The town of Grand Forks was populated by railroad workers and scalawags of every type who enjoyed and profited from all the vices. It was said that Taft, Mont., was the toughest town in the West until Grand Forks, Idaho, developed.
Grand Forks was built in 1908, during the earliest days of the construction of this segment of the Milwaukee Road, near the confluence of Loop and Cliff Creeks. The town was about a half-mile down the slope of Loop Creek Canyon from the railroad depot and siding at Falcon. That was where the Milwaukee delivered supplies for Grand Forks; it’s now a wayside on the Route of the Hiawatha recreation trail.
On Aug. 20, 1910, it was directly in the path of the largest fire ever to strike the United States.
Here’s how Joe Halm, then the assistant district ranger for the Forest Service’s Wallace District described Grand Forks before the fire: “A wild mushroom construction town. The main section … had no streets. It was built in the form of a hollow rectangle around a sort of court. Both sides and ends of this court were almost solid with rough timber and log buildings.
“During the mornings the court was deserted except for a few sobering stragglers sitting on empty beer kegs piled in front of the 12 or 15 saloons. Some of these saloons also served as eating places and one or two had store annexes. Behind the saloons, scattered all around through the woods were nondescript assortments of tents and shacks which served as dwellings for the town’s population.
“Toward evening the town would begin to show signs of life and as the night came on and as oil lamps began to glow, player pianos began their tinny din, an orchestra here and there began to tune up. Women dabbed with rouge came from the cribs upstairs and sat at lunch counters or mingled with the ever-increasing throng of gamblers and rough laborers from the camps. As the hours wore on, the little town became a roaring, seething, riotous brawl of drinking, dancing, gambling and fighting humanity.”
The Forest Service which managed the land on which the town was sited had tried many times, with small success, to shut down its many saloons. They arrested the owners and conveyed them to Wallace where they were tried and fined. After one such excursion, Halm reported, “Upon our return to Grand Forks we found most of the saloons still running full blast, operated by hired assistants. Warrants were again secured, and these new men were taken out for trial. … When one saloon was closed, another sprang up next door, and we had it all to do over again.”
According to Stanley Johnson’s book on the history of the Milwaukee Road in Idaho, “Its citizens included a professional gambler who was shot through the tongue by an unhappy customer who, while in the very act of squeezing off the silencing shot, fell over backwards, shot dead himself by the card player.”
Johnson also relates that Grand Forks was once torched by a prostitute who burned down the entire town to hide a customer whose charred corpse was later found in her bed. It was quickly rebuilt, just in time for the August 1910 fire.
As fire roared toward the town, all the residents fled up the rough pack road that led to Falcon. There they joined more than 100 people from up and down the tracks – homesteaders, railroad workers and miners – huddled on the station’s platform.
An engine arrived and the engineer, John Mackedon, hooked onto flatcars at a nearby siding, and everyone loaded aboard. He pulled his terrified passengers a mile up the tracks over burning wooden trestles and bridges to the 470-foot Tunnel No. 27 where they huddled with other refugees – a total of 168 souls – while the fire burned the forests around them, destroying their homesteads, railroad buildings, a nearby forest guard station and the town of Grand Forks.
The town was rebuilt, but stood for only a short time. Railroad construction was finished, the workers departed, and soon thereafter so did the other residents, following the men whose wages had given life to their town.
Grand Forks is no more. The place where pianos were tinkled and gunshots and shouts echoed is now a serene meadow, a popular camping spot where you can find a few remnants of its short, raucous life – pieces of cast iron stoves, beer barrel hoops and bottles.