Lake Pend Oreille is a gem of nature nestled between the mountains of North Idaho at the south end of the Purcell Trench, a trough carved by ancient glaciers moving south from Canada.
About 16,000 years ago, an ice dam broke where today the Clark Fork River flows into the lake near the border with Montana.
The huge Glacial Lake Missoula to the east — bigger than Lake Ontario and Lake Erie combined — sent a tower of water 10 times the flow of all the rivers in the world tumbling into the Idaho Panhandle.
Then thundering south at 65 miles per hour, the roaring water drowned the valley covering today’s Rathdrum and Spokane before heading to the sea.
Huge rafts of ice picked up boulders called “erratics” — sometimes as a big as a house — and floated them downstream. At 2016 Beck Road at Stateline on the Idaho side of the border with Washington is a 47-ton rock — recently moved from its original Missoula Flood location — standing as a lonely sentinel of that cataclysmic event.
When the ancestors of today’s Native Americans arrived some two thousand years later, a number of tribes settled around what is now Lake Pend Oreille — teeming with wildlife and all the natural resources needed for survival.
The three main tribes were the Salish-speaking Séliš (Salish, also called Flathead), Bitterroot Salish and the Pend d’Oreille or Kalispell — from the word Ql’ispé.
The Pend Oreille (dropping the d’) meaning “hanging from the ears,” was named no doubt by early French-Canadian trappers noting the Indians wearing seashell earrings.
The three tribes once roamed from Montana and Wyoming to the Pacific Coast — mostly north of the Columbia River, including into British Columbia.
(Other Idaho tribes include the Coeur d’Alene, Nez Perce, Shoshone-Bannock, Western Shoshone and Northern Paiute.)
When early trappers first arrived at Lake Pend Oreille, the Indians were already there — camped around the lake and living like most Native Americans of those times as hunters and gatherers, moving about as seasons changed.
That way of life changed forever once the white man arrived in the American West in the early 1700s. They brought deadly diseases, white man ways, alcohol, guns and horses, and competed for the natural resources on lands where the Indians had lived for thousands of years.
Disease, guns and horses brought death and turmoil. The Indians were eager for the guns and horses that immediately became an essential part of daily life — making hunting and travel easier — but they also created not only strife with the white man, but also warfare between many of the tribes.
Indians considered horses a symbol of wealth and courage — and taking them from others became a new cultural trait.
For the Plains Indians, the most ferocious were the Niitsitapl Blackfeet.
Adolph Hungrywolf in his book “Blackfoot Papers” wrote: “Warriors would strive to perform various acts of bravery…in order to move up in social rank…taking a gun from a living enemy and or touching him directly; capturing lances, and bows; scalping an enemy; killing an enemy; freeing a tied horse from in front of an enemy lodge; leading a war party; scouting for a war party; stealing headdresses, shields, pipes (sacred ceremonial pipes); and driving a herd of stolen horses back to camp.”
The Niitsitapl became mortal foes of the Crow, Cheyenne, Sioux, and in Idaho the Flathead, Kalispell, Kootenai, Nez Perce and Shoshone.
As these events were unfolding, Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery of 1806-08 expedition opened the door to the Northwest. But it was British-Canadian David Thompson who opened Pend Oreille.
Born in 1784 in England of Welsh parents, at age 14 he was sent to Canada to serve a seven-year apprenticeship with fur traders Hudson’s Bay Company. The talented young man was good at mathematics, astronomy, map-making and surveying.
After his apprenticeship ended, he was hired later by Hudson’s Bay, but left them for archrival North West Company because of his strong opposition to Hudson’s Bay selling alcohol to the Indians.
North West allowed him to pursue his dream of mapping Canada, and he was sent to find a trade route through Washington’s Columbia Basin to the Pacific.
He also established several trading posts — among them was Kalispell built in 1809 on Lake Pend Oreille’s Hope Peninsula near Sandpoint, not far from where the ice dam broke to trigger the Missoula Flood.
Regretfully, Kalispell lasted only two years and all that remains today are some stones from the fireplace.
The Flathead asked the Jesuits to send “the Black Robes” to teach them about the white man’s Bible. For 10 years throughout the 1830s they waited. Then Belgian priest Pierre-Jean De Smet came as a missionary.
More followed and a mission for the Salish was built at today’s Stevensville, Mont. — once the bottom of Glacial Lake Missoula.
Later, he also established the Sacred Heart Mission in present-day Cataldo.
In 1880, Northern Pacific Railroad sent surveyors to the tiny village of Pend Oreille — now Sandpoint. Robert Weeks opened a general store and the railroad brought in workers to build a new rail line. Many were Chinese who left China after agreeing to a 25-year contract to work in America and hopefully later return home wealthy.
Many came, but few went back.
They cut timber, flattened the ground, laid the ties and rails, lived in primitive conditions, were often mistreated and toiled for pittance wages. But it was still better than in China — and they helped build America.
As the twilight of the 1800s gave way to the dawn of the 20th century, the railroad was finished, settlers came, timber was cut, milled and sent across the nation; Sandpoint became a city and Bonner County was born.
Homesteaders became “stump farmers,” clearing the forests, taking out the stumps and growing hay for the horses pulling wagons piled high with cut timber heading for the sawmill.
World War I and the Great Depression came and went — then came Farragut.
With the U.S. fighting in World War II, President Roosevelt was looking for a naval training station location that would be safe from enemy attack. As the story goes, his wife, Eleanor, was on a flight to Seattle and saw Lake Pend Oreille as the plane flew over.
The lake is 1,150 feet deep — fifth deepest in America and 300 miles from the ocean.
She recommended the site to FDR and construction began in March 1942 and was completed by September. The base was named Farragut Naval Training Station after America’s first admiral and Civil War Hero David Farragut.
Virtually overnight, the station became the largest city in Idaho, filled with 55,000 sailors for two months of training.
The base was also a prisoner of war camp for nearly 900 Germans, who were put to work as gardeners and maintenance men — no doubt happier to be there than on the Russian Front.
Three times a day, trains carried sailors on liberty to enjoy the bright lights of Spokane, while others filled the streets of Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene.
It was a rollicking time in Idaho history.
Thirty months later, it all ended.
The last of 293,000 recruits graduated in March 1945 and by September the war was over, the base closed and the remaining men and POWs went home.
Farragut’s buildings came down, with only the brig remaining as a museum; the land now a state park — but the Navy’s still there doing submarine acoustical research.
No longer is the bugler’s wakeup call heard, nor the marching footsteps and the parade ground band playing John Philip Sousa.
Since David Thompson brought civilization to Pend Oreille so long ago, not everything has changed. Much of the shoreline is still untouched; grizzly bears still power their way through dense forests and tiny field mice skitter between decaying logs and moss-covered rocks. Eagles soar and hummingbirds whir from one blossom to the next, while in the cold waters the mighty sturgeon glides by the newborn fry.
The sounds of nature’s rhythms are broken only by the cacophony of the power boat, or the approaching train trundling its way toward a bridge across the ancient lake.
Time and change stops for no one; but today Lake Pend Oreille is still one of America’s greatest blessings.
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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More floods coming?
“Could huge floods on this scale happen again? Although global warming may now be a serious concern, it is likely that long-term climate cycles will cause large ice sheets to return at some time in the distant future, and cataclysmic outburst floods will probably recur in this region.”
— Ice Age Floods Institute
The Salish and Pend d’Oreille cultures were very similar — gathering bitterroots, camas bulbs, carrots, onions and potatoes, baking and drying the camas for preservation. They also picked chokecherries, hawthorne berries, huckleberries, serviceberries and strawberries, and fished for trout, mountain whitefish, long-nosed and large scale sucker, northern pike, salmon and sturgeon.
Both tribes hunted deer, elk and buffalo, made tools of stone, wood and bones, and fashioned clothes from animal skins decorated with dyes and porcupine quills.
— Flathead Watershed Sourcebook
“Everything on the earth has a purpose; every disease an herb to cure it, and every person a mission. This is the Indian theory of existence.”
— Mourning Dove (1888-1936)
During World War II, Farragut Naval Training Station was the ideal place to test submarine sonar systems. Because Lake Pend Oreille was deep, acoustics were similar to the open sea, only with less background noise. Also, foreign governments couldn’t monitor what they were doing.
Where are the Flathead Indians today?
There are more than 4,000 Flathead descendants today, mostly living on the Flathead Reservation (formally the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation) in western Montana. It’s the fourth largest reservation in the U.S.
The German and Austrian prisoners of war held at Farragut Naval Training Station during World War II had a good deal. They were offered work as gardeners and groundskeepers and paid 80 cents to a dollar a day. Most preferred to work rather than hang around camp. Some volunteered to fight forest fires.
They were permitted to publish a German language newspaper called “Die Lupe” which means “Magnifying Glass,” play soccer, ping pong, tennis or pool and were given materials and tools for arts and crafts. They even had a library, their own band and a choir.
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