Stevens County

Washington Territory came into being in 1853, when that portion of the Oregon Country north of the Columbia River (and north of the 46th parallel, east of the Columbia) became self-governing.  The first territorial governor was Isaac Stevens who died in the Civil War in September, 1862.  After the Indian Wars of 1858, the territorial legislature created Spokane County and named county officials who neglected to take any action toward forming an actual county in the vast, largely unpopulated area. Twice more the legislature tried to create a Spokane County, to little effect, until the county seat was set at Pinkney City near Fort Colville. On January 20th, 1863, a new County was created, named for governor Stevens, who had died the previous year. At the time, it covered what is now Chelan, Okanogan, and Ferry Counties, and once again, the local officials took no action to set up a functioning government. On March 3rd, the United States recognized Idaho Territory, which took all land east of the 117th meridian, leaving Washington with its current borders. In 1864, the legislature again tried to created some sort of order in the northeastern part of the territory, adding Spokane County to Stevens, which now covered all of the territory from the Cascades to the Idaho line north of the Snake River. In time, thirteen of Washington’s thirty-nine counties would be carved from Stevens County, and in all of those divisions, the County Seat remained at Pinkney City which was renamed Colville in 1868. Today, Stevens County is a mere shadow of its original self, covering 2,541 square miles bordered on the west by Lake Roosevelt and Ferry County, on the south by the Spokane River and Spokane County, on the east by Pend Oreille County, and on the north by the Canadian province of British Columbia. As of the 2010 US Census, it was home to 43,531 residents, a number which increased to 44,439 by the 2016 census estimate. Largely rural, the county is home to three incorporated cities, three incorporated towns, and the Spokane Indian Reservation. Native people have called the area home for over 10,000 years. Trade with those native people was responsible for the first non-native settlements, then gold and other minerals attracted their share of non-native settlers. As the minerals gave out, farming, timber and mercantile pursuits stoked the region’s economy. Today, government (including education) is the largest single employer in Stevens County.

Stevens County Courthouse

Stevens County Courthouse

Colville, Washington

February 24th, 2013

ISO 200, f /5.6, 1/60th second

Historically, what is now Washington was part of Oregon Country, an area extending north of the 42nd parallel and stretching from the Pacific to the Rocky Mountain’s Continental Divide. This land was claimed by both Great Britain and the United States, and both nations worked to establish their claims. In 1816, the Northwest Fur Company (Great Britain) built a trading post at the point on the Columbia River where a fifty-foot fall made for great fishing (and appeared to create kettles of water in the river bed). They named this post Fort Colvile, and the town of Kettle Falls grew up around it. A few miles to the east, the U.S. Army built Fort Colville, the head of a wagon road that ran south for 200 miles to Fort Walla Walla. The town of Pinkney City grew up around the Army fort, and eventually the US Government, in the form of the Post Office, renamed the community Colville. Today, Colville is the largest city in Stevens County, with a 2010 population of 4,673.

Beehive Kiln

Thirty miles south of Colville lies the second largest city in Stevens County, Chewelah (2010 population 2,607). One story behind the city’s name is that it comes from the Salish for “Garter snake.” An early settler named his ranch S che wee leh ee because the rippling water in his spring looked like writhing snakes. Like much of the West, gold, or at least the rumors of gold, brought the initial rush of non-native settlers. And the miners were followed by those who mine the miners—the merchants. But the gold played out quickly, as did silver, copper, lead, and a new mineral gained ground, magnesite. Magnesite was important as a liner for the furnaces involved in the production of high-grade steel, and during World War II, Chewelah was the largest domestic producer of the mineral. But, once again, improvements in technology reduced both the need for the mineral and the number of people required to produce it, and in 1968, Northwest Magnesite, the largest (but not only) plant in the area closed, laying off 250 workers, down from a high of 1,200. You can still see the remains of the plants along highway 395 south of town. The city fathers, in an effort to keep the home fires burning, as it were, created Chewelah Industries in an abandoned armory, an enterprise sewing garments for various high-end clothing makes such as Pacific Trail and Eddie Bauer. Unfortunately, the company was unable to attract enough workers to meet their production goals. In 1935, a group of enthusiasts started the Chewelah Peak Ski Club which has become 49 Degrees North, a ski area just 10 miles east of town. An excellent history of the town appears in the Washington State Web Site historylink.org, and much of what I know of Chewelah comes from that site.

View of the Colville Valley from East of Chewelah, Downhill from 49 Degrees North Ski Area.

To the north and west, thirteen miles west of Colville, along Washington Highway 20, you’ll find the third city of Stevens County, Kettle Falls (2010 population 1,595). Located at the site of an important Native American fishing area, neither the original town nor the geologic phenomenon for which the town is named are visible. Both sit fifty or more feet under the waters of Lake Roosevelt—the lake created by the construction of Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River. The town itself was rebuilt on higher ground and now likes to tell people that it is the home of 1,599 people and one grouch. That grouch is elected each year at the Town and Country Days festival, held each June since the 1940s. In the Fall, the community celebrates the Marcus Cider Festival, and has for over 100 years.

Stevens County also has three incorporated towns. Those are Northport, near the Canadian border with a 2010 population of 295. The northermost town on the Spokane Falls and Northern Railway, the town was incorporated on June 1st, 1898. Marcus, 2010 population 183, is just north of Kettle Falls and had as its original intent the facilitation of shipping on the Columbia, upstream of the falls. While it came into being in the 1860s, the town was not incorporated until 1910, and like its neighbor, had to be rebuilt on higher ground when the original townsite was flooded by Lake Roosevelt. Toward the southern end of the county, Springdale today is largely a bedroom community for Spokane, but it came into being (as Squire City) back in 1889 when Charles O. Squire platted the community. Incorporated in 1903 as Springdale, the town was the lunch stop for the Spokane Falls and Northern Railroad, operating between Spokane and Northport. Perhaps its most famous son was Lucien Pulvermacher, a Roman Catholic priest who opposed the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and was named Pope Pius XIII in a schismatic protest.

The original inhabitants of the area were the people we call the Colville and the Spokane Indians. The Colville were moved to a reservation across the Columbia in Ferry and Okanogan Counties and the Spokane were relegated to a 159,000 acre reservation along the north bank of the Spokane River in southern Stevens County. As the tribe’s website states:

In January 1881, President Rutherford B. Hayes formally declared the Spokane Indian Reservation the new and smaller home of the Spokane Indians. The three bands of Indians were split up and some found new homes, which are now known as the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation, the Flathead Indian Reservation, and the Colville Indian Reservation. Today the Spokane Indian Reservation is 157,376 acres in size. As of May 2017, tribal membership includes 2879 people; we are strong and growing. We welcome you and thank you for wanting to learn more about the proud Children of the Sun.

Lake Roosevelt at Kettle Falls
The Columbia River/Lake Roosevelt at Kettle Falls

The Lakelubbers.com entry for Loon Lake states that Stevens County is home to some “306 lakes, 315 ponds, 125 marshes and swampy areas, and 175 creeks.” That said, the site speaks of only four lakes in any specificity. Deer Lake, the largest at 1,146 acres of surface area and 9 miles of shoreline, is mostly a private residential area with just one public fishing access and one private campground. It is home to two church camps. Loon Lake, at 1,100 acres, is next in size and has 8 miles of shoreline. The town of Loon Lake, on the northern shore, is an unincorporated “Census Designated Place” with a 2010 population of 783. The lake is home to two public beach areas with boat ramps. Waitts Lake, formed in 1928 by the construction of the Waitts Lake Dam, covers 472 acres and has 4 miles of shoreline. There is a 4 ½ mile long hiking/biking trail that rings the lake and numerous private campgrounds and resorts welcome guests. All three lakes are between the community of Chewelah and the city of Spokane. Lakelubbers makes no mention of the Little Pend Oreille Chain of Lakes along Washington Highway 20 east of Colville, but the western four lakes in the chain, Sherry, Gillette, Thomas and Heritage are all open to boaters and fisherman and are connected in a five-mile long trail for canoes and kayaks. East of Heritage Lake, Lake Leo, Frate Lake, Nile Lake and Browns Lake, are apparently too small to garner any internet attention. North of Colville lies Deep Lake, well known for its trout fishing, but with no campgrounds available, and north of Kettle Falls are Pierre and Ellen Lakes (106 acres and 75 acres respectively), both with Forest Service Campgrounds, and both accessible from U.S. Highway 395 in neighboring Ferry County.

Of course the largest body of water in Stevens County is Lake Roosevelt, the “lake” formed by the construction of Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River. Lake Roosevelt forms much of the western border of Stevens County, at least that portion south of Kettle Falls. North of the Highway 20 bridge, the Kettle River takes the honor of marking the county line between Stevens and Ferry Counties.

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