At the northwestern tip of Kootenai County you’ll find the welcoming town of Spirit Lake, Idaho. With more than 1,445 surface acres of alpine water and 12 miles of shoreline for fishing, boating, kayaking, water skiing and swimming, the lake is only the beginning of the adventures to be had in the Spirit Lake area. Backcountry bike trails carry you across miles of densely forested hillsides, taking you as far as Mount Spokane or as close as the historic train yard. If golf is more your speed, you’ve got two courses to choose between, less than 15 minutes in either direction. No matter what type of outdoor activity you’re looking for, you’ll find it close to town.
With a wide variety of restaurants, historic bars and specialty shops to visit, it isn’t difficult to spend a weekend exploring this part of the panhandle. The nearby towns of Blanchard, Athol, Bayview, Twin Lakes and Rathdrum each have a unique history intertwined with Spirit Lake. The native people, the early pioneers and current inhabitants have all left an indelible imprint, weaving another thread into the rich tapestry of life in this area.
In the beginning…
Glacier activity during the last ice age formed much of the area between Sandpoint and Spokane, creating prairies, basins and lakes including the Pend Orielle and Spirit Lake.
Surrounded by majestic alpine forests, Spirit Lake got its name from the native people who inhabited the area for thousands of years before American settlers arrived. Called Tesemini in the Salishan language, a loose interpretation of the word would be “Lake of the Spirits,” or Spirit Lake.
The most popular explanation for the name comes from a legend that echoes Romeo and Juliet: rather than marry the chief’s son from another tribe, a Native American princess and her brave leaped from a cliff into the lake and were never seen again. Their spirits call to each other through the lake canyons on windy fall evenings.
While a number of colorful characters inhabited the shores of Spirit Lake in the late 1800s, it wasn’t until Fredrick Blackwell decided to make it the home base for his operations that the town began to grow and prosper. Blackwell is credited with starting passenger train service between Spokane and Newport, incorporating the Panhandle Lumber Company and in 1907 platting out the land parcels that would become the Village of Spirit Lake.
By the end of 1908, Blackwell’s Idaho & Washington Northern Railroad had two trains arriving and departing Spirit Lake each day. More than a thousand people lived in the town, which had already established a school, an opera house, a hospital and a newspaper. Numerous hotels, boarding houses and other businesses sprang up along Maine Street, appealing to both residents and tourists. The Kootenai County Republican Convention was held in the fledgling town and the first Independence Day celebration took place on Maine, a tradition that has continued to this day. Before too long, Spirit Lake had become a popular retreat for wealthy Spokane residents who built summer homes around the lake.
Although tourism was a major draw for the area, without a doubt the lifeblood of the town was Blackwell’s lumber mill. The Panhandle Lumber Company employed more than 500 people and in the first six months of operation, workers cut 27 million board feet of lumber. In addition to his lumber company, Blackwell employed people at his railroad shops, which included a machine shop, a foundry and sheet metal shop, a railway car maintenance and paint shop, a coal and sand house, and a carpenter shop. In addition, Spirit Lake boasted one of the most beautiful depots. While nothing remains of the train depot, the foundations of the railroad shops can still be seen at the northeast end of the mill pond.
Trial by fire…
The summer of 1939 brought a 35,000-acre fire to northern Idaho and the Village of Spirit Lake was not spared. The lumberyard lost more than 40 million board feet of lumber to hungry flames. The roundhouse burned to the ground as did many lumber cars. The heat was intense enough to melt cast-iron wheels and twist the metal rails.
Even though most of their buildings survived the fire, the Panhandle Lumber Company stockholders decided to liquidate the company in 1940. With the number one employer closing down, many businesses in town followed suit. At one point in time, Spirit Lake had a higher population and more jobs to offer than Coeur d’Alene. But by the end of 1940, the population had dropped to just 1,003 residents. A decade later it was down to 696 people.
But far from becoming a ghost town, Spirit Lake remained home to several thriving businesses: grocery stores, camping resorts, a pharmacy, barbershops, cafés and bars, including the Whitehorse Saloon, the oldest licensed bar in the entire state. Tourists began to rediscover the historic logging town and in the early 1970s, the mill site for the Panhandle Lumber Company was converted into a 50-lot subdivision, helping to cement Spirit Lake as an emerging bedroom community for Coeur d’Alene and Spokane.
Through the years as the population grows and changes, Spirit Lake continues to reinvent itself. Now known as a great place to raise a family, the town has three top rated schools and a growing list of award-winning students. This quality education is complimented by the vast array of outdoor activities for both children and adults to enjoy. Biking, fishing, hunting, boating, summer sport leagues, nearby golf, skiing, and disc golf are just a few of the reasons why people like to come play and spend the day – or make it a permanent home.
Come discover what thousands have already learned. Spend a day in Spirit Lake and make memories that will last a lifetime.
Note: Want to learn more about the rich history of Spirit Lake? Much of the historic information in this article comes from the book, Historical Spirit Lake, Idaho and Vicinity by F. Keith and Jan Spencer. You can find copies at Free Spirit Gifts & Souvenirs, Thunder Ridge Gifts & T-Shirts, and through the Spirit Lake Historical Society.
*This article originally appeared in the visitor guide published by the Spirit Lake Chamber of Commerce.