Kootenai County marks 150 years

Shape, location have changed several times

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COEUR d'ALENE - On Dec. 22, 1864, Kootenai County was established by the second Legislature of the Idaho Territory, making it 150 years old this year.

Today, the Kootenai County commissioners are scheduled to adopt a proclamation recognizing the significance of the county's sesquicentennial.

"The sesquicentennial is a milestone during which we should take time to reflect on the economic growth of the region, major events and trends as well as the people who have shaped our past, and look ahead to continued economic success and enjoy this great area we are fortunate to call our home," said Kootenai County Commissioner Jai Nelson on Monday.

She said the commissioners are encouraging people to participate in activities this year celebrating the milestone.

The primary one is scheduled for Aug. 20 in the new Heritage Tribute Plaza at the county fairgrounds.

"One of the more interesting features of our county is how it took shape from 1864 to 1915, extending up to the Canadian border until 1907," Nelson said.

Robert Singletary, official historian of the Museum of North Idaho, said the county took many shapes in its early days.

In the first 51 years, Singletary said, the county would be expanded in size, divided, reduced and even abolished briefly.

In addition to originally having a different size and shape compared with the present-day boundaries, Kootenai County originally had a different location. (It arrived at its current shape and location in 1915.)

Originally, the boundaries extended from the southern tip of Lake Pend Oreille up to the Canadian border.

"That's where the Kootenai (Indians) were," Singletary said.

The establishment of Kootenai County followed the official organization of the territory of Idaho on March 4, 1863, by act of Congress, and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln.

Idaho had a huge original territory in 1863, which included part of present-day Wyoming and all of Idaho and Montana, Singletary said.

There was no county government until 1881, shortly after the establishment of Fort Sherman in 1878 (then known as Camp Coeur d'Alene) at the point where Lake Coeur d'Alene flows into the Spokane River.


The first county seat was known as Sin-na-ac-qua-teen, a small trading post located on the south shore of the present-day Pend Oreille River, opposite the community of Laclede.

At that time, Sin-na-ac-qua-teen was the only settlement in Idaho Territory north of Lewiston.

In 1864, there were few white settlers living in the new county.

That changed with the discovery of gold in present-day Montana, Lewiston, Idaho, and British Columbia, he said. That brought people to the area, along with construction of the Northern Pacific railroad.

"Additionally, when you have a gold rush, there's always money to be made outside of gold mining," Singletary said.

Supply routes to miners ran from the historic Mullan Road, completed in 1862, a 624-mile route linking Fort Benton, Mont., with Fort Walla Walla.

"While all this is happening, settlers are going west," Singletary said.

County abolished

A headline in the March 3, 1905, edition of The Journal, a weekly newspaper in Coeur d'Alene read: "Kootenai is dead; Long live Lewis and Clark."

The article reported that the controversial Spaulding bill was passed by the state Senate, abolishing Kootenai County and creating Lewis and Clark counties, with county seats in both Coeur d'Alene and Sandpoint.

Supporters of the bill, mostly from Coeur d'Alene and Sandpoint, argued that Kootenai County was too large to be effectively governed from a small isolated village.

Rathdrum, the Kootenai County seat at the time (since 1881), claimed Coeur d'Alene and Sandpoint created and supported the bill only to become county seats.

Within a few days after the bill was signed into law, the county division issue was brought before the state Supreme Court in Lewiston.

On March 31, 1905, after much publicity and a great deal of argument and debate, the court ruled the Spaulding bill unconstitutional.

Kootenai County would retain its original name and boundaries with Rathdrum as the county seat. Coeur d'Alene would become the county seat in 1908.

Singletary said that even though the Spaulding division bill of 1905 was ruled unconstitutional, the debates made clear that Kootenai County was very large and needed to be divided.

That started happening pretty quickly afterward, with Bonner County established in 1907, and eight years later Benewah County was created.


Nelson said that later this month the commissioners plan to have an educational display located inside the administrative building at the county courthouse, detailing how the county was created and changed size and shape until 1915. Singletary is assembling the display.

"As someone who grew up in this county, what I recall is the abundance of saw mills, several very close to downtown Coeur d'Alene, along with the smell of freshly cut timber and trains coming right through town to get to the mills," Nelson said. "The area has changed dramatically in just the past few decades. There has been a tremendous shift with the decrease in logging and mining."

The county commissioners will vote on the sesquicentennial proclamation at 2 p.m. today in the administrative building at 451 N. Government Way.

For more information from the commissioners on the sesquicentennial: (208) 446-1602.

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