AIC Shines Its Community Spotlight on St. Charles
Tuesday, November 8, 2016
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
St. Charles City Hall
St. Charles is a charming rural community overlooking the northwestern shores of the beautiful and spectacularly blue Bear Lake. The Idaho/Utah border lies eight miles south.
The Cache National Forest and the Wasatch Mountain Range, with peaks rising to over 9,500 feet, outline the city’s western sky. To the north lies the fertile high-mountain meadows and wetlands of Bear Lake Valley. Across the six-mile-wide Bear Lake is the Bear Lake Plateau, rising to over 7,878 feet. Eighteen miles due west of St. Charles is the Idaho/Wyoming border.
The ambience of rustic homes built between the lake and the western side of Cache National Forest compliments the city’s leisurely pace of life.
The residents cherish their rural lifestyle and the unlimited outdoor recreational opportunities of hiking, camping, hunting and fishing in the nearby streams and lake.
Ranching, farming and recreation underpin the city’s economy. In the summer, tourists come to the lake for water sports and fishing. In the fall, hunters come for deer and elk.
In 1862 Brigham Young, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ or Church), asked surveyor James S. Martineau to explore and evaluate the Bear Lake Valley as a place for possible settlement.
Apparently, Martineau gave a positive report because Young picked sites for settlement and negotiated with Chiefs Washakie and Tagi of the Shoshone and Bannock Indian Tribes, respectively, to allow Church settlement around the north part of Bear Lake. The southern lakeshore was a traditional gathering place for Native Americans. The Church had a long-standing policy of befriending the Indians.
In August 1863 Young asked for 50 men from Cache Valley to go with Church Apostle Charles C. Rich to the Bear Lake Valley, build facilities so several families could stay for the winter and prepare for several hundred more Church members to come the next year to settle in the valley.
On September 18, the party left with nine wagons. They took eight days in building a 46-mile wagon road through the mountains east of what is now Preston in the north of Bear Lake Valley. A second group of settlers followed in October. When the party arrived at what is now Paris, they stopped and built twenty cabins of aspen logs with pole roofs covered with sod for the settlers who would remain for the winter. In addition, they cut meadow hay to feed their animals during the winter.
When spring arrived and the snows melted sufficiently to allow passage over the new mountain road, 700 additional settlers came into the valley. These settlers established nine more settlements including St. Charles—founded May 1, 1864, and named after their leader Charles C. Rich.
When they arrived, the land was covered with sagebrush and dry grass that had been frozen the preceding winter. Willows and brush grew near the lake and in the lower ravines and canyons. Groves of quaking aspen grew in the foothills. Pine forests covered the upper mountains.
One of the first things the new settlers did was survey the land. The town was platted in ten-acre blocks. Each ten-acre block was divided into one-acre lots. Moving out from the center of town, five and 20 acre lots were surveyed and platted. Land was distributed among the settlers at a public drawing.
Almost immediately, they cut trees to build a community corral on one of the city lots. Each night, all of the livestock were herded into the corral and the men would take turns standing guard.
Each family also began building a temporary shelter. Many of the first homes were "dugouts," one-room living quarters dug into the hillside. The walls were dirt and sod. The roof was willows and saplings thatched with grass and sod. Other homes were made of aspen logs brought down from the foothills.
The houses usually had one room, with a single window covered with oilcloth and a slab door with leather hinges held shut with wooden pegs. Pioneers slept in bunk beds on mattresses filled with pine needles or dry grass. At one end of the room was a fireplace for light and cooking.
After building their shelters, the settlers planted a community garden and built a log meeting house for public gatherings and church services. Until their gardens were established, the settlers ate native plants and fruits such as dandelions, pigweeds, thistles, fir greens, sego lily roots, chokecherries, serviceberries and native currants.
Initially, school was held in the home of one of the settlers. Later that fall, a two-room school was built. One room was used for the school; the other was the teacher’s living quarters.
The first sawmill was a slow, labor intensive but effective system. They dug a six-foot-deep pit about 14 feet long and six feet wide. Logs were laid lengthways. Holding either end of a long lumberman’s saw, one man standing in the pit and another above would cut the log into boards.
In a few years, one of the settlers hauled in circular saws and equipment and built a water-powered sawmill on Big Creek Canyon. With this new source of lumber, more permanent homes, buildings and furniture were constructed.
During the summer, boys and girls would herd the livestock as they grazed in the foothills above town.
The new settlers were unfamiliar with the climate and land and thus made many mistakes. The winters were longer than expected so they didn’t put up enough grass hay for the animals. Additionally, their gardens and crops were buffeted by early and late frosts and grasshoppers.
Fortunately, wildlife was plentiful. They were successful in bagging elk, deer, rabbits, wild geese and ducks, sage chickens, willow grouse and pine grouse. They caught fish from the lake and streams.
Scarlet fever and other diseases plagued the settlers and took many lives.
Women either had or developed skills as seamstresses. They would card, spin and weave their own wool and make their own clothing and quilts. Shoes were about the only things they didn’t make themselves.
Official land surveys and boundaries in those early years were not clear. Initially, St. Charles was thought to be in Utah Territory. In fact it was made the first county seat of Richland County, Utah. It was not until 1872 that official surveys identified the location of the Idaho/Utah border and disclosed that St. Charles was in Idaho.
On January 5, 1875, the Idaho Territorial Legislature established Bear Lake County with Paris as the county seat. On September 30, 1938, the Bear Lake County Commissioners approved St. Charles as an incorporated village.
Economic Ups & Downs
Rather than experiencing major defining events, the St. Charles economy was somewhat self contained. To the extent the settlers produced more commodities from their farm, ranch, flourmill and sawmill businesses than they could market within the valley, they transported them to Utah for sale.
By 1920 the town had two well-equipped general stores, a barbershop, a confectionary, three lumber mills, one flourmill, a garage and repair shop, a Sego Milk Creamery, a butcher shop, a blacksmith shop, a new Church of Jesus Christ chapel and a school to house 135 schoolchildren. The voters approved the sale of bonds to finance construction of the school.
Employment opportunities increased when St. Charles Roller Mill found buyers in Tennessee for its "Sweet Sixteen" flour and Utah Power and Light built a hydro facility on the Bear River to supply reserve electricity.
The growing community added to its attractions by forming a drama group that produced several plays. It also had its own baseball team that competed in an area league.
The baseball team received such recognition that they made a baseball game part of every celebration or holiday event. The baseball players were often recognized by the physical injuries they sustained playing the game.
The ballplayers wore a small leather glove similar to today’s work glove. The thin glove was particularly hard on the catcher. He sometimes ended up with sprained, bruised or broken fingers or thumbs which often healed crooked.
Usually the town constable attended the game and intervened to stop disputes from getting out of hand. Pie, ice cream and popcorn balls were sold for refreshments.
During the winter of 1950 the city hosted the valley’s first cutter races on the lakeshore.
Through the years since the 1950s the town has decreased in population and commercial enterprises. With increased ease of travel, less business was profitable in the city, and more shopping was done out of town. The county schools consolidated and local students attended school in Paris. By the 1980s a Maverick gas station, Bundy’s Drive In and the old post office/general store were the only businesses left operating in town. More homes were being sold as summer homes, and recreation was becoming more a part of the city
Amenities & Attractions Today
In the center of town is a monument dedicated to Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who created Mount Rushmore and many other works. Borglum’s parents, Danish emigrants, were traveling West and built a cabin in St. Charles to survive the winter. His father dug a one-room house half into the ground, finishing it with logs and a sod roof. The log cabin remains in St. Charles today. To commemorate Borglum’s birthplace and acclaimed accomplishments, a landscaped stone plaza and monument are being constructed adjacent to the city hall and US Highway 89. A seven-foot-tall bronze statue depicting Borglum and his son Lincoln will be the focus of the plaza. Lincoln oversaw the completion of Mount Rushmore after Borglum’s death in 1941.
Since pioneer days, the Church served most of the social and cultural needs of the community. Church buildings are the focal points for many of these activities. The historic sandstone church built in 1911 served the community until they built a new church in 1984.
Bear Lake State Park, comprising 966 acres, has two locations on the east side of the lake. The North Beach Unit, located at the top of the lake, offers a 2-mile-long beach. The East Beach Unit, across the lake from St. Charles, has a 1½-mile-long beach. Both facilities have boat ramps for boaters and water skiers. The lake is 20 miles long and up to 8 miles wide, with half of the lake in Idaho and half in Utah.
Anglers can fish for native cutthroat and lake trout. In the winter, anglers come with nets to catch Bonneville cisco—one of three species of white fish of the Salmon family indigenous to Bear Lake. The cisco live in the deep cool water until they rise in schools each January to spawn over the limited rocky areas of the lake.
The Bear Lake National Wildlife Refuge starts about three miles northeast of St. Charles. This 19,000-acre refuge provides habitat for various species of duck, geese, sandhill cranes, trumpeter swan and white-faced ibis.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game manage two wildlife areas (WMA) near St. Charles. The Montpelier WMA is located near the city of Montpelier and comprises 2,100 acres of mule deer and elk habitat. The Georgetown Summit WMA is located about 33 miles northeast of St. Charles and provides elk and mule deer habitat on 3,349 acres.
The Minnetonka Cave is located about 10 miles west of the city in St. Charles Canyon. The tour of the half-mile-long limestone cave takes visitors through many large rooms with many interesting formations. Every summer thousands of visitors find the beauties of this natural wonder an enjoyable experience.