The story of Idaho’s upper St. Joe River country is not exactly the story of presidents.
It’s the story of native tribes, homesteaders, loggers, miners and railroaders, as detailed in the excellent history book “Up the Swiftwater” by Sandra A. Crowell and David O. Asleson (published by the Museum of North Idaho in 1980, and updated and re-released this summer). And these days, if people know about the St. Joe at all, they probably know it only as a remote - and beautiful - native cutthroat trout stream. Then how did three U.S. presidents stray off the beaten track and into this story?
Because, in the first half of this century, the St. Joe was the beaten track. The transcontinental line of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad (The Milwaukee Road) punched its way down the St. Joe in 1909.
The first presidential visitor to the area was candidate William Howard Taft. As this story is related in “Up the Swiftwater,” Taft’s railroad car pulled into one of the instant construction towns that sprang up between 1907 and 1909 when laborers were boring an 8,771-foot tunnel through the Bitterroots into the St. Joe country. This particular town was full of prostitutes, gamblers, drunks and murderers; in fact, it had already gained a national reputation as one of the most lawless towns in the United States.
As this possibly apocryphal story goes, Taft delivered a speech from the back of his railroad car. He told the townspeople that they were a disgrace to these fair United States. He told them they should be ashamed of themselves. He told them to do something about it.
So they gave him a rowdy cheer and voted to name the town after him. And that’s how Taft, Mont., got its name. Nothing remains of the town today except for a lonely exit on I-90, just over the Idaho-Montana border.
The second presidential visitor was President Warren G. Harding, who arrived in Avery, Idaho, by rail car in 1923. Harding strolled around the town square, kissed a baby or two, and examined a string of pack mules at the ranger station. Then he was off to Tacoma, Seattle and Alaska, where he would catch the bug that killed him exactly one month later.
The third presidential visitor was Harry S. Truman, who was not president yet when he visited Avery in 1944. He was campaigning for the vice presidency on one of his famous whistle-stop tours. He recounted the visit the next day in a letter to his wife, Bess Truman:
“They dismissed the schools and all the kids were at the station. I am very popular, at least with the kids in those towns.”
What Truman didn’t know, according to Thelma Cramp, was that “every one of us was a Republican.” Cramp was an Avery junior high school teacher whose 10 students comprised Truman’s entire audience. Now retired and living in Post Falls, she remembers it like this:
“I said to my class, ‘Let’s go up and see him.’ The train was being switched and iced and so forth. We went down to the end of the train, and Truman was standing out on the back. We all talked to him and all asked him questions. He told us all about his daughter Margaret and his wife Bess. He chatted with us like we were standing at the backyard fence.
“The kids had all put on their Republican buttons before we went, but Truman was so nice they all started taking them off and hiding them in their pockets,” she said. “We liked Truman.”
Presidents aren’t the only celebrities to visit the St. Joe. Cramp remembers Clark Gable wandering around town. And Bing Crosby is said to have taken a cab all the way from St. Maries to Red Ives (80 miles on gravel roads) just to go fishing.
However, the real history of the St. Joe has nothing to do with presidents and celebrities. In the beginning, it had to with bands of Coeur d’Alene Indians, who had six permanent winter villages near the mouth and several temporary summer camps along the upper St. Joe. The Coeur d’Alene Indians called it “the Gentle River.”
They dug camas roots, picked huckleberries and conducted huge game drives in which deer were driven into a pit or a blind. Archaeologists have discovered several game-drive pits along the Bitterroot crest.
Then the Jesuit missionaries arrived. Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet renamed the river “The Saint Joseph,” and in 1842, the Jesuits established the Sacred Heart Mission near the mouth of the river. They abandoned it four years later because of floods and moved to the Cataldo Mission on the Coeur d’Alene River.
In the 1880s, the Indians had to say goodbye to their camps on the Gentle River. They were moved to the Coeur d’Alene Reservation.
The early white history of the upper St. Joe is about gold: looking for it, but not necessarily finding it. Prospectors swarmed through the upper St. Joe drainage in the last half of the 1800s, lured by tantalizing hints of gold veins. The gold never panned out, but the era lives on in the names of many tributaries: Prospector Creek, Gold Creek and Nugget Creek.
Prospectors were luckier over the mountains to the north. By the 1880s, the town of Coeur d’Alene and other settlements on the lake began to thrive. By 1880, steamboats were puffing along the lake. Steamboats were also puffing up the St. Joe River, the lower stretch of which is one of the highest navigable rivers in the world.
Two of those steamboats were big enough to carry up to 1,000 passengers each, and they made daily runs up the St. Joe to the towns of Ferrell and St. Joe City. Those cities, of which there is barely a trace today, faced each other across the river about 12 miles above St. Maries.
About four miles above that spot, the river changed character dramatically. Below it, the river was slow and staid and was nicknamed the Shadowy St. Joe, due to the cottonwoods lining its banks. Above it, the river became a fast, forested, mountain stream. Those on the river called the upper three-fourths of it the “swiftwater,” as opposed to the navigable “slackwater.”
Homesteaders began to pour into the swiftwater country by the turn of the century, mostly lured by the prospect of making money from timber. The land was too steep and too high for good farming, but settlers could always count on trout, deer and huckleberries. Every cabin had a bucket of sourdough for bread and pancakes. And when the settlers got cabin fever, they could head out to one of the many saloons and restaurants in the St. Joe country, including the one operated on Marble Creek by “Fishhook” Graham and his black partner, Brown-Gravy Sam.
Already, big timber companies had their eye on the immense stands of white pine and cedar. Some companies hired claim-jumpers to scare homesteaders off the land, at which point the timber companies would claim it as abandoned. In 1904, some settlers decided to do something about it. The bodies of Ed Boule and N. Lindsay, alleged claimjumpers, were found peppered with dozens of bullet holes.
About 25 years later, a logger found a rusted tin can nailed to a tree near the spot where Boule’s body was found. A message scratched onto the can read: “Here lies Ed Boule, good woodsman but a poor neighbor. Here’s where he paid the supreme penalty on Aug. 20, 1904.”
In the first three decades of the 20th century, logging camps were everywhere in the St. Joe country - and they’re still there, as ghost camps. In fact, a visitor to the Marble Creek drainage, which empties into the St. Joe, can still explore the remains of these camps. You can be hiking a trail in the area and suddenly come upon a massive rusted “steam donkey” (a steam engine used in logging). Trout pools have formed behind the massive timbers of splash dams and flume dams; underbrush obscures old log flumes and log chutes.
A modern interpretive center at the mouth of Marble Creek guides visitors to these sites.
Like all backwoods logging camps, those in the St. Joe were full of moonshiners, bootleggers, saloons, ladies of ill repute and Wobblies. “Up the Swiftwater” and another book, “Swiftwater People,” an oral history volume (edited by Bert Russell and published by Lacon Publishers in 1979), paint a vivid portrait of those wild days.
Even more important than logging, however, was the coming of the railroad in 1909. The folks in Avery and the rest of the St. Joe were as surprised as anybody when the Milwaukee Road chose the St. Joe as the route for its transcontinental line connecting Chicago and Tacoma.
The easiest routes, apparently, were all taken. This route became easily the most expensive stretch of track on the Milwaukee Road - maybe the most expensive in the country. The final cost, according to Asleson and Crowell, was $234 million; and remember, a dollar bought a lot in 1909.
The 22 miles between the St. Paul Tunnel and Avery required 16 tunnels and 21 bridges. The project became national news, even a matter of national pride.
The St. Paul Tunnel, which traverses the Idaho-Montana border, was a monstrous project all by itself, burrowing 1-1/2 miles under the Bitterroot crest. A thousand laborers, most of them based in Taft, finished the tunnel in six months. Obviously, they didn’t spend all of their time carousing in Taft’s saloons.
Several towns sprang up along the railroad, most of them long since abandoned. The town of Grand Forks, between Avery and the St. Paul Tunnel, rivaled Taft as a wild place.
“During the mornings, the court (town square) was almost deserted except for a few sobering stragglers sitting on empty beer kegs piled in front of 12 or 15 saloons,” Joseph Halm is quoted in “Up the Swiftwater.”
The towns of Falcon, Adair and Roland were also located between Avery and the tunnel.
Spokane skiers used to pile off the train at Roland, at the west portal of the tunnel, and spend the day skiing. There was a ski area established up there in the late 1930s, it has been long since abandoned.
The biggest railroad town of all was Avery. This was a main division point for the Milwaukee Road; virtually every train had to stop in Avery while the electric locomotive (used in the mountains) was switched to a steam or diesel locomotive.
Rail passengers (like Clark Gable) could spend those minutes wandering around the town, admiring the imposing Mountain Park Hotel and the live fishpond in the middle of the town square. The town had a gym, a baseball field and two tennis courts.
The more rambunctious visitors could even wrestle a bear in Avery. A couple of local boys kept Teddy, as the bear was named, and made it available to all challengers.
And Avery was one of the few cities in the entire country to celebrate the birthday of the Japanese emperor. Avery had a population of nearly 80 Japanese railroad workers, and every year they invited the whole town to a traditional, and rambunctious, emperor’s birthday party, according to Asleson and Crowell.
Avery and the St. Joe country endured its share of disasters. A typhoid epidemic ravaged the town in 1908. The big fire of 1910 devastated huge parts of the timberlands, as well as burning entire towns, such as Grand Forks.
But still, those were the glory days for Avery, fed by those railroad tracks.
“Those gleaming streaks of steel connected us to the outside world,” said one old-timer, Hugh Peyton, in “Up the Swiftwater.”
Homesteader Annetta Bellows remembered that the trains had a tremendous emotional tug for people in the St. Joe.
“It always thrilled me when whistles echoed through the mountains,” she said in “Swiftwater People.” “From our home at night, we could see the headlight of the locomotive flashing down the canyon, followed by the long train of lighted Pullman cars.”
No more. The last passenger train clanked down the St. Joe in 1961; the last freight train in 1980. Every railroad tie and every section of track was yanked up for salvage.
Today, a motorist can drive up Loop Creek, seemingly in country untouched by civilization, and suddenly find a 200-foot-tall iron trestle looming above.
The tunnels also remain. Those on the lower North Fork of the St. Joe are used for car traffic, while the ones up higher, including the St. Paul Tunnel (sometimes called the Taft Tunnel) are scheduled to become part of a mountain bike trail system.
In its heyday, about 1917, Avery had a population of 1,100. Today, according to Asleson, it has only 110 souls (although that will swell on Aug. 6, during the annual Avery Days celebration). In fact, the entire swiftwater area of the St. Joe has only about 400 or 500 residents, he said.
Logging trucks still rumble through the area, and a few optimistic souls still scour the hills searching for gold nuggets. But now, the future of the St. Joe may actually depend less on loggers and miners than on campers, hikers, hunters and especially flyfishers, who descend on the upper St. Joe as sacred ground. The St. Joe’s fame is now the reel, not the rail.
No longer does the railroad whistle echo off the mountain walls. Not, that is, unless you close your eyes and use your imagination.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Photos (1 Color)
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