One spring a decade ago, when the St. Joe River was frozen hard as an aluminum plate, John Condon loosed a couple tugboats from their moorings in Coeur d’Alene and his skippers made the long trip south pushing a few knots through the cold air.
Their engines were a low rumble that drifted quietly to the passing shoreline.
Condon’s business, North Idaho Maritime — one of the last tugboat operations on Lake Coeur d’Alene — was contracted by the office of emergency management to break river ice in an effort to prevent flooding in St. Maries, where dikes keep spring flows from inundating residential areas and the Potlatch mill.
The tugboats groaning south across a lonely lake were the remnants of a much larger contingent that for more than a century plied the water of Coeur d’Alene and Hayden lakes and local rivers, including the St. Joe.
Condon knows well the history of the company he purchased more than a decade ago.
North Idaho Maritime has transitioned to mostly a barge and construction company from its origins as a strong arm of the logging industry, towing loads from the St. Joe River 30 hours north across the lake to sawmills in Coeur d’Alene and along the Spokane River.
While other tug and barge workers, skippers and boomers retired or moved on with the closing of the area’s many sawmills, Condon has stayed on board.
“We’ve been providing family-wage jobs for 102 years,” Condon said.
His company, formerly the Lafferty Tug Line, started on Lake Coeur d’Alene in 1918 and its boats ran on steam until the late 1940s. The company name changed to the Lafferty Transportation Company and its boats, including the Avondale, the Coeur d’Alene (there were several versions over the years), the Cougar, Pine Cat, Ajax, and Eagle switched from steam power to diesel and gasoline. Until a few years ago the Florence Lee and its 500-horsepower engine still pulled 200 to 300 truckloads of logs from the St. Joe River to a log storage area at Cougar Bay.
“The tugboats really were the workhorses of the lake,” historian Robert Singletary said. “They weren’t the glamorous queens (of the steamboat era), but they played a big role.”
They still do, Condon would add.
Recently, however, the stalwart workhorses of North Idaho’s diamond blue waters and the companies that employ them have come under attack.
Condon sees it more than anyone. His efforts to work on area lakes, to find a place for moorage, or to store and load his barges is often made difficult by new development, and lake home owners who don’t want to see a barge, crane and tugboat in their view corridor.
A recent proposal to build a bulkhead to load and unload his barge at property Condon owns at Wolf Lodge Bay drew criticism from neighbors, area residents and an environmental group.
The proposal drew 30 comments in opposition, with concerns ranging from its effect on fish and birds, to people who thought the venture would ruin the scenery. The good news, however, for Condon and the lake’s tugging history, is that the other half of the 61 comments supported the venture.
Condon points out the more than 3,000 encroachments on Lake Coeur d’Alene, which include docks and other construction that relies on North Idaho Maritime for maintenance, replacement or repair. His business hauls construction equipment, builds docks, assists with bridge, road and dike work and does bank stabilization. In addition it is called up to break up river ice when flooding appears imminent.
“We run a pretty tight ship,” Condon says. “We provide a service.”
On Hayden Lake, where the Condon family history goes back to the 1940s, Condon operates a similar but smaller business, with one dock located at property he owns along the Hayden Lake Road abutting the Dalton Irrigation District’s dike and spillway.
An effort to rezone his property there to accommodate his business, and the lake’s 1,100 encroachments, has drawn the ire of lakefront property owners, including many whose docks were built or placed over the years by Condon’s company.
Dennis Kerr, whose dock is just up the lake from Condon’s, has led an effort to sink North Idaho Maritime’s request to rezone. Idaho Department of Lands, which oversees lake encroachments, has already had one public hearing on the proposal, but hasn’t submitted a decision.
In a letter to the department, Kerr said the business will lower property values.
“There is no question that the proposed commercial use will negatively impact the property of those affected by it,” Kerr wrote to the lands department. “This impact is the result of increased commercial traffic on the dike road, as well as Hayden Lake Road, caused by the coming and going of large trucks off-loading material and equipment for dock building. Additionally there is the noise of saws, nail guns and other racket associated with the construction process itself. Add to this the noise of the coming and going of construction boats, including a tug and you have a picture of noise pollution that carries all across the bay.”
On a hot day last week, as a small crew used screw guns to assemble a dock at the property which will be towed or barged to its owner when it is finished, the crew work was barely heard or visible from the road or the irrigation district’s nearby dike that North Idaho Maritime helps maintain.
Condon said he doesn’t like to engage in arguments.
“I don’t want to poke the bear,” he said.
He just wants people to consider facts before criticizing his operation.
“Business is tough enough anymore, without having to deal with misconceptions,” he said.
At a hearing with the lands department a few years ago when Condon sought to shrink his businesses footprint in Cougar Bay from 140 acres of log storage to just a few acres, people came out to protest, he said.
“They didn’t want me there at all,” he said.
He sees the protestations — many at the time came from people who built homes on the surrounding hills with a view of the lake — as an affront to the lake’s history and its working population.
“Who speaks for the working man?” he said. “I want them to think about the other side of the story.”
The county has called for two more public hearings on the request to change the zoning at Wolf Lodge Bay from restricted residential to commercial. Planner Rand Wichman, who represents Condon, said the Wolf Lodge proposal will allow North Idaho Maritime a land base during the season when the water is high enough to access the site. Condon once used loading sites on area lakes but they’ve been swallowed up by development.
“As ownership has changed, he’s lost access,” Wichman said.
If the Wolf Lodge zone change is approved, Condon will still have to apply to the Idaho Department of Lands to shore up a bulkhead.
Although tugboats were once one of Lake Coeur d’Alene’s most enduring icons, the new face of the lake as a slick tourist and recreation driven exploit, is more and more giving the cold shoulder to necessary enterprise like Condon’s, he argued.
“There needs to be a voice on both sides,” Condon said.