Their off-reservation Northern Quest Casino at Airway Heights near Spokane supports, among other projects, the Camas Institute, which addresses educational, vocational, mental, and spiritual needs of tribal members and aspires to provide a model for other tribes.

Gold, Lead, and Zinc

The first substantial influx of non-Indians came in the late 1850s with the discovery of gold in the Metaline area in the northern part of the county. This loose, surface “placer” gold attracted many who had failed to strike it rich in the California gold rush, including Chinese prospectors who were later driven out by a combination of white and Indian hostility. Permanent settlement of the Metaline area did not begin until 1884.

The real mining bonanza, however, would not be in placer gold, but in lead and zinc extracted from the Metaline Mining District by hard-rock mining methods. From 1928 to the early 1950s, the district was the state’s major producer of these metals. During World War II, “soldier-miners” were deployed to the Metaline mines to help produce lead and zinc for the war effort.

The Forest Resource

Timber was the other major extractive industry in the area that became Pend Oreille County. At the time of earliest settlement, the area was almost entirely forested with such trees as western white pine, ponderosa pine, fir, Douglas fir (which is not a true fir), and western red cedar. The acquisition of timberland was complicated. Much came to be owned by the Northern Pacific Railroad through the 1864 Northern Pacific Land Grant. The grant deeded public land over to the railroad in alternating square miles, resulting in a “checkerboard” pattern of public and railroad land parcels along the railroad right-of-way. Although the railroad land was supposed to be opened to homesteaders within five years of completing tracks, repeated failures of the Northern Pacific delayed this promise. Eventually huge multi-state timber corporations, rather than homesteaders, acquired millions of these acres in Pend Oreille County and elsewhere in a virtual give-away.

Yet local timber companies and sawmills did proliferate. Edwin (Hamp) Winchester built the first sawmill in the area, to supply settlers in the Calispell (variant spelling of Kalispel) Valley. The most successful local company was that of Frederick A. Blackwell (1852-1922), who by 1909 owned 65,000 acres in the northern part of the county and built sawmills at Spirit Lake, Idaho, and Ione, Washington, in Pend Oreille County, both under the company name Panhandle Lumber Company. The Panhandle mill in Ione was the first all-electric sawmill in the Inland Northwest. Of particular importance to the area was the cedar pole industry, which supplied poles for burgeoning electric, telephone, and telegraph systems throughout the country.

The loggers who worked for these companies were a combination of local men with families nearby and single, itinerant lumberjacks who traveled from camp to camp with their bedrolls on their backs. Working conditions were difficult and dangerous, pay was low, and hours were long. Bunkhouse life was primitive, but food was usually good and plentiful. The one thing loggers would not tolerate was a bad cook and stingy rations. The single men often squandered a month’s wages on a weekend spree in town. By the 1920s, efforts by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), commonly called the Wobblies, were somewhat successful in bringing about better conditions, shorter hours, and higher wages for Pend Oreille County loggers as well as miners.

Steamboat Era

Steamboat service began on the Pend Oreille River in 1888 and continued for more than three decades as the chief mode of transporting people and freight of the region. Navigation presented few problems between Newport and just south of Box Canyon. But passage beyond that point was impossible until 1899, when the channel was widened enough to allow limited navigation of the rapids. Elmer (“Cap”) Arnold of Blueslide was the only known captain skilled enough to make the Box Canyon run on a regular basis. Otherwise, passengers and freight had to be portaged around the rapids by wagon, then loaded onto the Metaline to continue down river. In 1907 an expensive federal blasting and widening project, at the behest of mining and timber interests, enabled seasonal boat service to Metaline Falls.

Probably the most notable riverboat was the sternwheeler Ione, one of Frederick Blackwell’s various enterprises. This “floating palace” (Bamonte, 137), accommodating 500 passengers, provided pleasure excursions from Newport. All of these boats, big and small, were crucial to the development of the region in transporting settlers, miners, loggers, cement workers, and eventually the builders of a railroad that would replace river transport.

The Railroad Arrives

Because the Pend Oreille River inconveniently flowed north, Blackwell could not float his logs south to existing markets and railheads. The log rafts had to be towed upstream to Newport, a slow and uneconomical process. The Great Northern reached Newport in 1892 enabling rail shipment from that point.

In 1910, primarily in order to transport his logs to the railhead, Blackwell completed his Idaho & Washington Northern Railroad running from near Post Falls, Idaho, north to Metaline Falls via Newport, mostly along the Pend Oreille River. It soon became an all-purpose railroad, moving not only lumber, but zinc, lead, cement products, and all kinds of freight needed by settlers. Its beautifully appointed passenger cars transported the people of the area. Its high bridge crossing the Pend Oreille at Box Canyon was a feat of engineering for the time.

With the coming of Blackwell’s railroad, the colorful steamboat era on the Pend Oreille began to wane. In 1914 the Milwaukee Railroad took control of the Idaho & Washington Northern, which then became merely a feeder for the Milwaukee. The line was discontinued in the 1970s except for a freight service now called the Pend Oreille Valley Railroad, with connections to transcontinental lines. On occasional weekends, the North Pend Oreille Valley Lions Club runs a popular re-enactment of the old passenger service between Ione and Metaline Falls. Passengers hold their breath while the train stops on the high trestle to provide a view of Box Canyon.

Gotta Match?

By the early 1920s, another company, Diamond Match, had overtaken Panhandle as the top timber operation in the county. Amazingly, the demand for matches at the time was such that 80 per cent of its stock of mighty Pend Oreille white pines was reduced to matches. The Dalkena Lumber Company and Ohio Match were also long-term competitors of Panhandle Lumber.

Over the years, more than 250 sawmills operated at various times in Pend Oreille County, ranging from gigantic operations to small single-family businesses. Many small logging operations were based on homesteads acquired under the Homestead Act of 1862, the Timber and Stone Act of 1878, or the 1906 Forest Homestead Act. However, some homesteaders, instead of “proving up” the land for their own use, “fronted” for large timber interests such as Panhandle and immediately sold out to them, often in exchange for stock or a promise of employment. Fluctuating prices, fires, and depressions caused the demise of others. Vaagen Brothers of Ione, the last major sawmill in the county, closed in 1995.


The cement industry, made possible by deposits of limestone and quartz near Metaline Falls, was another mainstay of the county economy. The Lehigh Portland Cement Company (originally Inland Portland Cement Company) was incorporated at Metaline Falls in 1909.

Although the major capital to build the plant came from Pennsylvania, substantial local investors and company developers were Lewis P. Larsen (1876-1955), the founder of Metaline Falls, and Frederick Blackwell. In its heyday, Lehigh employed 400, and Blackwell’s railroad (later Milwaukee), which terminated at the plant, hauled 12 to 15 cars of cement a day. Until closure of the cement plant in 1990, Metaline Falls was a dusty but prosperous town.


Agriculture was slow to develop in Pend Oreille County and never became very profitable. Of course initially it was based on homesteading. Settlers found a few natural valleys and meadows, such as the Calispell Valley, that appeared to have agricultural potential, but soon discovered them to be in a flood plain. The remainder of the area was mostly mountainous and heavily forested.

In 1906, the Forest Homestead Act was passed. Under its provisions, 160-acre plots judged to have agricultural potential were released from the reserved forests. In Pend Oreille County, homesteading under this act was sometimes a ruse to gain and resell timber holdings. Those who actually intended to farm, once they had logged their claims, faced the backbreaking task of stump removal. Local conditions in many areas were more conducive to dairying than to growing crops. These farms first supplied the logging and mining camps and later the creameries in growing towns such as Newport. In 1944 there were 75 commercial dairies in Pend Oreille County. None remain today.

Whether for logging or agriculture, most small private holdings in Pend Oreille County were unprofitable, yielding a precarious existence for the families that held on. Many homesteaders had to find extra work during part of the year, leaving their families to face snowbound winters without them. Local midwives such as Jennie Wooding delivered the babies. The first permanent physician in the area was Dr. John T. Phillips (1871-1942), who came to Newport in 1900. Many settlers simply abandoned their homesteads, and the last public lands were withdrawn from homesteading in 1935.

Community Life

Not all frontier life was hardship and failure, though. The settlers valued education: A family would donate land for a school and the building of a one-room log schoolhouse would be a community effort. For many children, the route to school was long and hazardous. Others, living too far from any school, were taught at home. Older children often boarded with families in town for high school. Barn dances, and school and Grange activities provided the social life typical of frontier communities.

Some of the early settlers did reasonably well and even established towns. A Welshman, George H. Jones (b. 1863), founded Usk in 1886, naming it after a town in Wales. The Cusick family began arriving in the Calispell Valley in 1882, and by 1902 Joe Cusick (1868-1927) had platted the town of Cusick. Ione was founded by homesteader Elmer Hall in 1896, when he established its first post office. Charles Talmadge platted Newport in 1898. Danish immigrant Lewis Larsen, not only built Metaline Falls on the land occupied by three of his mining claims (1910) but became fairly wealthy in the process, with a home designed by Spokane’s renowned architect Kirtland Cutter.

Floods and Fires

The most serious natural disasters in the region were floods and fires. The floods of 1894 and 1948 swept away the farms, homes and livelihoods of many. Albeni Falls Dam, completed just across the Idaho border in 1955, has reduced flooding in the Pend Oreille Valley.

Forest and sawmill fires were frequent and ruinous but none equaled the catastrophic fire of 1910, which blackened three million acres from northeastern Washington to western Montana. After weeks of drought and searing temperatures, on August 20 a violent wind whipped a number of small fires into a single howling firestorm. In the Pend Oreille area, “There was a solid front of fire ten miles wide, from just south of Dalkena down to three miles north of Newport” (Chance, Lumber, 111-112) Many Pend Oreille County people survived by digging holes in the ground.

The town of Dalkena and its sawmill were consumed, but the company rebuilt. Panhandle and other companies lost enormous stands of timber but were able to conduct extensive salvage logging after the fire. More lives were lost and timber and towns destroyed in Idaho than in Washington.

Becoming a County

From 1900 to 1910, the population of the area, still part of Stevens County, grew from roughly 1,200 to 5,900. In the early days of settlement, the county seat of Colville was accessible only by trail across the Selkirk Mountains. The Great Northern Railroad substantially relieved the area's isolation when, on May 28, 1892, its first passenger train from Chicago arrived in Newport. Completion of this transcontinental line in 1893 opened Newport to national markets. Serving as a port both for the Pend Oreille River and the Great Northern, the city became the primary distribution center for the Pend Oreille region’s vast natural resources.

When residents of the area began to agitate for a county of their own, Fred L. Wolf (1877-1957), owner and publisher of the Newport Miner, and Fred Trumbull, an Ione attorney, circulated petitions and lobbied legislators. They received outside help from State Senator Oliver Hall of Colfax whose brother Elmer founded Ione. Oliver Hall had a lodge at Sullivan Lake and loved the area for hunting and fishing. The legislature passed a bill creating Pend Oreille County, Governor Marion E. Hay signed it into law, and it went into effect on June 10, 1911. The new county comprised the easternmost portion of former Stevens County, an area 67 miles long (north to south) and averaging 22 miles in width. It was named Pend Oreille County in preference to Oliver Hall’s suggestion of Allen County, after John B. Allen, Washington state’s first United States senator.

Four towns sought to be named county seat -- Newport, Cusick, Usk, and Ione. Newport, the hub for both river and rail transportation, had the largest population and was closest to Spokane and towns of North Idaho. After being named temporary county seat, its position was confirmed in 1912 by popular vote. Today, with a population of about 2,000, Newport remains the largest town in the county.

The new county still faced a need for roads. Wagon roads, mainly cooperative efforts of the settlers themselves, linked communities along the Pend Oreille River with Newport, but they were sometimes impassable. Fred Wolf of Newport and others agitated for state highways as well as a bridge across the Pend Oreille at Newport. The state legislature created the Pend Oreille State Highway from Spokane to Newport in 1917, and in 1929, a state highway was completed from Newport along the Pend Oreille River to the Canadian border. During Prohibition, it provided a convenient bootlegging route from Canada. Today it is part of the scenic International Selkirk Loop to Nelson, British Columbia, and down through the Idaho Panhandle. Ferries still crossed the Pend Oreille at various points until 1963. Fred Wolf’s long-sought bridge linking Washington to Idaho at Newport was completed 1927 as an interstate project.

The Great Depression

The stock market crash of 1929 and Great Depression that followed did not affect Pend Oreille County immediately, but gradually lumber (except for Diamond Match), mining, banks, and agriculture began to fail, with subsequent loss of jobs. A state agency, the Washington Emergency Relief Administration, set up camps for homeless, unemployed men, one of which was a temporary facility at Newport. An effective federal relief effort, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) created in 1933, employed single young men to help conserve natural resources and develop infrastructure in many parts of the country. In Pend Oreille County major CCC camps were established at Sullivan and Davis lakes. Between them they added a ranger station, an airstrip, part of State Highway 211, trails and other improvements. Many veterans of the program attributed their work ethic to having served in the CCC.

Another Depression-era federal program was more controversial. The Resettlement Program, known also as the Scattered Settlers Project, was designed to return much of the marginal privately owned land to the public domain. The intentions were good: to buy back their land and resettle distressed farmers, as well as to reclaim and better manage forest land and natural resources. The problematic result in Pend Oreille County was the disruption of communities that were viable though poor and even the “rescue” of farmers who actually were surviving. Furthermore, many farmers received less than fair value for their land and were never resettled satisfactorily. Most of the Pend Oreille County land reclaimed under this program was added to existing national forests. The Kaniksu and Colville national forests still occupy vast tracts of the county.

To Build a Dam

A major achievement of the 1950s was construction of the Box Canyon Dam by the Pend Oreille County Public Utility District, the first PUD in the state to build its own dam. In addition to hydroelectric power, it provides a campground, boat launches, a fish hatchery, and environmental maintenance of the riparian areas.

Seattle City Light’s Boundary Dam in Z Canyon near the Canadian border began generating electricity in 1967. Its backwaters have made this wild and scenic stretch of the Pend Oreille River navigable and open to recreation.

Pend Oreille County Today

Today Pend Oreille County has more than its share of problems, including rural poverty. For years, promising young people have left in search of higher education and jobs. But educational opportunities are improving with distance learning and extension courses offered at Newport and Ione by community colleges and universities based outside the county.

Pend Oreille County is now part of a Tri-County Development District (with Ferry and Stevens counties) to create jobs and a sustainable diverse economy. The hospital complex at Newport, paper and fiber mills at Usk, the multi-state Stimson Lumber Company,largest private landowner in the county, and the recently reopened Pend Oreille Mine are among the major employers. The population has inched up to 12,000, leaving, according to the county website, “ample space for wildlife to thrive” and plenty of opportunity for residents and tourists to enjoy its “lakes, thousands of acres of forest and mountains climbing to heights of 7,500 feet.”

The Pend Oreille River is now partly tamed, its lakelike shores south of Box Canyon Dam lined with upscale vacation homes, while its northern reaches are still wild enough for the most adventurous. Obviously the goal for Pend Oreille County is to improve its economy while conserving its scenic and recreational attractions.

Sources: Suzanne Schaeffer Bamonte and Tony Bamonte, “The Kalispels of the Pend Oreille River,” The Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 47, No. 2, (October, 2003), 5-57; Tony and Suzanne Bamonte, History of Pend Oreille County (Spokane: Tornado Creek Publications, 1996); Tony and Suzanne Bamonte, “Pend Oreille County,” in Pathways to History; Roads, Trails and Journeys, the Mingling of Peoples and the Forming of Northwest Communities (Spokane: Tornado Creek Publications, 2005), 152-153; "Box Canyon Hydroelectric Project,” Box Canyon Hydro website, accessed January 13, 2006 (; David Chance, Cabins in Clearings: Homesteading in the Pend Oreille Country of Washington prepared for the Colville National Forest, Contract 53-05G1-2-0380(Moscow, Idaho: David & Jennifer Chance Associates, 1993); David Chance, The Lumber Industry of Pend Oreille County prepared for the Colville National Forest, Contract 43-05G1-0-4600(Moscow, Idaho: David & Jennifer Chance Associates, 1991); Faith McClenny, Pend Oreille County Historical Society, email to Laura Arksey, January 26, 2006, in possession of Laura Arksey, Spokane, Washington; “Pend Oreille County, Washington,” Pend Oreille County Economic Development Council website, accessed January 10, 2006 (

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You