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Posted on January 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM by GayDawn Oyler
Logger Memorial, St. Maries, Idaho
When the first trappers/explorers began coming into the lands around Coeur d’Alene Lake in the early 1800s, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe were the principal inhabitants of the area. Seeking to benefit from the weaponry, religion, other technology and skills of the white men, many Indians sought white teachers. Fur-trading companies brought the first of these educators, followed in the mid-1830s by Protestant and Catholic missionaries.
Father Pierre Jean DeSmet, a Jesuit Order Priest from Belgium, led the first Roman Catholic mission in the region. After co-founding the St. Mary’s Mission among the Flathead Tribe in what is now Montana, he commissioned Father Nicholas Point to expand the work among the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.
In 1842 Father Point established the Mission of the Sacred Heart about one mile from the southern tip of Coeur d’Alene Lake on the north shore of a large river, which he named St. Joseph, later shortened by local residents to St. Joe. Father Point also named the St. Mary’s River, later spelled St. Maries. After starting the mission, Father Point found the location was not as favorable as he originally thought. Spring flooding was common and the wetlands were breeding grounds for swarms of mosquitoes.
Old railroad tracks.
After four years, Father Point moved the mission about 25 miles north on the Coeur d’Alene River at the western end of what is now the Silver Valley. There, priests and Indians built a church building and mission later named Cataldo after Father Joseph M. Cataldo, a Roman Catholic priest prominent in establishing several missions among the Northwest Indian tribes. Today, the Cataldo Church is the oldest public building in Idaho and the location of Old Mission State Park.
In 1860 U.S. Army Lieutenant John Mullan—later promoted to Captain—led 230 soldiers and civilian workers in the construction of a 624-mile military wagon road between Fort Walla Walla, Washington, and Fort Benton, Montana. Interstate 90 generally follows Mullan Road.
With the construction of Mullan Road, other events followed that brought increased settlement into the area of Lake Coeur d’Alene, including what is now St. Maries.
In 1877 reacting to concerns about Indian conflicts in the West, General William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union Civil War hero, made an inspection tour of military forts in the Northwest. While traveling over Mullan Road, Sherman passed along the northern shore of Lake Coeur d’Alene. He was so impressed with the setting that he made a recommendation to Congress that they authorize construction of a new military post on the north shore of the lake.
Old St. Maries Bridge
Congress approved Sherman’s recommendation and in 1878 authorized construction of Fort Coeur d’Alene on 999 acres of land at the headwaters of the Spokane River. The name of the fort was later changed to Fort Sherman. The military also commissioned Captain C.P. Sorensen, a boat builder from Portland, to build a steamboat to patrol the 30-mile-long lake.
Civilians employed to build the fort and other settlers started a small tent and log cabin village, which they named Coeur d’Alene City, near the fort.
In 1883 A.J. Prichard disclosed his discovery of placer gold near what is now Murray, setting off a major gold rush. Ten thousand people converged on the Silver Valley by the end of 1885, scouring the mountains and streams in search of precious metals.
In 1887 in an attempt to assimilate American Indians into the white mainstream, Congress passed the General Allotment Act—Dawes Severalty Act.
Under the Act, Native Americans received an allotment of reservation land. Each head of family received 160 acres; single persons received a lesser acreage. Any lands not allotted became “surplus” and were made available for non-Indian settlement. This created a checkerboard ownership pattern throughout the reservation.
In 1888 Joseph Fisher filed a claim near the confluence of the St. Joe and St. Maries Rivers, a location where steamers and barges operating on Coeur d’Alene Lake could navigate up the St. Joe River to his property. The following year, Joseph applied for the St. Maries Post Office with himself as postmaster. At the same time, three other members of the Fisher family—brothers William, John and Jesse—built a sawmill. In July 1889 Fisher and two residents, F.W. Haveland and M.A. Phelps, platted the town of St. Maries.
Three years later, the Fisher brothers sold their mill to Fred Grant who enlarged the facility. Joseph Fisher built a hotel.
In 1905 the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (Milwaukee Road) built a rail line that passed through the heavily wooded forests surrounding what are now St. Maries and Plummer.
The federal government had given the railroad companies land grants as an inducement to build the railroads and encourage settlement. Forest products companies built sawmills at strategic locations along the rail lines. The railroad subdivided some of their land near St. Maries, adding to the size of the city.
In 1908 the federal government completed its survey of the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation and designated the surplus land for settlement. As a result, thousands of settlers came onto the former reservation land to settle. Many of these homesteaders settled the land around St. Maries. By 1910 the town’s population reached 869.
The 1910 fires bypassed St. Maries, burning within miles of the village. In the 1930s the bodies of 57 of the fallen firefighters were re-interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in St. Maries. The Firefighters Memorial Circle is visited by many each year.
The first newspaper, the St. Maries Courier, a semi-weekly publication, was established February 19, 1901, by E. Deuerslie.
In 1901 Joe Fisher and M.A. Phelps were awarded the franchise to construct, operate and maintain a telegraph and telephone line from St. Maries to Santa, Idaho. By 1905 St. Maries had become a popular summer resort area with three hotels, the largest of which was located on the waterfront and boasted 80 rooms. Riverboat “steamers” made scheduled trips to Harrison and Coeur d’Alene—some would bring 100 or more visitors on holiday trips to St. Maries. The U.S. mail boats went between St. Maries and the railroad connection at Chatcolet.
On October 16, 1902, St. Maries became an incorporated village. On February 10, 1913, the town met the state requirements and received county approval to change its legal status from village to a city of the second class.
Heroic Steps to Save Economy
The favorable location for a sawmill is the reason Joseph Fisher selected the site of what is now St. Maries. Large stands of timber near the navigable St. Joe River and the smaller St. Maries River were ideal for the new mill and community that his family wanted.
From the beginning, the wood products industry underpinned the city’s economy. There are at least two times in the city’s history when the citizens of St. Maries took heroic steps to protect their wood products-based economy.
During the Great Depression of the1930s the remaining and largest sawmill in the city was in the final stages of closure, dismantling and auction by the Reconstruction Finance Administration. Not willing to give up, the citizens rallied to provide the needed capital to save the mill. They reopened the facility as the St. Maries Lumber Company. A few years later, World War II brought an increased demand for lumber, and economic prosperity for the city resumed.
In 1961 the mill caught fire and burned. Facing a bleak future, this new generation of citizens showed the same innovation and resilience as their predecessors. Drawing financial support from throughout the county, they formed the Benewah County Development Company (BCDC) and, with federal assistance, built a new plywood mill on the site of the burned facility. The Potlatch Corporation now owns this enlarged facility.
At about the same time, the BCDC financed a mill in Plummer as well as the Regulus Stud Mill in St. Maries—a small-diameter log sawmill now owned by Stimson Lumber Company.
Amenities and Attractions Today
City Park, located in the center of town, features an outdoor pool, playground, tennis courts, a baseball diamond and a picnic area. Lower City Park has five baseball fields, a soccer field and a skateboard park. Vic Camm Park is a neighborhood park featuring a children’s playground and picnic area. Aqua Park, along the St. Joe River, offers picnicking, swimming and boat launching opportunities.
The historic Hughes House, a log house built in 1902 and located on the corner of 6th and Main, was purchased by the Centennial Committee in 1989 and opened as the Hughes Historical Museum on June 18, 1990.
The third weekend of July is a multi-event celebration that includes art exhibits, cars and snowmobile “grass drags”—the Smart Committee art and music show located at Cherry Bend Boat Park, a county park located on the St. Joe River approximately three miles outside the city; the St. Joe Valley Car Club’s annual car show and dance; and the St. Joe Snow Rider’s grass drag races.
Each Labor Day weekend, the City and local businesses sponsor “Paul Bunyan Days”—a fun-filled four days of logging and pool events, “bed and outhouse” races, Tug of War, street dances, motor cycle cross races, food, crafts, carnival rides, two parades and fireworks.
The third weekend in August brings the annual Benewah County Fair and Jr. Rodeo.
There are several developed forest service campgrounds on the nearby rivers. The closest to St. Maries is the Shadowy St. Joe located 11 miles northeast of town. Other campgrounds include Heyburn State Park, west of town approximately 6 miles, and Misty Meadows Campground and RV Park, 3.5 miles northeast of St. Maries.
There are also miles of groomed snowmobile trails around the city and hundreds of logging trails in the nearby forests. Just outside of town is Christmas Hills Recreation Area, a 600-acre facility devoted to snowmobiling, motorcycling, hiking and mountain biking.
Many outdoor enthusiasts enjoy the excellent hunting, fishing and boating opportunities in and around St. Maries and the nearby forests.
St. Maries Golf Course is a nine-hole course located just two miles south of town.
Courthouse Moon over Mount Baldy in winter
St. Maries Plywood Mill Library story time
St. Joe River City crew