Stevens County Washington
NOTE PLEASE: This post has been rewritten from a much earlier posting. If you read it before, you’ll find many similarities here. But there are also many differences. I hope you enjoy. Also note that clicking on any image or its caption will take you to my RedBubble sales gallery.
An Introduction to Stevens County Washington
The Territorial Legislature created Stevens County Washington on January 20th, 1863. The territory was ten years old at the time. It extended all the way from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains. The new Stevens County encompassed the northeastern half of that area. Walla Walla County was to the south. The story of eastern Washington’s governmental development is convoluted. We’ll look at that in the next section.
Today, Stevens County is a mere shadow of its original self. It covers 2,541 square miles. On the west, Lake Roosevelt and Ferry County border it. To the south, the Spokane River and Spokane County mark the borders. On the east lies Pend Oreille County, and on the north the Canadian province of British Columbia. As of the 2010 US Census, it was home to 43,531 residents. That number increased to 45,723 by the 2019 census estimate.
A Brief History of 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, they created a new County, named for governor Stevens, who had died the previous year. At the time, it covered what is now Chelan, Okanogan, Ferry and Pend Oreille Counties. Once again, the local officials took no action to set up a functioning government. On March 3rd, the United States recognized Idaho Territory. That action 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.
Bringing Things Up-to-Date
In time, Stevens County would lose land to thirteen of Washington’s thirty-nine counties. In all of those divisions, the County Seat remained at Pinkney City. Pinckney City became Colville in 1868. 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’s First Residents
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. For their part, 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.
Colville, the Stevens County Seat
Historically, what is now Washington was part of Oregon Country. That area extended north of the 42nd parallel, stretching from the Pacific to the Rocky Mountain’s Continental Divide. Both Great Britain and the United States claimed this land. Both nations worked to establish their claims. In 1816, the Hudson Bay Company (Great Britain) built a trading post on the Columbia River. They chose a spot 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 their own Fort Colville. (Note the difference in spelling.) This became 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. 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 an estimated population of 4,832 (2019).
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 Scheweelehee because the rippling water in his spring looked like writhing snakes.
The Rise and Fall of Magnesite
Like much of the West, gold, or the rumors of gold, brought the initial rush of non-native settlers. The miners were followed by those who mine the miners—the merchants. But the gold played out quickly, as did silver, copper, and lead. A new mineral gained ground, magnesite. Magnesite was important as a liner for the furnaces involved in the production of high-grade steel. 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. 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. This enterprise involved 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.
Much earlier, 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. Much of what I know of Chewelah comes from that site.
To the north and west, thirteen miles from Colville along Washington Highway 20, you’ll find the third city of Stevens County. Kettle Falls (2010 population 1,595) is near the site of an important Native American fishing area. However, 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 rebuilt itself on higher ground. Now it 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 Towns
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 incorporated on June 1st, 1898. Marcus, 2010 population 183, is just north of Kettle Falls. Originally, it intended to facilitate shipping on the Columbia, upstream of the falls. While it came into being in the 1860s, the town was not incorporated until 1910. Like its neighbor, it had to rebuild on higher ground when Lake Roosevelt flooded the original townsite.
Toward the southern end of the county, Springdale today is largely a bedroom community for Spokane. 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.
Lakes in Stevens County Washington
The Lakelubbers.com entry for Loon Lake tells us 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.” In 2010 it had a population of 783. The lake is home to two public beach areas with boat ramps.
Waitts Lake covers 472 acres and has 4 miles of shoreline. Construction of the Waitts Lake Dam in 1928 formed the lake. It has a 4 ½ mile long hiking/biking trail that rings the lake. It also has numerous private campgrounds and resorts that welcome guests. All three lakes are between the community of Chewelah and the city of Spokane.
Smaller Stevens County Lakes
Lakelubbers makes no mention of the Little Pend Oreille Chain of Lakes along Washington Highway 20 east of Colville. The western four lakes in the chain, Sherry, Gillette, Thomas and Heritage, are all open to boaters and fisherman. A five-mile long trail for canoes and kayaks connects the lakes. East of Heritage Lake, four lakes are apparently too small to garner any internet attention. These are Lake Leo, Frate Lake, Nile Lake and Browns Lake.
North of Colville lies Deep Lake, well known for its trout fishing, but with no campgrounds available. North of Kettle Falls are Pierre and Ellen Lakes (106 acres and 75 acres respectively). Both have Forest Service Campgrounds, and both are accessible from U.S. Highway 395 in neighboring Ferry County.
Of course the largest body of water in Stevens County is Lake Roosevelt. The construction of Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River created the Lake. 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 marks the county line between Stevens and Ferry Counties
My Next Visit
To date, my trips to Stevens County Washington have taken me over all of the major highways in the County. I’ve even driven up and over the Flowery Trail Road that passes by 49 Degrees North ski area. What I haven’t done is drive more of the back roads. I would love to take Washington Highway 25 north from Kettle Falls. That road follows the Columbia almost to the Canadian border. Rather than cross the border, I’d circle back down past Deep Lake.
I also hear the Little Pend Oreille Chain of Lakes calling me. I’d definitely take my kayak along. I want to check out that canoe/kayak trail connecting the four lakes. And no doubt, there’s plenty of things I missed in Colville, Chewelah and Kettle Falls. There’s always a reason to go back to Stevens County Washington.
Next Thursday, we’ll visit Yakima County. I hope you enjoy the trip.