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News & Press: Community Spotlights

AIC Shines Its Community Spotlight on Elk Riveer

Friday, March 9, 2018  
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
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Elk River streetscape

Elk River is located deep in the pristine scenic backcountry of the Clearwater National Forest at the terminus of Idaho Highway 8. Bovill, the closest city, lies 13 miles to the northwest.

A dam on Elk Creek forms the historic Elk Creek Reservoir, the fishery and former millpond on the east edge of town. Six miles to the south, Elk Creek flows into Dworshak Reservoir at the Dworshak Dam Reservoir Recreation Area.

Historic Tidbits

During the late 1800s sportsmen built a trail into the Elk Creek area. They used it as a rustic hunting and fishing resort.

In 1897 Willard Trumbell filed a homestead claim on the site of what is now the city of Elk River (not to be confused with the historic gold mining town of Elk City, an unincorporated community located in the Nez Perce National Forest about 75 miles due south of Elk River).

A few years later, a small group of homesteaders filed their claims about two miles to the west of Trumbell at Elk Creek Falls.

Beginning in 1900 Frederick Weyerhaeuser and associates began buying up timberland in the Clearwater Mountains east of Moscow. In 1903 Weyerhaeuser created the Potlatch Lumber Company (Potlatch). In the same year, Potlatch acquired a Lewiston sawmill. Weyerhaeuser also formed the Washington, Idaho and Montana Railway Company (WI&M).

In 1906 Potlatch surveyed the timberlands around Elk Creek, which at that time (prior to the 1972 construction of Dworshak Dam) drained into the North Fork of the Clearwater River. Loggers with crosscut saws harvested white pine logs that were skidded by horses and steam donkeys to the river’s edge. During spring runoff, the North Fork of the Clearwater River became a waterway used to transport logs to the Lewiston sawmill.

In 1907 the WI&M built a line from Palouse, Washington, to Bovill where it connected with the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad nicknamed the Milwaukee Road. At that time, the Milwaukee Road’s branch rail line from St. Maries to Elk River had reached Bovill.

In 1909 Potlatch purchased more than 4,000 acres of area timberland, including Trumbell’s homestead.

In 1910, the same year the train arrived, Potlatch began building a millpond to hold the cut logs before processing; an electric powered sawmill, the first known electric powered sawmill in the nation; a planing mill; a dry shed; and a loading platform.

Potlatch changed the community name from Trumbell to Elk River, platted the town, hired hundreds of workers and began building the infrastructure and facilities for their new town.

The town soon grow to over 1,300 residents with hotels, general merchandise stores, a hospital, other retail and service businesses, graded streets, waterworks and a boardwalk.

The first school was a tarpaper building located on Front Street. Residents also used the building as a church. Later, Potlatch helped build the first church building.

On October 15, 1910, Elk River had grown sufficiently that the Nez Perce County Commissioners in Lewiston approved the town’s application to become an incorporated city.

On February 7, 1911, Elk River became part of the newly created Clearwater County, with the county seat at Orofino, 21 miles southwest.

Demise of the Timber Industry and Rise of Tourism

Elk River was a one-company sawmill town. Major Potlatch management decisions had a direct effect on the economic health and vitality of the city.

For nearly two decades, the company’s Elk River operations and the city prospered. However, around 1927 Potlatch built a substantially larger wood products manufacturing facility in Lewiston, some of which were duplicative of its Elk River operations. Potlatch management began to shift work from its Elk River facility to Lewiston.

At the same time, the economies of the nation and the world were going into decline. When the Great Depression hit in the early 1930s, its effects accelerated the closure of the company’s Elk River facilities. In 1931 Potlatch shut down the sawmill; in 1933 the planing mill.

By 1933 most businesses had closed. Houses sold for as little as $15 and literally were moved out of town. The population quickly declined to around 400.

To top it off, beginning around 1929, blister rust attacked the white pine trees reducing the sustainable supply of good timber and giving the forest a patchwork look of green and dieing rust-brown trees.

In 1936 Potlatch sold its remaining property to the City for a nominal amount. This property included the public water and light systems.

Change in federal forest management policies and environmental litigation has largely shut down federally managed public land to logging. The wood products industry is a shadow of what it was in the mid 1900s and will not likely return.

However, the natural beauty of the greater Elk River area is impressive. City and community leaders are achieving success in promoting these natural amenities and attractions to tourists and outdoor enthusiasts.

Amenities and Attractions Today

Elk River has two city parks comprising eight acres. The parks have tennis and basketball courts and children’s playgrounds.

The city has a library and a museum, the Elk River Historical Society Museum, that has exhibits and artifacts of the city’s early history.

There are several campgrounds in the area including the Elk River Recreation District’s 64 campground sites around Elk Creek Reservoir. Huckleberry Haven RV Park and the Forest Service offer several full hookups at their campgrounds. Tent campsites are also available.

The Idaho Department of Transportation’s 57-mile-long Elk River Back Country Scenic Byway passes through the city. The Byway connects Orofino, Elk River and Bovill. At Orofino, the byway road climbs up Wells Bench then down to Dworshak Reservoir where it crosses over the reservoir on a suspension bridge named Dent Bridge. The gravel road then winds on to Elk River, where it joins Idaho Highway 8 to Bovill. Travelers often see wildlife of all kinds along this scenic backcountry byway.

Elk Creek Falls is a popular tourist attraction with a parking lot and a walking path through the forest to the falls. The falls is where Elk Creek cascades, pools, then cascades again as it tumbles about 300 feet down the mountain.

Elk River is at the center of breathtaking natural amenities. Elk Creek Reservoir borders the town, while Elk Creek Falls is two miles away. An interpretive trail following the old wagon road between Elk River and Orofino leads to Elk Creek Falls. Three falls cascade over ancient lava flows creating one of Idaho’s most picturesque waterfalls.

The reservoir is popular for its fishing and for the swans, ospreys, bald eagles and otters that frequent the area.

Elk Butte rises to an elevation of 5,824 feet. Accessible on an unimproved road, it is located about five miles northeast of the city and offers a stunning view into two national forests and the Bitterroot Mountains.

Just outside Elk River on Forest Service Road 382 are Perkins Cedar Grove and the oldest and largest tree in Idaho. This tree, a western red cedar, is 177 feet tall and 18 feet in diameter.

The Elk River backcountry has over 300 miles of trails. In the winter months, cross-country skiers and snowmobilers use the trails. In the warmer months, anglers and hunters ride their ATVs to their favorite spots.

Sightseers come just to enjoy nature—to get a glimpse of the elk, deer, moose, bear, bobcat, cougars, grouse, hawks, osprey, mink, pine martin, muskrat, otter, songbirds, wild turkey and other wild species prevalent in the forests. Other visitors come in the spring to pick mushrooms and in the fall to pick huckleberries.

The 850-acre Dworshak State Park is located about 15 miles due southwest from the city, about 40 miles by road.

The entire Dworshak Recreation Area is an exceptional location for boating, fishing, camping, recreational vehicles, swimming, water skiing, hunting, hiking, ATV and snowmobile riding and wildlife viewing.

The Dworshak National Fish Hatchery, located at the confluence of the North Fork and the main Clearwater Rivers near Orofino, captures steelhead trout and Chinook salmon that are returning to spawn. The hatchery spawns the fish and raises them until they are large enough to start their migration to the Pacific Ocean.

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