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News & Press: Community Spotlights

AIC Shines Its Community Spotlight on Kootenai

Monday, January 29, 2018  
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
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Aerial view of Kootenai

Kootenai (pronounced Koo-te-nee) lies on the northern shoreline of the beautiful and glacially created Lake Pend Oreille (pronounced pond-uh-ray). The Kaniksu National Forest begins about five miles northeast.

A mile west is the city of Ponderay, strategically located at the intersection of Idaho Highway 200 and U.S. Highway 95. The commercial center of Sandpoint is on the opposite side of Ponderay, three miles southwest of Kootenai. To the east is farmland interspersed with groves of trees.

Historical Tidbits

Canadian explorer, mapmaker and trader David Thompson and his associate, Finan McDonald, of the Canadian North West Company established Idaho’s first trading post at East Hope in September 1809. Thompson named his post Kullyspel House after the nomadic Kalispell Tribe of Indians that frequented the area.

Owners of a steamboat called the Mary Moody started a ferry business in 1866, transporting trappers and prospectors around Lake Pend Oreille.

The Northern Pacific Railroad in 1880 surveyed a line that started at Wallula, Washington; proceeded northeast to Spokane; crossed into Idaho near what is now Rathdrum; and then on to the north shore of Lake Pend Oreille and Sandpoint, where it followed the lake shore through what is now Kootenai. It then proceeded around the lake to the Clark Fork River before turning east to Missoula, Montana. Completed in 1883, the railroad was built by 6,000 men—including 4,000 Chinese workers—creating the critical link that formed another transcontinental railroad.

Dr. Hendrix started a wagon freighting business in 1885 with a way station near the railroad about a mile east of what is now Kootenai. The wagons carried freight north over a toll road to Bonners Ferry and beyond.

Six years later, construction crews of another railroad, the Great Northern Railway, began building a line from Puget Sound; across the Pend Oreille River at Newport, now Oldtown; through Priest River; and along the north side of the Pend Oreille River to Sandpoint. At Sandpoint, the line turned north to Bonners Ferry, making Hendrix’s freight wagon business obsolete. At Bonners Ferry, the railroad extended north to Canada and east to connect with its main line in Havre, Montana. In 1893 the Great Northern Railroad—now Burlington Northern—acquired the Northern Pacific Railroad. By 1892 about 75 permanent residents lived near what is now Kootenai, which at that time was called Boyer.

With the availability of rail transportation, timber interests began building sawmills along the railroad routes.

Entrepreneurs built the Sandpoint Lumber Company in Sandpoint in 1899. Later, the Ellersick family of four brothers, their families and parents sold their sawmill business in Minnesota and built a single-band sawmill at the Greenough’s Spur on the rail line near what is now Kootenai. They named their mill the Kootenai Bay Lumber Company (KBLC) and the community that grew up around the mill and company store, Kootenai.

The location for their mill on the lake was ideal. They could float and store logs on the lake and had railroad access for shipping lumber to distant markets.

In constructing and operating the mill, the four brothers divided their responsibilities between general management, logging, electrical power via steam and physical facilities.

A syndicate of Great Lakes States investors, including John A. Humbird and Fredrick Weyerhaeuser, formed the Humbird Lumber Company (HLC) in 1900. In the same year, the company acquired the Sandpoint Lumber Company and other timber properties.

Following the premature death of Henry Ellersick, the family sold the KBLC to HLC. At the time of the sale in September 1903, KBLC had 123 employees who worked six 10-hour days a week. Laborers were paid 20 cents a day and the sawyer, filer and foreman got 60 cents a day. Following the purchase, HLC built a larger sawmill and planer.

In the late 1800s prospectors found deposits of lead-silver ore near Lake Pend Oreille, and in 1903 investors formed the Panhandle Smelting and Refining Company, platted a company town between Sandpoint and Kootenai that would become Ponderay, built a dock on the lake and began concentrating and smelting ore. Steamboats transported ore from the mines to the processing facility. However, the venture proved unsuccessful and in 1909 closed. HLC employed many of the displaced smelting and refining company workers.

Within a short time the combined HLC sawmill operations in Sandpoint and Kootenai became one of the largest in the Northwest. The storage yard at Kootenai had over 19 miles of railroad track and used three locomotives to move logs and lumber.

In March 1907 while undergoing repairs, the HLC mill in Sandpoint caught fire. The fire raged out of control burning many surrounding structures including several of Kootenai’s mill houses. Fortunately, because of a change in wind direction the Kootenai mill escaped the blaze. They rebuilt the Sandpoint facility, and HLC management increased the production capacity of the Kootenai mill by adding a second shift.

The Northern Pacific Railway Company (NPRC) announced in 1908 that it had chosen Kootenai to be the location of its division point terminal between its Sprague, Washington, and Paradise, Montana, facilities. In order to provide housing for the approximately 1,200 railroad employees—many of whom were transferring from Trout Creek, Montana, with their families—the railroad and HLC chose a 70-acre parcel for a new townsite and formed the Kootenai Townsite Company (KTC) to manage the town’s expansion.

HLC owned the townsite land which was, at that time, a dense forest of pine, fir, tamarack and cedar. Within two months, an army of men had cleared the townsite of trees and stumps. KTC then platted the town with 80-foot-wide streets and commercial lots reserved for a school, public park and church.

At the sides of the streets, KTC built 10-foot-wide boardwalks and installed wooden water mains. Sandpoint Water and Light Co. provided electrical power and water.

To discourage speculators, KTC imposed covenants that specified a deadline when owners must complete their buildings and the minimum cost or value of the structures.

The terminal had a 20-stall roundhouse, depot and stockyards used to unload and reload livestock for feed and water.

By December 1908 Kootenai was emerging as the largest community in the area. Its business district included a drug store, two hotels, a theatre, three restaurants, a blacksmith shop, a livery stable, a pool hall, two barber shops, a dry goods store, a bakery, a roller rink, a tea shop, two bars and an ice house filled in the winter with ice from Lake Pend Oreille.

F.S. Bonner, from Missoula, opened a general merchandise store in 1909 to compete with the Humbird Company Store and HLC began work on a brick bank building. The bank failed in 1916. Subsequently, the building was used for other purposes until on May 18, 1973, the city council began holding meetings in the historic building.

The Congregational Church—now Kootenai Community Church—built a new church on land donated by the Kootenai Townsite Company in 1909. In addition, the Kootenai School opened its four-room brick school house, which was razed in 1986 for a new school building. Residents commuted between Kootenai and Sandpoint via a trolley line that was discontinued in 1917.

On June 30, 1910, Kootenai became an incorporated village. On December 13, 1968, it became an incorporated city to conform to the change in Idaho municipal law.

4L Union

The Legions of Loyal Loggers and Lumbermen—a government organization of union workers (loggers) and sawmill owners (lumbermen), nicknamed "4L"—joined forces in 1917 to support the troops fighting in World War I. These loyal loggers moved into tall stands of trees to find and harvest spruce trees, a type of wood needed by the military. They built a large 4L Hall in Kootenai for the use of union members and for the community’s social events. It burned in the 1940s.

Amenities and Attractions Today

The city has a park adjoining city hall. The property was deeded to the city by Matt Schmitt in memory of his father and known as the Matt Schmitt Memorial Park. Coldwater Creek has also donated a lot to the park and planted most of the trees. The Kiwanis of Sandpoint donated the new children’s playground equipment.

Kootenai’s close proximity to Sandpoint allows its residents to enjoy the amenities and attractions of the larger community—including "Lost in the 50s," a classic automobile show and parade, and the Festival of Sandpoint. The city’s residents shop at the large retail complexes located in Ponderay.

The 142-acre forested Round Lake State Park, surrounding the 58-acre Round Lake, is 15 miles south.

Farragut State Park, at the southern end of Lake Pend Oreille, has 4,000 acres devoted to outdoor activities and historical artifacts from the days of World War II when it was a U.S. Naval installation.

Three nearby Idaho Scenic Byways further display the area’s beauty. The Pend Oreille Scenic Byway that begins at the intersection of U.S. Highway 95 and State Highway 200 in Ponderay and passes through Kootenai follows Highway 200 around the eastern side of the lake before proceeding east to the Montana border.

The Wild Horse Trail Scenic Byway starts in Sandpoint, passes on the western side of Ponderay on Highway 95 and heads north along the eastern side of the Selkirk Mountains. It marks the historic path that the Kootenai Tribe followed to its fishing grounds at Lake Pend Oreille.

The Panhandle Historic Rivers Passage Byway begins at the Washington state line on U.S. Highway 2 and follows the Pend Oreille River to its end at Sandpoint.

Schweitzer Mountain Ski Resort is 12 miles north of Kootenai. With an average annual snowfall of 300 inches, the resort has 67 ski runs, ski lifts, cross-country ski trails, snowmobiling and sleigh rides. During the summer, the mountain resort is available for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding. Resort facilities include a lodge; condominiums; and a variety of retail stores, restaurants and pubs.

Silverwood Amusement and Water Park, 30 miles south of the city, has over 50 amusement rides.

Lake Pend Oreille and the nearby national forest with its mountains, rivers and streams offer a wide variety of outdoor activities. Summer or winter, people can enjoy the outdoors by boating, water skiing, fishing, hunting and cross-country skiing as well as the many trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding and riding ATVs and snowmobiles.


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