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From Mill Town to Tourist Hot Spot

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

A trip down Sandpoint’s storied past

By Abigail Thorpe

Sandpoint has changed quite a bit over the years—from the peaceful home of local Native American tribes to the wild railway days and later its transformation as a four-season tourist destination—it’s seen it all. But one thing hasn’t changed: the natural beauty that has driven residents and visitors here for hundreds of years.

Before furtrading and the railroad brought irreversible changes to the region, what is now Sandpoint was home to the Kalispel Tribe of Native Americans, whose ancestral lands extended past all of Priest Lake and Lake Pend Oreille, up the Pend Oreille River as far as Canada and east to Montana.

They traded with the local Coeur d'Alene Tribe to the south and Kootenai Tribe to the north, but the eventual arrival of fur traders—and later the railroads and timber mills—transformed the area, changing native lands and way of life, and the last Kalispel Tribe’s annual August pow wows at City Beach were held in 1931.

Northwest Company fur trader David Thompson was an early settler to establish a relationship with the local tribes, helping to establish fur trading in the area in 1809. Thompson described the peninsula that Sand Creek empties into as a “point of sand,” a name that would forever stick with the area.

The 1880s saw the start of construction on the railway between Montana and Pend Oreille that would transform the region from a trading outpost to a railroad and timber town. In 1892 the Great Northern Railroad arrived in what is now Bonner County, and its first agents—L.D. and Ella Mae Farmin—bought the rights to 160 acres on the west side of Sand Creek, what would ultimately become the start of Sandpoint.

Sandpoint wasn’t always the peaceful, tranquil town it has come to be known as today. In its early days it held a reputation for being one of the roughest towns in the area. Visiting Austrian aristocrat William Adolph Baillie-Grohman described it as “this wretched hole, one of the tough towns in the tough territory of Idaho, where shooting scrapes and hanging bees were common events.”

The area was known as “Hangtown” for its multiple hangings. “I knew Sandpoint, known also as Hangtown, could hold its own for depravity,” added Baillie-Grohman.

Local historian Bob Gunter writes the story of how Major Fred B. Reed told the Pend d’Oreille Review about the time six men were hanged at once. “ "I was through here with the Northern Pacific construction gang in 1880, and Sandpoint was the toughest place in the United States. Over at the end of your big bridge was 'Hangtown,' and it was over there that we had our necktie parties."

But the wild west of Sandpoint didn’t last long, and as timber and farming attracted more settlers to the area, the village of Sandpoint was incorporated in 1901, later becoming a city in 1907.

In addition to a thriving timber industry, “stump ranches” sprung up around the area. Using lands cleared of timber, farmers primarily grew hay to feed lumber company horses—a natural fit for the short growing season.

Humbird Lumber Co. became the largest saw mill in the region after taking over Sand Point Lumber Co. and absorbing the Ellersick brothers’ mill in Kootenai. In 1905, just 13 years after the Great Northern Railroad was finished, Sandpoint received its third railroad through town: the Spokane International.

Three years later, work began on the first long bridge to connect Sandpoint to Sagle. It was finished in 1910, and at just under 2 miles long, was the longest wooden bridge in the world. At the time, it cost around $50,000 to build and was known as the “Wagon Bridge.”

The bridge went on to be replaced during the Great Depression in 1934 with assistance from the Works Project Administration. Like its predecessor, it aligned with First Avenue in Sandpoint and retained its title of longest wooden bridge in the world.

Twenty-two years later the bridge was rebuilt again, this time in its current location aligning with Superior Street, and out of steel and concrete—no longer the longest wooden bridge in the world. The current bridge that carries locals and visitors to Sandpoint was built in 1981 alongside the old one. Drive across the bridge, and the view still takes your breath away every time—as it’s done for locals and visitors alike for decades.

In 1942, after the outbreak of World War II, Farragut Naval Training Station was built on 4,000 acres on the southern side of Lake Pend Oreille. The training station was the second largest in the world, and the deep waters of Lake Pend Oreille (measuring over 1,150 feet deep at the south end of the lake) made the perfect spot for submarine acoustic testing.

The arrival of so many trainees and staff made Farragut Idaho’s largest town, and the resulting overflow into Sandpoint resulted in the Community Hall being used as a USO.

Bob Gunter later interviewed military bride Beth Knight about her experience in Sandpoint during the war. “The people of Sandpoint just opened their arms to the sailors. I believe I'm correct in this, the USO in Sandpoint was one of two USOs in the country that never charged sailors and their wives for a thing. You could go down and eat, you could go play, and they would see that you had a room if you needed one. The people of Sandpoint did all that,” she told him.

The naval training station closed after the war, now converted into Farragut State Park, where you can enjoy the lake and explore the history of the region through the Museum at the Brig. Many of the buildings from wartime are no longer in existence, however, in 1949, several of the buildings were floated from Farragut across Lake Pend Oreille to replace Page Hospital.

That same year saw the last log drive in Bonner County on Priest River. While the timber industry would remain in the area, log drives on the river and lake would be a thing of the past.

Sandpoint’s shift to a tourism destination began with the opening of Schweitzer Mountain in 1963. Jack Fowler and Jim Brown—a local timber tycoon who organized Pack River Lumber Co. in 1940 to begin his “timber empire”—founded the mountain with other investors and sold shares to local residents. The mountain featured one chairlift, a three-story lodge, a rope tow and T-bar.

Several years later, Brown bought out his partners and further developed the mountain as a beloved ski destination. He added a day lodge and apartment complex, and is credited for starting summer at Schweitzer—offering lift rides for mountain bike enthusiasts.

In 1999 Harbor Resorts purchased Schweitzer Mountain Resort, further expanding the resort over the years to the premier ski destination it is today.

Today when you walk or drive through Sandpoint, you’ll see a thriving downtown in summer, with visitors and locals flocking to the lake to enjoy the sun and beautiful Lake Pend Oreille with its stunning views and vast expanses. In the winter, town gets busy once again as locals and tourists head to the mountain to hit the slopes—or head out for one of the many other winter adventures Sandpoint is known for.

The timber and farming roots that started our town are still strong, but the economy has diversified. With several large companies like Litehouse Foods and a thriving tourism industry, Sandpoint is once again in a new era. But it’s maintained its history, its memories and its simple beauty. It’s easy to see why this once wild railway town became Rand McNally and USA Today’s “Most Beautiful Small Town” in 2011.

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