BOOK REVIEW: STEAMBOATS IN THE TIMBER by Ruby El Hult

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When the West was being settled in the 1800’s, there were very few easy routes across the northern United States. The Rocky Mountains were a difficult barrier. The Oregon Trail’s “South Pass” went through southern Idaho; a “North Pass” allowed a railroad access up by the Canadian border. In 1862, army Captain John Mullan built a military dirt road from the Missouri River to the Columbia River.

General Sherman, of Civil War fame, on an inspection tour of western forts, was so taken with the beauty of Coeur d’ Alene Lake that he recommended a fort be established there, for which Congress funded a thousand acres near the outlet of the Spokane River. The first steamboat on the lake was the Amelia Wheaton which mainly brought hay for the cavalry and supplies for the fort and for the few civilians around it.

Mullan’s road between the Missouri and Columbia rivers had shown a few traces of gold during construction, but he didn’t call attention to it lest his soldiers desert their construction job. It wasn’t until prospector A. J. Pritchard struck it rich on the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River and exhibited four pounds of gold in his leather pouch in 1883 that a gold rush started. Within a few months there were ten thousand miners camped along Prtitchsrd’s Creek.

The river’s South Fork showed even greater riches a few years later, not as glamorous as gold but more value in quantity – silver, lead, zinc, copper and cadmium. And jobs for thousands of families. At first transportation depended on steam-powered boats, to bring people up to the mining area, and sacks of rich ore out to be processed.

By 1800, there were three steam boats going between Coeur d’Alene and across the lake to Harrison and up the river about fifteen miles to the Old Mission, where wagons could struggle over a very rough or muddy road another fifteen to thirty miles to the various mines. It wasn’t long before a railroad made travel smoother and faster from Harrison to Wallace, and continuing on eastward to join the transcontinental railroad across Montana.

Meanwhile, the boat operators were discovering the foests along the St. Joe and the St. Maries Rivers whose waters both flow into the southern end of Coeur d’Alene Lake, through forests of white pine, said to be the largest white pine forest in the world. No roads were needed to reach it; the rivers were the roads. It’s hard to imagine the size of this resource, renewable every fifty years by new trees growing to replace those harvested. The observer can pass one mountain after another, knowing that more rows of mountains stand beyond his vision, each a fur-like carpet of trees, trunks standing about ten or twelve feet apart, each square mile holding about one million trees with only a rare river or road to interrupt in the whole forest area. Enough trees to keep hundreds of lumberjacks occupied sending floating rafts of logs down river to the lumber mills of Coeur d’Alene and beyond.

Yet another industry developed during the twentieth century – excursions. While the river boats lost much of their cargo of ore and timber to the railroads, tourists and local vacattioners took their place. Families with picnic lunches, bands and romancers eager to fill te dance floors that enterprising boat owners installed for moonlight cruises. Electric trolley lines brought people from Spokane, a thirty mile ride.

Specialty trips developed. “Explore the Shadowy St. Joe.” Rival politicians, who wanted the county seat transferred to Coeur d’Alene, or kept in Rathdrum, sponsored special excursions in the 1907 election. St. Joe became a wild town when the new railroad came through more than a mile of tunnel and then down the St. Joe Valley on its way westward.

Now post-millennial Coeur d’Alene is a vacation spot in its own right with an expensive convention hotel, golf course, and a marina for private boats. But it still has a large passenger boat waiting at the dock side to take people on a daily boat ride on the lake.

Author Ruby El Hult’s excellent story continues to develop as time goes on.

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