Signs along the route here warn, “Road closed - Murray to Thompson Pass.”
Folks in the Old West burg of Murray, though, don’t see the construction notice as a roadblock. They see the orange signs as a promise of tourist throngs to come.
The Federal Highway Administration will open a $7.5 million forest highway here in September, 10 paved miles linking Murray to Montana. And then, local lore has it, a second Gold Rush will be on. New traffic. New customers. A new route to Glacier National Park.
It’s a hope actually half as old as Murray itself, once a mining town of 5,000 people. The campaign to pave Thompson Pass has been waged for 60 years. And finally - for good or ill - Murray’s remaining 50 residents will see if the prosperity prophecy proves true.
A few worry the road will become a noisy corridor, ruining their rural hideout. Others hope it will revive the former Shoshone County seat, now all but a ghost town.
“The quiet little town is not gonna be a quiet little town any more,” promises Randy Childress, who spent thousands turning a century-old saloon building into a bed and breakfast.
The Thompson Falls, Mont., side of the road was completed years ago, its pavement cut short by rocks and dust at the Idaho line. But even when Murray’s stretch of highway opens, getting to it from Spokane or Coeur d’Alene will still take patience - especially in winter.
The road from the misspelled marker (Murry, 39 miles) at the Interstate 90 Kingston exit can be narrow and slick, still icy long after other roads clear.
The Childresses are confident many will follow that road, finding Murray and their bed and breakfast, the Spragpole Inn & Museum, too.
“There will be a lot of traffic through this pass,” says Claudia Childress. “Just like the article says.” She is holding one of many yellowed newspaper clippings she keeps in an old, hardbound book.
The stories tell of picnics at the pass, when people from both Murray and Thompson Falls gathered in support of the highway. “Gold Rush picnic” proclaims a 1937 headline. “Efforts pushed to open Thompson Pass route,” reads one from the ‘50s. “Work to resume soon on Thompson Pass Road.” “Pass Route Boosters Receive Good News.” “Work speeded up on the pass road.”
Last year, the Childresses bought their squarish, 113-year-old building for about $80,000. They spent $35,000 to fix it up.The bed and breakfast had customers in May, June and July. No one since. “But business will get much better as soon as the road opens up,” Claudia Childress says.
Outside, Murray’s main drag is quiet. Its few boxy buildings are huddled close, like apple crates side by side.
There’s talk of renovating the Masonic Hall and the dark shell of a courthouse, now that the tourists will be coming. There’s also a metal detector shop, a one-room post office, a fire hall, and the landmark Spragpole - complete with giant miner’s lantern mounted over the museum entrance.
Last week, the metal detector and prospecting shop was closed.
The bar was busy.
A sign on the wall reads, “No checks cashed. Not even good ones.” One of owner Walt Almquist’s prized pine chains is draped near the ceiling. It’s 85 feet long. It used to be the longest wooden chain in the world, the bartender recounts.
Then someone dared to make one bigger. That’s when Almquist carved the one measuring 121 feet, reclaiming the title. Almquist, now 87, says carving the links took 30 minutes - each.
The folks sipping drinks beneath the chain all have opinions about the coming of the highway.
Mike Condon suggests some “enterprising young man” should build an auto shop. The spot where the new road merges with the old should cause plenty of wrecks.
Almquist’s baby brother Harry - he’s 80 - says the highway will be a good thing. Before, the whole route was just “dust and flat tires. It was really rocky. I think traffic will be five times what it was before.”
“I hope not,” Condon pipes in. “People live here because they don’t wanna live in Spokane or Kellogg.” He consoles himself by saying it really won’t be much of a highway, anyway.
A man named Roy Rogers (his parents almost named him after Dwight Eisenhower) disputes that theory. He read there will be 400 cars per day. How much is that per hour, everyone wants to know. Divide that into 24 hours, someone says. No, most cars will travel only during the day.
They settle on one car every three minutes. “That’s pretty busy,” Condon says.
Rogers, a retired computer programmer from Tulsa, now all stubble and flannel, suddenly has a rapt audience. “Tell me one road that ever gets less busy,” he says.
Everyone is quiet for a second as Rogers nods.
“If you build a road, people will find it,” Condon concedes.
Then talk turns to the world population explosion. “Those people have to go somewhere,” Rogers says. Maybe Murray.
Connie Roath arrives. She runs the bar side of the Spragpole with her husband, but sometimes she wants to leave Murray.
“You love it and you hate it. You see the same people,” she says. Not long ago, she travelled to San Diego and again pondered leaving her burg for bigger things. Brighter lights.
Then again, there’s the new highway. Bikers have promised to stop by, Roath says. Car collectors will use it to take vintage roadsters for spins. And then there are truckers. Things just have to pick up.
“I think it’s really going to help business,” she says. “We might as well get ready for it.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Map: Dirt road may be paved
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