March 2014 Archive

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Lake Coeur d’ Alene-From Magnificent Millpond to One of the Most Beautiful Lakes in the World

By Don Heikkila

The Geological History

Glacial activity about 9,ooo to 15,000 years ago created Lake Coeur d’ Alene out of what previously had been the valley of a river. At the time ice sheets also occupied major valleys to the north. As the glaciers receded, melt waters as deep as nearly 100 feet at times flooded across the outlet of the river valley beyond the present city of Coeur d’ Alene from old Lake Missoula. Rock, sand and gravel blocked the old river channel. This backed up the river, submerged the valley, and produced one of the Pacific Northwest’s most magnificent lakes.

The lake is about 25-30 miles long, from one to three miles wide, as deep as 190-210 feet near Coeur d’ Alene to as shallow as 35-50 feet deep at the southern end from Harrison south. The St. Maries River enters into the St. Joe River at the city of St. Maries, and then the St. Joe enters the lake near Conkling Park. The Coeur d’ Alene River at Harrison also enters the lake. The Drainage into Lake Coeur d’ Alene is from approximately 37,000 square miles of land. The Spokane River at Coeur d’ Alene provides the outflow of the lake, which eventually empties into the Columbia River. The statistics quoted above vary somewhat, according to the sources.

The Coeur d’ Alene River is fed by Latour Creek, the Southfork of the Coeur d’ Alene River and Northfork of the Coeur d’ Alene River, which originates from the mountains near Murray and Pritchard . It travels some 37 miles down the valley past Rose Lake, Bull Run Lake, Killarney Lake, Medicine Lake, Cave Lake, Swan Lake, Black Lake, Blue Lake, Thompson Lake, and Anderson Lake before it enters Lake Coeur d’ Alene at Harrison. Access from the river to the lakes exists for smaller boats to all of the lakes except Rose and Bull Run. Navigation on the outlet river, the Spokane, continues to Post Falls where navigation is stopped by the Post Falls Dam.

Post Falls Dam

Lake level is controlled in part by the Post falls Dam, which was constructed in 1906. This dam most generally produces enough power for the city of Coeur d’ Alene. The elevation of the lake varies from 2128 feet to as much as 6 feet lower by the end of December to 2122 feet to allow for spring runoff. There is nearly 50 square miles of water surface, which contains about 2,260,000 acre feet of water and is officially classified as a Glacial Reservoir. Some historic levels of the lake are: 5/31/1894-2,137.60; 5/17/1917-2,135.90; 12/25/1933-2,139.05 (highest on record); 5/23/2008-2,134.78; 4/25/2009-2,129.41; 6/22/2010-2,128.18; 5/26/2011-2,132.49; 4/29/2012-2,133.24. It is interesting to note that higher levels have been maintained consecutively for the last five years.

Coeur d’ Alene

Fort Coeur d'Alene was established in 1878 and was later named Fort Sherman. The city of Coeur d'Alene developed east and north of the fort and within a few years had become the business center of the North lake. Coeur d'Alene's importance as Kootenai County's center was reinforced when voters moved the county seat to Coeur d'Alene in 1908. By 1910 the population was 8,000. Six large lumber mills were located in or near Coeur d'Alene, and the city boasted four banks, five hotels, nine churches, four grade schools and a high school, a movie theater, and two telephone systems. Four railroads served the city: the Northern Pacific, the Inland Empire Railroad electric line, the Milwaukee Road, and the Spokane International. No railroads serve the city now. Spokane residents talk about a light rail system, like the one the served both cities at the turn of the century. However, a bicycle trail follows much of the former route and is very popular.

Coeur d'Alene's major industries were timber, tourism and agriculture, and the timber industry today still has an impact on the economy with its facilities located in nearby communities, mostly to the north . By the early 1930s, Coeur d'Alene was Kootenai County's economic and social center. At one time the city served four major rail lines and boasted six major lumber mills, however the last mill was taken down a couple years ago. Today the city is a college town served by North Idaho College and satellite campuses for the University of Idaho and Lewis and Clark State College. It has a population of about 44,137 people and is the center of the tourist industry attracting visitors from around the world.

Gold and Silver Discovered

The Amelia Wheaton, first steamboat on the lake, was built by Fort Coeur d’ Alene under the supervision of Captain C.P. Sherman to provide access to the Coeur d’ Alene River Valley and the placer gold claims near Pritchard and Murray. Ruby El Hult, in her book, “Steamboats in the Timber” said that it was a stern-wheeler, eighty-five feet long, with a fourteen-foot beam, which cost $5000, was named after the daughter of Fort Commander General Wheaton, and was launched in the fall of 1880. Gold was discovered in Murray in the fall of 1881 by A.J. Prichard, and the discovery of silver near Kellogg later made the Silver Valley one of the largest silver mining areas in the nation. From this beginning the Silver Valley provided much wealth and development to the region and is credited as being an important source of critical metals used to win World War II. Although pollution from this mining activity created a considerable problem for some time, a Superfund cleanup during the last few decades has improved water quality and pollution considerably. Recreation in the Silver Valley has greatly improved, especially after the improvement of Jackass Ski area when its name was changed to Silver Mountain and the world’s longest Gondola was opened in 1990.

Steamboats on Lake Coeur d’ Alene

Ruby El Hult in her book, Steamboats in the Timber, claimed that, ‘In the heyday of its water commerce, Lake Coeur d’Alene was the scene of more steam boating than any other lake, salt or fresh, west of the Great Lakes. It was the little Lake Erie of the West; its rivers, miniature Mississippi’s of the West.’

The most important thing the steamboat era accomplished was to develop the area and promote it to the rest of the world as a place of great beauty. And the huge tourist industry that now exists owes its gratitude to the steamboat history that came before.

The natural resources of the St. Joe and Coeur d’ Alene River Valleys provided resource-based jobs to the new area. Homesteading in the region later provided incentive for many people to move to the area, requiring transportation, easily provided by steamboats. The Lake and River system was an easy water route from Coeur d’ Alene to as far as Cataldo on the Coeur d’ Alene River and St. Joe City on the St. Joe River, with many points in between. Here are the names of many of the boats that served to move people and goods to a growing population around the lake: Amelia Wheaton, Avondale, Belleville, Boneta, Bonnie Doone, Coeur d’ Alene, Clipper, Corwine, Colfax, Defender, formerly Laura Lyons, Dolphin, Echo, Elk, Fleetwood, Flyer, Idaho, Georgie Oakes, General Sherman, Grant, Harrison, Idaho, Imp, Irene, Julietta, Kootenai, Mica Bay, Michigan, Miss Spokane, Mudhen, Milwaukee, Tacoma, previously named Narin, North Star, Radio, Rob Roy, Rover, Queen, Schley, Seattle, Shoshone, Spokane (built in 1881) Spokane (built 1901) Stern-wheeler Harrison, Tacoma, Torpedo, Victor, Volunteer, Wallace, Wardner. The previously named boats (not all included) all operated either on the lake or one of the rivers. If the smaller pleasure boats and tugboats were all mentioned I’m sure there would be several hundred.

The Sunken Ore of Lake Coeur D’ Alene

More has been written about the Steamboat activity on the lake than would fit in several books. References to the lake in the Harrison Searchlight alone would fill several volumes. However one of the most alluring stories about the lake was told by Ruby Hult, in her book, Lost Mines and Treasures, told about the “Sunken Ore of Lake Coeur d’ Alene”. Here are excerpts from her book: “In the late 1880’s three large steamboats plied Lake Coeur d’ Alene from the little town of Coeur d’ Alene at the north end of the lake to the head of navigation on the Coeur d’ Alene River. Two of the steamers, the Coeur d’ Alene and the General Sherman had been built during the gold rush days of 1883-84 when men by the thousands went streaming into the Coeur d’ Alene Mountains to the creek named Prichard for the man who had first discovered gold there.

The gold excitement lasted only a couple of years, and the steamer business would have fallen on lean days had not a new and different strike been made. In 1885 the strayed mule of an old prospector, N.S. Kellogg, was found standing on a wide, glittering ledge of galena. This became the fabulous Bunker Hill and Sullivan Mine, which is still producing annual fortunes in lead and silver ore; and it was but the first of several important lead and silver strikes in the immediate area.

All this ore had to be transported out of the mountains somehow, and D.C. Corbin solved the problem by building a ‘chippy railroad’ (a narrow gauge) from the mines to the river. He converted the two gold-rush steamers to ore carriers, then built a third vessel, the ice-breaker Kootenai to operate in winter months. His system was so profitable that the Northern Pacific Railroad bought him out in 1888.

Head of navigation on the Coeur d’ Alene River was the Old Mission-location of the Mission of the Sacred Heart built by the Jesuit fathers in 1853. One day late in the fall of 1889, when the Kootenai arrived at the Old Mission, Captain Nesbit received orders to take down two barges loaded with 150 tons of ore each, as the river was beginning to freeze. As he proceeded downstream he discovered that the boat and barge made too broad a front push against the river ice, so he tied one barge to the bank near the present site of Springston, then went on, towing the other.

After the Kootenai crossed the bar at the mouth of the river into the ice-free lake around midnight, the crew felt the big job was over and everyone not on duty went to bed. Fred Wilson, afterwards a captain on many lake steamers, had joined the Kootenai crew as a fireman, and he remained to stand watch for the engineer, Captain Waters, who had had a grueling day.

‘My who duty was to oil the cylinders and answer the bells if there were any,’ Wilson wrote in an account later published in the Coeur d’ Alene Press. ‘After and hours of quiet, I looked out the port window and saw the barge riding way over on its side. I rushed to the speaking tube and reported to the captain. I got the bell to stop the engines. Later came the bell for half speed ahead. The captain had decided to start for shore about a quarter of a mile beyond McDonald’s Point.

‘The ore was in three long tiers, running the length of the barge and piled about four feet high. When we were about 300 feet from shore, the port pile toppled over and splashed into the lake, and of course in a minute the starboard pile went overboard, and then almost all of the center pile lurched into the lake. A few seconds later, when the captain drove her into the, we rushed onto the barge to see only fifteen tons of the ore remaining scattered all over the deck.’

In those minutes, 135 tons of ore, then worth $15,000 and today worth about twice that, disappeared beneath the lake waters.

Following Captain Nesbit’s report of this loss, the Northern Pacific brought in a diver, who found that the ore had sunk to a depth of 60 to 100 feet and the cost of recovery would be more than it was worth. So the NP wrote it off as a total loss.

This left the ore a fair prize for anyone who could raise it. A steamer employee, Charles Griswold-later a captain on the lake-suggested to Fred Wilson, who knew the exact spot, that they give a try to dredging up those sacks.

‘It seemed like a good idea, Wilson’s account says. We both quit our jobs, got a big grubstake, some lumber, one hundred fifty feet of half-inch rope, so peaveys, a grappling hook, some nails and spikes, loaded along with us, and paddled for McDonald’s Point.’

‘After a good night’s sleep we started to build a raft of logs, covering the logs with the lumber we had brought. When it was finished we towed it up to where canvas sacks, mildewed and worn out, and each sack contained one hundred twenty-five of ore. We worked faithfully three or four days, brought up an ore truck and a locomotive headlight. We would pull up heavy objects but when we got them near the surface they would drop back to the bottom. Whether we ever got hold of any ore we do not know, although we did bring up bits of canvas. Anyway we quit.’

In 1951 this sunken ore story was revived by Clement Wilkins in his ‘Backward Glances’ column in the Kootenai County Leader. By then Captain Fred Wilson was dead, but William E. Merriam, and old steamboat engineer, said that Wilson had often pointed out the exact spot to him and he thought that with modern diving equipment salvage might be comparatively easy.

Wilkins’ column excited the interest of a local diver, Wesley R. Johnson, who made his living by such projects as lifting sunken logs for mills, fishing out lost bulldozers for bridge builders, and raising cars lost in lake accidents. Johnson made a trip to the sunken ore location and said salvage operations appeared practicable. He told Wilkins that as soon as he got a slack spell in his diving work he would take the navy landing craft which he used in his work to the sport near McDonald’s Point and go down to look for the ore. ‘If it’s there, I’ll find it,’ he said.

As he was well equipped, Johnson probably would have found it and might have been successful in bringing it to the surface. But when the slack spell came, he got into some trouble in Bonners Ferry, where he landed in jail. He became despondent, slashed his wrists, and died in his cell.

Because of this tragedy, no one has yet applied modern diving techniques to the problem of raising Lake Coeur d’ Alene’s sunken treasure. Bill Merriam is no long around to give directions, but one veteran steamboat man still lives in Coeur d’ Alene, the engineer Captain Ernie Weeks. He knew Fred Wilson well and made countless trips with him across the lake. If anyone still knows the approximated resting place of the $30,000 worth of ore, it is Weeks.

For those to who this unclaimed wealth lying on the lake bottom presents a challenge, the first thing to do would be to find some other diver or underwater salvor who would go take another look and see if he agrees with Johnson that salvage is practicable. If the answer is yes, then the project would seem worthwhile. As for operating funds, a number of interested parties might pool their resources. In treasure hunting that has often proved reward to all concerned.”

In an article entitled “Treasures and Tragedies of Lake Coeur d’ Alene, The Spokesman Review-Chronicle, Sunday September 28, 1986, an article featuring Tom Michalski, well-known diver at the time, discussed the silver ore on the lake bottom with diving friend Don Budvarson. “It’s just a junkyard,” said Budvarson. It’s just a dump for the city of Coeur d’ Alene and the surrounding towns-everything from cars to bodies to old telephones are on the bottom.” Silver, steamboats, airplanes, cars and assorted bodies are a jetsam of more than a hundred years of North Idaho history that rests on the bottom of this lake.

At that time the men were estimating that assuming that modern methods could extract 1000 ounces of silver from each ton of ore, the hoard would be worth almost $800,000. That is easily the most valuable thing in the lake. At today’s prices with silver reaching $20.00 to $30.00 per ounce with 135,000 ounces the value of the ore could be from about $2,700,000 to over $4,000,000. During the summer of 1985 a Seattle dive team looked for the ore off McDonald Point, but apparently they did not find anything because they didn’t come back. Failure to find any trace of the ore could easily be complicated now by being covered up with as much as 10 feet of silt the divers said.

Tom Michalski’s project in 1986 was to recover artifacts from the tugboat “Reliable”, which sank near Spokane Point. He recovered the steering wheel and whistle and its owner’s blowtorch and shoes. This author was there in 1987 when he raised the steam engine of the tugboat as shown in the photos. It was amazing how good the engine looked after being in the water so long.

Sawmill Heritage

Lake Coeur d’ Alene was the primary method of transporting timber in Kootenai and Benewah Counties after the timber industry started before the turn of the last century. In fact, prior to a fire in 1917, Harrison was considered as the potential county seat of Kootenai County, as the swiftly growing lumber town was near the mouth of the Coeur d’ Alene River, and less than five miles from the mouth of the St. Joe River as they entered the lake. After the fire of 1910 that burned 15 billion feet of timber in the Inland Northwest and the Harrison fire of 1917 the mills in the city of Coeur d’Alene became the most prominent. With its proximity to Spokane, WA, and due in part to the electric line that served the two cities, Coeur d’ Alene then grew to become the county seat.

During the late 1950’s the Lafferty Transportation Company used 12 tugboats to tow logs on the lake for five timber firms. About 125,000,000 board feet of logs were transported each year on the lake. They were towed in booms of up to 4,000,000 board feet per trip and were moved across the lake at a snail’s pace. Tows usually took about 36 hours to cover about 23-25 miles. For river towing the logs were moved in bundles called “Brails”. These Brails were assembled into “Booms” for the trip to the mill. The last brails of logs that were towed from St. Maries to Coeur d’ Alene by tugboat were about in about 2009-10.


The city was named after President Benjamin Harrison who was a family friend of the Crane family who founded the city about 1891 and built the first house, which is owned by the Crane Historical Society. At the turn of the century Harrison had seven sawmills on its waterfront. In 1900 Coeur d’ Alene had 505 residents and Harrison had 702. In 1911 there were 1250 residents. Later Harrison had a population of between 2500 and 3000 residents depending on what source of information used. In 2010 there were 203 residents in town. As the only other city on the lake, it was in a perfect place to take advantage of this commerce. There was so much White Pine in the Coeur d’ Alene and St. Joe River Valleys they thought they would never be able to cut all of it. That is why the lake was referred to as, “The Magnificent Millpond”. Opening of Homesteads around the lake after the turn of the century created a need for transportation into the region and soon many beautiful steamboats traveled this unique lake and river system. This all combined to make Coeur d’ Alene Lake one of the most desirable areas to settle.

After the fire of 1917 that destroyed most of the business district many people left for places like Coeur d’ Alene. Only one sawmill remained, The Russell and Pugh Mill at Springston until the late 1950’s.

Recreation Commercial Potential

The combination of this river-lake system now creates a unique recreational potential today. Boaters and fishermen travel the waters and lakes and enjoy excellent fishing. Camping and fishing in the Coeur d’ Alene River system is accessible by land and water. Waterfront homes along all these lakes and rivers enjoy unique access to this water system.

Robert Ripley featured Lake Coeur d’ Alene in his early travel columns, and many travel writers extol its beauty regularly today. It has been further said that it is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. One of the main reasons for such accolades is that it is connected to three rivers-the St Joe, Coeur d’ Alene and Spokane, which makes this scenic by-way an appealing boating, fishing, camping and recreational paradise. The St. Joe River travels from its source at St. Joe Lake to where it empties into Lake Coeur d’ Alene. Its crystal clear water offers outstanding scenery, excellent catch and release fishing, and plenty of wildlife. There are numerous small, rustic campgrounds along the shores of the road portion of the river (39.7 miles) and a trail along the entire wild portion (26.6 miles) of the river to its headwaters at St. Joe Lake. The river was originally named the “St. Joseph” by Father Pierre-Jean Desmet, a Catholic priest who established a mission nearby.

There are two islands on the lake, Kid Island in Kid Bay (North End of lake) and Corine Island at the mouth of Swede Bay. There is also the famous floating golf green island on the lake as part of the Coeur d’Alene Golf Course.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe owns the southern third of Lake Coeur d’Alene. In United States v. Idaho, the United States Supreme Court held an 1873 executive order issued by Ulysses S. Grant transferred ownership to the Tribe. While the court holding has not affected usage and access to Lake Coeur d’Alene, the Environmental Protection Agency has ruled that the Tribe may set its own water-quality standards on its portion of Lake Coeur d’Alene.

Recreation is probably the most common use of the lake and river system today with watercraft of every description traveling the waterways. The largest boats on the lake today carry up to about 500 passengers and operate mostly at the north end of the lake, except for St. Joe River Cruises to the South. Modern roads that were built around the lake shortly after the 1920’s, eliminated the need for water transportation to various destinations that were more easily reached by automobile. Water access to many campgrounds and lake and river access points provide many recreational opportunities.

The Steamboat Days on Lake Coeur d’ Alene will always be a romantic and nostalgic period of our history. There are memories of Sunday dance bands playing on the Idaho as she steamed up the lake to St. Maries; the whistle of the Harrison alerted the town that she was about to arrive to pick up passengers for Amwaco; the Georgie Oakes, gallant lady of the lake, would stop to buy wood along the lake to fire her boiler; the Flyer would stop in Harrison on her way to St. Maries or Coeur d’ Alene. All these memories of days gone by are for each one of us to imagine, treasure and remember.

Credits: The Harrison Searchlight, Crane Historical Society, Museum of North Idaho, Bert Russell, Ruby El Hult, Iva Carns,The Spokesman Review, The Coeur d’ Alene Press and several state and federal agencies that provide information about Lake Coeur d’ Alene. Originally printed in The Harrison Searchlight, Old Time Picnic Celebration Edition, Vol 66, No 66.