It’s 1914. Developer C.S. Argo gives a wooded ridge, complete with Chilco Falls, to the state of Idaho. The land is dedicated to the public “forever.”
Fast-forward to 1997.
The 12.7 acres have long since been transferred to Kootenai County. County commissioners, looking for a way out of an expensive legal wrangle, give the land to developers.
“To give a park with a waterfall as a gift to developers is just a travesty. The people of North Idaho own that, or they should,” said John Veylupek, who lives nearby. “I just hope it’s not a done deal.”
The land wasn’t a gift, and the deal may not be done.
After Chilco residents learned of last fall’s transaction and protested, commissioners reconsidered. The county is looking for another piece of property that it might swap with the developers, Charles Tranmer and Larry Gilman.
Asked if they would accept a swap for the Chilco land, Tranmer replied: “Absolutely.”
“Our attorney is looking at it right now,” he said Friday.
“We just want to get this resolved.”
The waterfall property is one of seven scattered parcels that Tranmer and Gilman accepted in a courtsanctioned agreement with the county.
The long-standing dispute between them involved an airstrip near Garwood.
Previous commissioners had declared the runway abandoned and approved the building of adjacent Bar Circle S Ranch subdivision. Meanwhile, Gilman and Tranmer’s G&T; Enterprises revived the airstrip, arguing it still was active as far as the Federal Aviation Administration was concerned.
Annoyed and fearful of the buzzing planes, subdivision residents sued runway owners and the county. G&T; countersued, contending the county should never have approved the subdivision.
In the settlement, G&T; closed the airstrip in exchange for the seven parcels of county land worth more than $80,000. Among them was the Chilco acreage.
“We were operating on behalf of the taxpayers,” Commissioner Dick Compton said.
Compton said county attorney Scott Wayman told the commissioners that the land could be disposed of, despite its donor’s desire for preservation.
Neighbors weren’t notified of the transaction because there was no legal requirement to do so, Compton said.
The commissioners didn’t view it as giving away parkland.
“We’ve got 58 pieces around the county to maintain now, and we weren’t interested in another one,” Compton said.
No roads lead to the Chilco land, which is surrounded by private property.
The lack of public access has kept the county from turning the site into a real park, said Sandy Daniel, administrative assistant for the parks department.
“We’ve discussed it many times,” she said. “It does seem like a valuable piece to hang onto, but acquiring access seems like an extreme difficulty.”
Still, a lot of people visit the property, Daniel said. Neighbors give the nod to folks who want to cross their land to ride horses, hike or climb the frozen waterfall.
Upon hearing that Chilco Falls might end up off limits, Spokane mountaineer Bill Erler said, “That’s a bummer.”
Chilco is one of two local falls good for ice climbing, he said. The other is at Indian Canyon golf course in Spokane.
“It’s a great place for people learning to climb without having to drive a minimum of three hours,” he said.
Like a lot of people, Sandpoint climber Steve York never thought about the ownership of the falls. He can imagine that private owners might not want to expose themselves to liability by allowing people to use the property. Especially ice climbers.
“It’s an inherently dangerous sport,” York said.
The falls are listed on hiker’s maps, Veylupek said, and people often stop at his Rimrock Golf Course to ask directions.
“Sometimes, it’s not much of a waterfall. But when it’s doing its thing, it’s glorious,” said Veylupek, who said he never fails to glance over at the falls when he’s driving along U.S. Highway 95.
Jack Cardwell and others who live between the highway and the parkland recently cleared brush to make the falls more visible.
Cardwell once owned all the land below the waterfall.
He said he once told a visiting parks employee that he would provide public access and give the county a plot of land just below the falls. He never heard back.
Cardwell said that he, Veylupek and neighbor Randy Smith have all asked the county over the years about buying the land.
“We were told it absolutely can’t be done.”
Perhaps, he said, they should have approached the commissioners.
“I sure don’t want to develop it,” added Cardwell, whose kitchen window frames the wooded hillside.
Tranmer quoted Cardwell a price of $60,000 for the falls property. He said two homesites could be developed there and sold for $50,000 each.
Since then, Cardwell has heard that the commissioners may find a way to get the land back in public ownership. He’s relieved.
Willa Beckmann is rooting for that. The Spokane woman’s late husband was a grandson of C.S. Argo.
“He was quite a colorful man,” she said.
An attorney for the Milwaukee Railroad, Argo had taken part in the Alaska gold rush in 1898 and traveled repeatedly around the world.
He was also a businessman with an interest in the Spokane Valley Commercial Orchard, which sold orchard plots at Chilco. He built a school there. He also built a dam on Chilco Creek, which created tiny Chilco Lake. The waterfall is just below that.
The North Idaho site proved too frosty for orchards. After the development failed, Argo signed the paper that put the prettiest parcel in public hands.
Speaking on behalf of Argo’s descendents, Beckmann wrote to commissioners last week asking them to protect the property.
North Idaho residents have too little parkland to be giving it away, she said.
“I don’t really think they have a right to do it,” she said. “They should think about it very carefully.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color) Map of Chilco Falls area
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: A QUESTION OF ACCESS A lack of public access has kept Kootenai County from turning Chilco Falls into a park, said Sandy Daniel, administrative assistant for the parks department. Though no roads lead to the Chilco land, neighbors generally give a nod to folks who want to cross their land to ride horses, hike or climb up the frozen waterfall in the winter.