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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Behind the name Bismark

Large group of men in front of buildings at Bismark Ranger Station. Some of the men have smokechaser packs. 
 (The Spokesman-Review)
Large group of men in front of buildings at Bismark Ranger Station. Some of the men have smokechaser packs. (The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokesman-Review

Editor’s note: The U.S. Forest Service is 100 years old this year, and to help celebrate its centennial, you’ll find in the Handle Extra throughout 2005 a series of reminiscences by people who joined the agency in its youth and served it and the people of the United States through its early years. The reminiscences were compiled by Handle Extra correspondent Carl Gidlund, a retired smokejumper and former public relations officer for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests.

Today’s installment is by Henry A. Peterson, who began his Forest Service career in 1925 as a lookout on Cuban Hill, in the Falls District of the Kaniksu National Forest (now a part of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests). His entire career was on that forest, and he retired in 1956 at the age of 62 from the then-forest supervisor’s office at Sandpoint. His reminiscences are in Volume 4 of “Early Days in the Forest Service,” published by the agency’s Northern Region in January 1976.

For years the present Priest Lake Ranger District was known as the “Bismark.” While serving as district ranger, I often wondered why. A nearby mountain was also named Bismark as well as the large meadows on Reeder Creek south of the station. I received the answer from John E. Hanson and Andy Coolin. These old-timers were living in the area during my tour of duty at the Bismark.

John Nordman homesteaded adjoining the Ranger Station on the west. … Nordman received his Homestead Entry Patent April 30, 1913. The town of Nordman was named after Mr. Nordman. Nordman was related to the three Hagers: Ole, Swan and John who also homesteaded the Bismark meadows.

John E. “Jack” Hanson, homesteaded … about one-half mile north of the Luby road. He received his H.E. Patent April 14, 1906. So far as I know Hanson was a bachelor. I recall Hanson telling that when he first came to that country, Bismark Mountain was covered with brush.

Andy Coolin was an early-day resident of the Priest Lake country. The town of Coolin where he lived was named after him. I heard that Coolin had done considerable prospecting around Priest Lake.

According to these men, during the early days, two trappers by the names of Bush and Bismark lived in a cabin near the site of the Bismark Station while trapping on the Bismark meadows, Reeder Creek and surrounding area.

Bush was killed by a passenger train in Priest River. Had too many drinks and fell asleep on the railroad track, and the evening passenger train ended his career.

Bismark continued to trap alone. Very few knew him, but for some time no one had seen or heard of him, so Nordman investigated and found him dead, frozen to death in his cabin. This was during the month of March; do not know the year. Nordman sent word to Hanson and Coolin to help bury the deceased.

On an agreed date, Hanson hiked from his ranch, about 8 miles, and Coolin came by boat from Coolin to Reeder Bay and hiked to the cabin. Being in March most of the country was snow-covered. They selected a bare spot for the grave somewhere between the late Ralph Lambert’s new residence and Reeder Creek and between the old and new highway.

The site was covered with wild meadow grass with a few scattered … lodgepole pine trees. I was shown the grave in its natural state by A. S. “Del” McQuilkin. Nordman and Hanson related that they had difficulty digging on account of fairly large round rocks that required all hands to lift out. They estimated the grave was 4 feet deep.

They then went to the cabin and attempted to make a rough box from split cedar but lacked nails to fasten it together. So they carried the body over in blankets, since he passed away in bed. When they arrived at the gravesite, about a foot of water had seeped in and they wondered what to do. They had no bucket to dip out the water and it was getting late so they lowered the body, placed the troublesome rocks on the body and filled the hole.

There was a distinct mound as I recall with a headboard of split cedar. Nordman said that the cabin where Bismark lived was the worst smelling place he had ever experienced. He said they skinned the fur animals inside the cabin, threw the carcasses out the door, which added to the smell, and that the smell inside the cabin was almost unbearable. He also stated that Bismark’s body was covered with open raw sores. No one knew the cause of death.

Later … I attempted to locate the grave for Mr. Lambert in 1957 but was not successful because they had messed up the area with a bulldozer for a cattle pasture. Nordman also stated that some time after the burial they burned the cabin to dispose of the smell and any possible contagious disease.

I have looked in vain for some evidence of the cabin location but never found any clues. It is believed this happened prior to the creation of the National Forest in 1908.

Thereafter, locally the site of trappers’ cabin was referred to as Bismark. Later, due to the available horse pasture, a guard and pack station was established and in 1927 after the creation of the Bismark District it was known as the Bismark Ranger Station. The district name has since been appropriately changed to Priest Lake District. However, a mountain and a large meadow were also named in Bismark’s honor and probably will remain for all time.

Recently I was talking to Leland L. “Lee” White who succeeded me as District Ranger in March 1940. Lee also was shown the grave by Del McQuilkin. Lee promised to attempt to locate the grave. Later he told me he was not able to find it due to clearing activities. We both thought that if the site could be definitely located, it should be preserved as an historical site if permissible by the owners.

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