North Idaho’s Montana connections gained some strength this month.
A 10-mile stretch of unpaved road from the tiny town of Murray to the top of Thompson Pass will be straightened and paved in the next two years. This “victory” comes after nearly 50 years of planning and related ups and downs by communities on both sides of the pass.
The significance for these communities is financial and geographical.
The resulting Forest Highway will be the final link between the Montana tourist attractions of Glacier National Park and Flathead Lake, and Coeur d’Alene and other points west along Interstate 90. Businesses along the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River should benefit significantly from the increased traffic as the traveling distance between the tourist spots and our area is reduced.
The exposure also will result in increased recreational use of the area. You think it’s hard now to find an innertube - to float the river with your friends and favorite beverage - at Albert’s Saloon in Enaville. Just wait. And no doubt the Realtors will eat this news up!
The communities along the Montana portion of the route also will benefit. The news is especially big for Thompson Falls. The largest town in the 200 miles between Coeur d’Alene and Kalispell lost nearly 50 employees through cutbacks at its Crown-Pacific lumber mill this summer.
Geographically, the new road will benefit Coeur d’Alene, which will become the new, most convenient “city” for the Montana towns. Since the new road also will be open year-around, Silver Mountain will be convenient to a new region of skiers.
Now, the bad news.
The shortcut will be closed all of next summer to allow the reconstruction, which will include realigning the road from the mountain edge to the dredge beds along Prichard Creek and around Murray. It will be open in time for the 1996 hunting season. During the summer of 1997, the road will be closed for hourly periods and cars will be led by a pilot truck.
Bids will be advertised for late this month and a construction contract should be awarded by the end of September. Some clearing work should be done this fall.
The road has existed since before the turn of the century, when it was the major east-west link south of the Clark Fork River. Montana straightened and paved its side in the 1970s. Travelers coming from the Idaho side still reach the top and think they’re in the Twilight Zone when they see the wide, paved, almost unused highway going down the Montana side.
Ironically, Idaho keeps its side open several weeks longer during the winter, possibly because the Montana side gets the heavier snowfall. When the new road is done, Montana will have the challenge to keep its side open.
I spent last week in Thompson Falls as a vacation replacement for Sanders County Ledger editors Tom and Bina Eggensperger, who enjoyed their first break in years.
The highlight of the week was witnessing the thrill of community pride as golfers from throughout the Inland Northwest gathered to repair the Thompson Falls Golf Course, which was decimated by a freak windstorm.
More than 20 people hit the deck as the big blow lifted the roof right off the clubhouse. Others were spared injury as they scurried from the clubhouse to the ninth green, rather than down the path to the parking lot where the roof landed.
Club pro Butch Brauer said volunteers from Wallace and Spokane were among the many who helped clear more than 40 downed trees and small mountains of debris. A modular clubhouse will be used temporarily.
In another Montana connection, Don and Gail Peterson say a major portion of their business at their new Boar’s Breath Bar & Casino comes from Idaho. Serving special hamburgers and home-baked bread, the business replaced the old Driftwood Cafe on Highway 200 a few miles east of the Idaho border.
The Petersons are seeking semiprofessional artists to compete for prizes in painting scenes on the 16 outside wall segments of the building on July 29 and 30. The theme is centered around the real and fantasy life of their pot-bellied pig, Suds McSwine, who has the run of the place.
Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, the Petersons opened the business in early July. They have six employees, 15 gaming machines and daily hours from 11 to 11. For information, phone (406) 847-2082.