Here, on the sprawling veranda of the Zephyr Lodge overlooking Liberty Lake, a gambler is said to have drawn his last breath from a whiskey keg before passing out for eternity.
The porch, a wraparound double-decker, wears strands of turquoise balustrades like a woman in paste jewelry. No one notices. Not the lake, too far from the Zephyr to capture its reflection. Not the shrill, overheated masses at the county park just a few hundred yards to the east as they bob in the dying wakes of motorboats.
The Zephyr has secrets few people hear. But as caretaker Nico McClellan steps across the porch’s aging tongue-and-groove flooring, clearly the Zephyr is eager to tell all. The floor pops beneath her heels, groans beneath the balls of her feet, recalling the myriad steps before McClellan’s that left it pliant.
“I’m surprised by how little it got used, how little it’s been exposed,” McClellan says. “People don’t know about it.”
Anonymity somehow seems appropriate. The lodge was built at the very back of Liberty Lake in 1900 by a Montanan made rich in Butte, a mining city thought then to be the richest hill on Earth. Charles Traeger wanted a lodge that was hard to see and even harder for police to reach. He built the two-tiered, 22-room Southern-style mansion at the back of the lake, stocked it with women and booze, fine furniture and games of chance.
Everything had to be floated in by barge. There were no roads to the back of the lake, which suited Traeger fine. It meant he could stand on the sprawling veranda with his guests and watch the police coming while the hired help put everything in order.
It was a rowdy place. Although time took care of its witnesses, the Zephyr’s antics were recorded by the oldest son of its closest neighbor, Jay Kalez. The Kalez family operated a pay-to-stay campground at the rear of the lake where Spokane County Liberty Lake Park is now.
Jay’s father, Martin, and others had hoped the railroad would see Liberty Lake as a worthy tourism destination and run a spur line to the lake, but the railroad gave them the brushoff, setting its sights on Coeur d’Alene instead. Traeger bought his land from Martin Kalez. The railroad wouldn’t catch on to the lake’s popularity and run a line there until several years later.
Jay grew up watching the antics at Zephyr Lodge and later writing about them for the Spokane Chronicle and his own history books about the West. He described wild parties that spilled onto the Zephyr’s dance pavilion over the lake and sometimes to a steam-powered barge that took partiers out for fishing or a swim. At one point when the barge caught fire, Jay and some other boys were pressed into service rescuing the billfolds, jewelry and piles of clothes the Zephyr’s guests somehow left behind when abandoning ship.
The law didn’t stop the Zephyr, but according to articles Jay wrote, marriage did. Traeger brought his wife to the Zephyr just a couple years after it opened and the gambling stopped.
The Zephyr started selling itself as a place for good chicken dinners and a night on the lake. Charlie Traeger’s health took a turn for the worse. He had a hard time breathing and after a while resorted to a home remedy that involved huffing the alcohol fumes from a keg of fine whiskey. He spent a portion of each day hunched over a three gallon barrel of whiskey breathing deeply with a blanket over his head.
His wife found him dead on the porch, which is where Traeger had taken to sleeping. It was early winter. There was snow on the ground. The Kalez family rushed next door to help out at least until the undertaker arrived. At some point during the excitement, they realized that Henry, the hired man the Kalez family and Traegers shared, was missing, as was the medicinal keg. Jay followed Henry’s tracks in the snow over the hill to the state line where they began to meander, eventually stopping at the cabin door of a hermit carpenter called Old Man Dale.
“Inside the cabin, Henry and Old Man Dale laid passed out on the cabin floor,” Jay wrote. “A tin dipper and a cracked coffee cup beside the half empty whisky barrel told the story.”
Traeger’s widow remarried and continued on with her chicken dinner business for a few years until eventually selling the lodge to the Catholic Diocese of Spokane, which tried to convert it into a home for retired priests. But the church never completely paid for the Zephyr. The building reverted back to Traeger’s widow, who in 1946 sold it again to a men’s church group, which transferred ownership to the Disciples Christian Church Foundation. The foundation still owns the lodge and its half dozen outdoor cabins, a dormitory and a caretaker’s house.
There were summers when as many as 200 children filled the Zephyr’s narrow single beds in a single week. Jay Kalez’s grandson, Jay Molitor, remembers those days. He remembers sneaking onto the Zephyr campus in the middle of the night and ringing the massive bell that with one ring called camp kids to dinner and with five notified the lake community the Zephyr was on fire.
“We would ring the bell and run home. It was a big bell. It probably took two of us, one on each side,” Molitor said. “I never did get to go inside. It reminded me more of a Southern mansion.”
But time pulled the curtain closed on the Zephyr. The congregations of the 30 churches within the Disciples Foundation grew older until they could only send four weeks of children to the lodge and only then a few dozen at a time. Churches on the other side of the state sent no children at all.
Sunday, a new chapter in the Zephyr’s history opened. The kids from St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church in Post Falls arrived for seven days of what they’re calling St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Summer Camp.
McClellan sent out letters this year to any area church she thought might be interested in a lodge whose floors have stories to tell, in an old lady who’s all dressed up with no place to go.
Exit 289 is a Monday column about faces and places in Spokane Valley. Tom Lutey can be reached at 509 927-2179 or online at email@example.com
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