For sale: A town and its history
ELMIRA, Idaho — Elmira went the way of other ephemeral Western towns.
The tiny settlement sprung up on an 1860s pack route to British Columbia’s gold fields, survived into the railroad days, then gently faded back into the forest.
None of the town’s original wooden buildings remain. But this transitory bit of North Idaho history – complete with broken whiskey bottles – is now on the market for $675,000.
Realtor Tony Hayes is advertising the 4.3-acre site near U.S. Highway 95 in northern Bonner County as a nostalgic development opportunity.
“I can picture it as a theme town,” said Hayes, “with homes designed as storefronts, livery stables, a barn, and a feed store. … In this age of technology, people like to be around things that remind them of the past.”
The Elmira town site has 20 lots, platted in 1909. The lots are recorded in the Bonner County Planning Department’s first book of records.
The novelty of an old town for sale has triggered a wave of interest, though no buyers to date. Radio stations are calling Hayes for interviews. Out-of-state residents want informational packets.
“Mostly, its word of mouth,” Hayes said. “They’re friends or relatives of someone who heard about it, and they’re just kind of intrigued.”
The publicity blitz keeps tongues flapping at the Elmira General Store, which is not part of the property for sale. The store is part of a newer settlement with the same name that was established west of the original town site, across two railroad tracks and Highway 95.
“It put us on the map, that’s for sure,” said Ed Cook, an MIT-trained engineer who retired to North Idaho to run the Elmira General Store with his wife, Laurie. “It will be interesting to see what happens to it.”
Cook’s a bit skeptical about all the promotion. Out-of-town buyers might be surprised to learn that the property is near two active railroad tracks, he said. One of the lines runs 70 trains a day, he said.
Sandpoint developer Bill Brown said the marketing is aimed at finding the right buyer for a unique parcel. The original Elmira town site is owned by Ponderay Home Center LLC, a partnership that includes Brown.
Brown assembled the old town site from five separate parcels. He initially figured on putting a mobile home subdivision on the property, which is located about 15 miles north of Sandpoint.
Brown’s plans changed when he punched a road through the parcel, mirroring Elmira’s original layout.
“When I put Bonner Street in its original location, you could see the old building sites along the road,” Brown said.
Indentations hinted at former foundations. Lilacs and perennials bloomed in long-forgotten flower beds. Brown found old bricks, bottles, tin cans and root cellars. The broken whisky bottles particularly interested him. Target practice, he figured.
“People tell me that there was a saloon and a post office and a lot of different things there,” he said. “I thought that maybe someone would come along with a better idea of what to do with it – someone with more vision than me.”
Elmira’s early history is sketchy. Brown searched in vain for old photos of the town at the Bonner County Historical Society. Just a handful of facts are available, he said.
The town was established on part of the Wild Horse Trail, which once ferried miners and supplies to British Columbia. Eventually, the settlement shifted westward, to where the unincorporated community of Elmira still stands today.
Homes on the old town site were occupied until the 1940s or 1950s. Now only the old school building, made of hand-hewn cedar logs, remains from the original settlement. It lies north of the original town plat and is not for sale.
Elmira has been on the market since early August. If no buyers emerge, Brown said he’ll develop the parcel as initially planned. The Panhandle Health Department has approved the lots for septic systems. Brown is putting in electrical hookups.
Since the lots are small and near an active rail line, they don’t lend themselves to luxury development, he said. But demand for affordable housing is high in Bonner County, he noted. Some developable lots are commanding prices as high as $100,000.
In that context, 20 lots for $675,000 is a good value, Brown said.
“Historical value and dollar value,” he said. “The property’s got a little bit of both.”