A tired brick building at the corner of Madison Road and Palouse Highway hints that the intersection once played host to something bigger, that at some point, someone rolled the dice here, tried to raise a town, but ultimately failed.
This is Valleyford, a community tied to the rise and fall of the electric railroad, a town where once a person could get their shoes resoled, their wagon wheels repaired, hire a lawyer and even take out a loan from the local bank.
This is a community that once generated its own electricity. Now all that stirs here is the coffee at Elaine Rising’s On Sacred Grounds Coffee, Tea and Specialty Shoppe. The proprietor is doing everything she can to put the town back on the map.
“I’m tired of people overlooking Valleyford,” Rising said. “You say Valleyford and they go ‘Where? Where?’ “
In a coffee shop the size of a construction trailer, Rising is assembling the ingredients of this tiny community barely a century old. If someone has a homespun product to sell, Rising has it stocked. If they have a group that needs a place to meet, Rising offers up her place. She’s even established a community art gallery. And her next step will be playing host to Valleyford’s first-ever historical society.
Valleyford is a community with roots, though no one seems to know much about them. In historical terms, Valleyford is a footnote, a community receiving only the briefest of mention in Inland Northwest annals.
Although there were people living in the area as early as the 1870s, Valleyford wasn’t recognized as a place until the first decade of the 20th century, when it was platted by real estate developer Arthur D. Jones around 1905 on behalf of the Spokane and Inland Empire Electric Railroad.
Laying track across the Palouse, the railroad needed stops along the way for commuters. So it bought land and constructed stations in communities along the way, anticipating population booms as a result of new train service to Spokane.
“Valleyford didn’t come about until the electric railroad went through that area,” said Glenn Leitz, a Palouse historian. “That area was within 10 or 15 miles of Spokane and they considered it a commuter area when they developed it.”
The S&IE laid track from Spokane, where it had a booming streetcar business, all the way to Moscow, Idaho, and Colfax under the direction of its founder, Jay P. Graves, who was convinced the rail line would breathe life into – and even raise cities on – the Palouse.
Graves, who had copper mines in Canada, an electric railroad in Spokane and real estate interests throughout the West, seemed to have the Midas touch. He also wasn’t afraid to spend money on a hunch.
Graves built elaborate brick and stone depots with his-and-her waiting rooms and one-of-a-kind architecture despite most of the S&IE’s money coming from freight traffic. In between depots, the S&IE built bus-stop-style platforms where farm residents could be picked up. Commuters rode in two-car passenger trains decked out in wicker furniture and upholstered walls. A pantograph on the car’s roof pressed upward against a high-voltage wire, sparking the train to life.
A round-trip ticket to Spokane cost 84 cents. Once there, a person could pay 75 cents and travel by train all the way to Lake Coeur d’Alene or any of the smaller lakes along the way.
In Valleyford, platting the town meant acquiring property from homesteaders like James A. Crisler, a Valleyford resident since 1878 and the first person to file a homestead in the area. Crisler sold a western portion of his land to Jones who was in the area procuring right of way for the S&IE.
A train depot followed, but Valleyford was more than a brick building with a loading dock. It had a grocery and a butcher shop, a bank and a law office. The Valleyford town hall still stands, although boarded up. Until the early 1950s, Valleyford children graduated from Lindberg High School, which stood not far from the current Valleyford fire district office.
“They had a board sidewalk up each side of the road going up to the store and there was a sidewalk as you went north to the blacksmith’s shop and across the road to the lumberyard,” said Jim Crisler, grandson of homesteader James A.
The younger Crisler is a lifetime Valleyford resident who lives in a barn-styled house that replicates a real barn built on the same property by his grandfather.
He’s a little fuzzy on the dates of surrounding Valleyford’s historic moments, but Jim Crisler knows its stories. He once owned the community’s lone gas station at the corner of Palouse Highway and Madison Road.
The service station is a bit of an oddity in that it faces away from the highway. That’s because the Palouse Highway was rebuilt several years ago and in a curve straightening effort contractors relocated the road to building’s backside.
“Business wasn’t that booming anyway,” Crisler said. “One guy told me this is a nice place to stop and have my lunch” because of the relative quiet and the park-like setting around the station.
It’s been decades since the gas station was open. Today, under new ownership, mechanics bays of the brick building are used for boat storage.
Not too far from the old filling station is a house where moon shiners operated a still during Prohibition. The still was one of two known to have operated in the area, Crisler said, the other being operated from the dairy barn at the California Ranch near Mica. The California Ranch operation transported their moonshine in milk bottles painted white on the inside to disguise their contents.
Valleyford had bigger problems than bootleggers in the 1920s. The railroad that invigorated the community just 20 years earlier was preparing to close the township’s depot by the end of 1928. Valleyford responded by appealing to the state to force the railroad to keep the depot open. The tiny community of Steptoe did the same, according to news archives.
A representative for the railroad countered that the many towns, not just Steptoe and Valleyford, were about to lose their depots. The popularity of automobiles was quickly making commuter train service on the Palouse a thing of the past.
Passenger trains were the first to go. Graves’ city passenger service in Spokane went into receivership in 1919, although passenger service continued to some Palouse towns into the late 1930s. After World War II, The Great Northern Railroad controlled the old S&IE lines and dismantled a key trestle over Rock Creek, which effectively ended service to Valleyford entirely.
Some residents think the community had enough going for it that Valleyford might have survived the collapse of the railroad, but the closing of the S&IE was just the beginning.
“What really killed Valleyford was the Great Depression,” said David Klawunder, who grew up in the area. “Banks closed and the businesses. It was a combination of a lot of things and they just never recovered.”
Klawunder was among the last children to attend school in Valleyford. The community lost its schools in the 1950s as Valleyford, Rockford and Freeman consolidated their student bodies in Freeman. The last year for Lindberg High School was 1956-57, Klawunder said.
When the school children were relocated to Freeman, the grocery store in Valleyford started to falter. There was just one less reason for people to patronize the business.
Today, the only retail business is Elaine Rising’s. The proprietor of On Sacred Grounds coffee house is all about reasons to visit Valleyford.
On a busy May afternoon, she whips up four hot chocolates sweetened with soft-serve vanilla ice cream mix, just rich and tasty enough to keep locals from heading north to the closest Starbucks. Her menu includes a coffee drink crafted especially for a lactose intolerant cowboy – espresso, cinnamon, chocolate and no dairy.
Here, customers get whatever they want and are even asked to contribute a little. Rising features art from local artists on her walls, and uses the subject of the paintings as the theme for the modest offering of books she sells.
A bicyclist rolls up to the small shop, and orders lemonade. He glances around the shop at the knickknacks on display, many are for sale. All are made locally by Valleyford folks who have something to contribute to Rising’s community revival.
The cyclist remarks briefly on how amazingly rural Valleyford remains, despite being 10 minutes away from Spokane and Spokane Valley. There’s still no high-speed Internet here. The lack of service has become a common gripe of urbanites that have fled the city for Valleyford’s spacious hills.
That’s OK, the cyclist says, polishing off his lemonade.
Rising agrees. The community the future left in the dust is just fine living behind the times.