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News & Press: Community Spotlights

AIC Shines Its Community Spotlight on Onaway

Friday, May 19, 2017  
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
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Onaway and the much larger city of Potlatch are of such close proximity, only their legal boundaries distinguish them as separate towns. Even though their origins are different, they have certain common histories and future prospects.

A century ago, white pine forests—Idaho’s state tree—covered much of what is now Onaway. These giant trees rose to over 200 feet and had a butt-diameter of over 7 feet. As sawyers cut the trees for the mills, the forest products companies sold the cleared land to farmers. Today, fields of wheat, lentils, peas, oats and barley interspersed with wooded ravines and woodlots now surround the twin cities of Potlatch and Onaway.

The St. Joe National Forest lies a few miles to the north, east and south of the city. Moscow is about 12 miles south.

Historical Tidbits

Around 1810 European and, later, American trappers/explorers began trapping beaver and establishing trading posts in the region. At that time, nomadic American Indians—principally of the Nez Perce and Palouse Tribes—frequented the area.

In the late 1850s John Grizwold and his Indian wife settled in the region. In 1860 Captain Elias Davidson Pierce and a party of 10 prospectors found large quantities of placer gold about 60 miles southeast of what is now Onaway. The ensuing gold rush attracted thousands of prospectors who scoured the region looking for gold.

They found gold in the area of the Hoodoo Mountains, about 15 miles northeast of what is now Onaway and formed the Hoodoo Mining District. Ed and Jerry Chambers ran a stage line from Walla Walla, Washington, to a roadhouse they built about four miles northeast of what is now Laird Park, named after a Potlatch Company officer. They named their stage stop Grizzle Camp after John Grizwold. The Boy Scouts of America now have a camp nearby named Camp Grizzly.

In the 1880s Wells Fargo either acquired the Chambers stage line or started another line that ran from Palouse, Washington, to Grizzle Camp. Between the two communities, Wells Fargo built a stage stop they named Bulltown after the Bull family who had settled in the area. The Bulltown stage station attracted several new settlers who changed the name of the community to Onaway, the name of the town that they had come from in New York.

Around 1900 Frederick Weyerhaeuser—from St. Paul Minnesota and one of Idaho’s most influential figures in the wood products industry—began acquiring large tracts of Northern Idaho timberland. In 1903 Weyerhaeuser formed the Potlatch Lumber Company, then a timber real estate holding company, with William Deary as general manager.

Deary continued to acquire timberland and in 1905 founded the town of Potlatch just southwest of Onaway. A year later, he completed construction of one of the then largest sawmills in the world and a company-owned town with over 275 buildings.

In 1907 Weyerhaeuser formed the Washington, Idaho and Montana Railway Company (WI&M). Deary extended the 45-mile-long railroad from Palouse, Washington, following the Palouse River on the south side of Potlatch to Bovill where it connected with the western terminus of the Milwaukee Road.

The WI&M and Potlatch Lumber Company founded the towns of Deary, Bovill, Yale, Harvard, Vassar and Elk River. Except for Elk River where the company also built a sawmill, these locations were log collection and loading points as well as depots providing freight, passenger and mail transportation services. As they cleared the timber, they sold the property for farmland.

On April 7, 1953, Onaway became an incorporated village.

Weyerhaeuser's Influence

Frederick Weyerhaeuser’s decision to build a branch railroad and establish his premier sawmill on the bend of the Palouse River provided the underlying basis for making Potlatch a wholly-owned company town built around a single business. The mill also provided the economic basis for the future growth of Onaway, as many of the town’s residents found employment at the mill.

Until its closure in 1981 the mill largely underpinned Onaway’s economy. In 1981 the company closed the mill and the era of the "Potlatch Company Town" came to a close.

Amenities and Attractions Today

The 83-mile White Pine Scenic Byway passes through the largest stand of White Pine trees in North America, extending from Potlatch/Onaway on Idaho Highway 6, north to Idaho Highway 3 and then north on Highway 3 to Interstate 90 near Old Mission State Park at Cataldo.

Onaway is near Potlatch’s three historic districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Commercial District has 10 acres and seven buildings. The Workers Neighborhood District is a 30-acre parcel with 23 buildings. The Nob Hill District has 30 acres and 18 buildings.

The 5,300-acre Mary Minerva McCroskey Memorial State Park is located about 10 miles north of Onaway. The park offers an 18-mile skyline drive and 32 miles of multi-purpose trails, shelters, primitive camping and picnic areas. To the west are spectacular views of the rolling Palouse country.

Three other state parks—Heyburn, Winchester Lake and Old Mission—are located within an hour’s drive of the city. The Latah County Museum is in Moscow.

Fishing and boating are available in the several lakes and rivers that lie within an hour’s drive of the city. The 54-mile-long Dworshak Reservoir on the North Fork of the Clearwater River is 35 miles across the mountains. Lake Coeur d’Alene lies 35 miles north.

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