Human habitation has been traced back to at least 12,000 years ago. By the 16th century the ancestors of today's Salish, Kootenais, Kalispel and Pend Oreille Indians were well established. Historians estimate that the total populations within the watershed was less than 7,000 prior to white settlement. The Native Americans lived in harmony with the land and its other inhabitants. They hunted buffalo, deer, elk, and bighorn sheep, fished for kokanee and chinook salmon, cutthroat and bull trout, trapped rabbits, beaver, and other small mammals, and admired the beauty of moose, bear, wolves, eagles, hawks, and swans.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition arrived in 1804 as they scouted out the route for the fabled Northwest Passage. The 1862 Homestead Act promised free land to settlers and brought in cattle and domestic sheep, which triggered the war on 'predators' that still rages today. Today roughly 340,000 people inhabit the watershed. One-third of Montana's population lives in the Clark Fork Basin.
The Clark Fork River
From its source in Silver Bow Creek near Butte, to its marriage with Idaho's Pend Oreille Lake, the Clark Fork is but a remnant of Glacial Lake Missoula. Trapped by an ice dam about 15,000 years ago waters backed up to form a 2,900 square-mile impoundment the size of present-day Lake Ontario. It's estimated that the lake filled and emptied more than 35 times during a 1,000 year period as the ice dam periodically weakened. The lake emptied for good at the end of the last Ice Age.
Lewis and Clark gave the river its current name. Explorer David Thompson scouted and mapped the region for Britain's Northwest Company between 1808-1812 and established several trading posts, including one near Thompson Falls. The development of a wagon road from St. Regis to Garrison in the 1860's brought settlers and commercial development to the region.
Mining came to the Clark Fork basin during the 1850's with the discovery of some gold nuggets near Gold Creek. Butte eventually became the center of the mining industry as gold, silver and copper were claimed from the mountains. Railroads, timber cutters, more settlers, farmers, and cattlemen followed the mines. Missoula became a major trade center. Indians were evicted from their traditional lands in the Bitterroot Valley and relocated to the Flathead Reservation.
Although most mining ended during the 1970's, mining wastes still exist in sediments and the flood plain. Heavy flooding in early 1996 washed some of this sediment into the middle Clark Fork past the Milltown Dam at Missoula. The effects of this event upon aquatic life, wildlife and groundwater are still being studied.
In March 2008, the Milltown Dam was removed and 1/3 of most contaminated sediments were excavated, put on rail cars, and hauled to the Anaconda Superfund Site. High runoff may have moved some of the remaining sediment and conflicting views remain as to how much may have moved and where it went.
Pend Oreille Lake
This beautiful lake was home for the Kalispel Indians for thousands of years until displaced by white settlers and relocated to reservations in Montana and Washington in the 1880s. The name "Pend Oreille", meaning "ear drop" was given to the lake by French-Canadian trappers. This could refer either to the shape of the lake or the habit of the Indians of wearing pendant ornaments in their ear lobes.
In 1809, David Thomspon built Kullyspell House a few miles west of the current town of Clark Fork. It was the first fur-trading post in the Northwest and Idaho's first permanent structure and business. A Pony Express route was established from Oregon and Washington through the region, terminating in Missoula. The steamboats operating in the Pend Oreille River became a vital link in the mail route. As trapping declined, mining and logging took over as the principal industries, spurred by the construction of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1881. The Great Northern Railway followed in 1893 and the Spokane International in 1906. By 1910 Sandpoint was a thriving railroad hub and commercial center.
Around Sandpoint, logged timberlands (called "stump ranches") were sold to settlers for homesites and farms. Mills began to shut down in the 1920s as the timber disappeared; mining died out by the 1960s. Commercial fishing for kokanee salmon and whitefish flourished from 1945 until 1973 when it was banned. The lake and its trophy-size trout still draw recreational fisherman. The excellent fishing and beauty of the lake encouraged development of resort facilities during the early 1940s. This was interrupted by World War II, when the Navy operated a base at Farragut Naval Training Station. The Navy still continues underwater testing there.
Dams were built in 1951 at Cabinet Gorge near Heron, MT, and at Albeni Falls near Newport. The Noxon Rapids Dam was added in 1960. Electricity generated by these dams serves the entire Northwest. Unfortunately, the dams also severely impacted the spawning habitat for the lake's trout, char and kokanee.
Facts about the lake: Pend Oreille Lake is the largest natural lake in Idaho,being 82,088 acres in surface area (or 128 square miles) and 112 miles of shoreline. Its maximum depth is 1,171 feet and mean depth is 533 feet. The Clark Fork River supplies 85% of the total water flow, with additions from the Pack River and Sand Creek.
Pend Oreille River
Flowing out of Pend Oreille Lake, the Pend Oreille River provided an easy travel route and access for the native peoples to the chinook salmon in British Columbia. The Pend Oreille River contributes about 10% of the water in the Columbia River.
Early white settlers came to the Pend Oreille Valley during the early 1880s for its abundant resources: minerals and precious metals, timber and tall grasslands. The initial settlement centered in the Kalispel Basin where the grasslands supported livestock and the river provided easy access. The town of Newport began in 1889 as a port town on the banks of the river, which is in Idaho. Townspeople chose the name in hopes that steamboat companies would develop a full-fledged port there. The Northern Railway laid a track near the store and put a temporary depot there, also. When the depot burned it was relocated 3,175 feet west-- in Washington state. When a town developed around the new depot, postal authorities declared that Newport was in Washington. The original part of the Idaho town is now called Oldtown.
Over 200 logging and lumber companies operated in the Pend Oreille Valley between the early 1900s and late 20s. When the mills started closing in the 1930's the population peaked at around 2,000. Today the region's beauty and natural resources lure vacationers and urban refugees.