Monday, June 6, 2011

The Last Place Settled

There is no governmental institution closer to the Jeffersonian model than the county.  It is the locality for the dispensation of civil and criminal justice.  It is the source of a community’s records and history.  It is where the franchise, the atom of America, resides.  In the early part of the 19th century, there was a rule of thumb that if you couldn’t get to your county seat in a one day buggy ride then you needed another county. 

The last county formed in Washington state, Pend Oreille, was carved out of Stevens County in 1911, and is celebrating its centennial this June.  It is a vertical strip 22 miles wide and 67 miles high and sits in the upper right hand corner of the state, bordering British Columbia and Idaho. 

Article 11 of the state constitution governs the formation of new counties and the charming idea of one day’s buggy ride isn’t in there.  Instead, the constitution requires that a new county would need to have at least 2,000 residents and the county giving up those residents could not be reduced to less than 4,000 people.  The new county takes on its proportion of the debts and liabilities of the old one.

When it named itself after the Pend Oreille, another name for the Kalispel Tribe, the county became the 17th county in the state to take on an Indian name, though this name comes from the French.  It describes an ear pendent worn by the aboriginal people who met David Thompson, the Canadian explorer, when he first floated down the Pend Oreille River.  Nine of the state's counties are named after tribes, five after Indian place names and three after native chiefs.  For the record, six are named after presidents, four after geographic forms, three after explorers, two after governors, two after United States Senators from other states, two ministers, one founder, one territorial secretary and one, Thurston, a congressman.

Just over a thousand people lived in the county in 1900, but the next decade brought significant growth to nearly 6,000 people.  That’s when two energetic Freds – Ione lawyer Fred Trumbull and the publisher of the Newport Miner, Fred Wolfe – started petitioning for a new county.   On June 1, 1911, Governor Marion Hay arrived in the county by train to tour the what the Spokesman Review called “the baby county.”  Everything became official on June 10, 1911. 

Governor Hay at the Hotel in Metaline Falls
There’s a reason Fred’s paper was named The Miner.  Those who missed out on the California Gold Rush came here in the middle of the 19th Century to pan for gold in the streams that feed into the Pend Oreille.  Later, Zinc and Lead mining became the mainstays of the mining economy.  Deposits of limestone led to a major cement industry.  Then there was the timber.  You could trace the rise and fall of the economy by counting the small sawmills that shut down in hard times.  Loggers like the Ellersick family came out from Minnesota.  Calling themselves “The White Pine Savages,” they scoured the countryside on behalf of the Diamond Match Company.

The White Pine Savages
White Pine is the wood of choice for matches and the tight rings of the White Pine along the Pend Oreille made a great product.  As a Department of Agriculture research paper from 1953 pointed out:

“The matchstick that breaks when struck is a source of irritation and possible danger to the user.” 

There is evidence of habitation along the Pend Oreille River back to the last Ice Age and there are magnificent examples of rock carving in the county.  People survived on a unique freshwater fisheries cycle in the Pend Oreille River.  The Kalispel biologists say that a race of very large Bull Trout were an important source of food for prehistory people.  Spawning in the many small, cold creeks, then returning to the river, they provided enough protein for a significant population. 

Bull Trout love cold water, and the dams on the Pend Oreille River have slowed the river and the temperature is now significantly higher, leading to the Bull Trout listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. 

Kalispel Home Near Ione
The Kalispel’s story breaks your heart and their comeback is inspirational.  In the great rush of treaties between Territorial Governor Isaac  Stevens and tribes resident in the Washington Territory, most of the Kalispels were sent off to western Montana to the Jocko Reservation after 1855, the year so many treaties were signed. But the southern band of the Kalispel held out, stuck it out where they were, to be knocked about by the waves of miners, loggers and railway men. 

In 1914, with a decree signed by President Woodrow Wilson, the Kalispel established a small reservation in the central part of the county near Usk.  Now, their Northern Quest Casino, located off the reservation near the Spokane Airport, provides them significant income which they spend broadly within the community.   Their Wellness Center at the reservation is a recent contribution.  It includes sports and fitness facilities along with dental, medical and addiction clinics and is available to the general public, not just the tribe. 

For a people who have been banged around as violently as the Kalispel were in the last century, their theme statement from the tribal website says why a recent poll rated the tribe as the second most respected institution in the county, just behind the public utility district:

"Through adaptability and leadership, focused on generosity and kindness, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians has expanded their influence, benefiting the region of their ancestral lands and beyond.  Today, the tribe is a self-sufficient entity with their own business enterprises, tribal education and health programs, and strong alliances with those outside the tribe."

Tony Bamonte had it as hard as any Indian kid ever had it -- a tough Dad, a partially collapsed shack for a home, early life in the woods.  As kids, he and a friend watched a man beaten to death in a fight outside a tavern in Metaline.

He became Sheriff in Pend Oreille County and later worked on the City of Spokane police force.  It's hard for Tony to put down something he's picked up.  As a cop in Spokane, he got interested in the shooting of a police officer at a creamery in Newport, the Pend Oreille County seat.  Problem was the killing took place 35 years before Tony became a cop.  All his work led to the notion that the guy who pulled the trigger was a dirty cop from Spokane who tossed the gun into Spokane Falls.  

He couldn't conclude the investigation without a weapon but then, one day, Tony got word that the electric utility serving Spokane would be lowering the level of the water near the falls for maintenance and damned if Tony didn't go down to the rocks and find the gun!  Bamonte gets into stuff like that.

Bamonte was the inspiration for Tim Egan, who writes wonderful books about the west and who grew up in Spokane, to write his first book, "Breaking Blue," about Tony's quest.

In his book, Egan points out what a lot of celebratory stuff this week will not be covering, that the last hundred years have been a very hard trip and a lot of people got hurt making this hundred years of history.  Egan's take is this:

"Pend Oreille County's story line is this:  40 homicides (seven of them unsolved), 110 drownings, 87 fatal industrial accidents, 153 fatal auto accidents, 71 suicides."

The county is still an exporter of natural resource-based products, but its most valuable commodity is electricity.  Low electricity rates make Ponderay Newsprint, an international supplier, competitive with a product used less and less.  But the big electicity story is how Seattle bumped the Pend Oreille PUD off its big plans for the river.  In the fifties, the Pend Oreille Public Utility District had a very big idea to build a series of dams along the Pend Oreille River, starting at Box Canyon, the narrow opening that was the place of several drownings according to Egan in "Breaking Blue."

The district, however, got into a financial pickle after Box Canyon was built and the commissioners had to put the second and third projects on hold.  During the delay, the City of Seattle's electric utility, City Light, filed, in the mid-fifties, a competing request for one site, Z Canyon, with the Federal Power Commission.  If City Light got Z Canyon, the other site was rendered useless. 

Clarence Cleveland Dill
After several years of hearings, Seattle's west side muscle showed and the Pend Oreille PUD lost its site.  The lawyer arguing the PUD's position, Spokane's attorney C. C.  Dill, had served in the United States Senate from 1923-1935.  He was the last United States Senator elected from eastern Washington.

Boundary Dam, an eggshaped, thin arch dam, now sits in Z Canyon and its generators produce about 40% of Seattle's electrical needs.  Some people still remember that Seattle jumped Pend Oreille's claim, though it is now a long time ago.  But not so distant that every ten years, when the County Commissioners negotiate a new contract with City Light, people start looking at Boundary's very impressive balance sheet and wonder why a little more of it doesn't stick in Pend Oreille County.

When Pend Oreille County looks at its own balance sheet, it keeps coming up short of young people.  Just over 20% of households in the county have children in school.  Also, a lot of people have moved to the county to retire, building houses along the water and watching their spending.  The lack of a strong, core constituency for public education in the county is a problem Pend Oreille County handles better than most rural communities.

The problem they don't do so well with is what to do with young people after they graduate.  It is the overwhelming question about the health of rural culture and life -- keeping a critical mass of young people in small, aging, rural geographies.

It is not something anyone will figure out tomorrow, but people in Pend Oreille County would like to think they won't be talking about this problem a hundred years from now.  But they will.

White Pine Savages

When Butter Was Gold

The Kalispel Tribe

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