Sandpoint Magazine

Sandpoint Magazine Summer 2009



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1910 fire
The 1910 fire devastated Sagle, which lost its store, boarding house and more to the flames


1910 Fire
Commemorating deadly fire’s 100th anniversary

By Sandy Compton

In The Old Power House Building in Sandpoint, near the top of the stairs to the second floor, is a Ross Hall photo of the Cabinet Gorge. It was taken, perhaps, in the 1930s, a classic Hall black-and-white looking upstream through the gorge and across the Idaho-Montana border on a gray, spring day. Wisps of fog rise up the Cabinets, and in the background, on the face of Billiard Table Mountain, is a telltale scar. It was filled in when the picture was taken by dog-hair-thick “regen” Douglas fir and larch, second-growth trees between 20 and 30 years old. The edge of the regeneration is distinct, making it apparent that something had peeled all the timber off that piece of mountain in the not-so-distant past. At first glance an avalanche might be suspected, but a moment’s inspection reveals that the scar is shaped very much like a tongue of flame.

At midnight on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 1910, a couple of days after that scar on the face of Billiard Table was formed, Bonner County went dry, precursor to a move all of Idaho would take in 1916. Saloonkeepers in the northern-most Idaho county were forced by law to lock their doors and lined up to get rebates on their liquor licenses. Why on a Tuesday is a mystery, but it’s no mystery that just a few days before, much of the timber supply of the Inland Northwest burned up, Wallace burned down, and citizens of the region all, some more and some less, suffered at the hands of the “fire fiend.”

In Sandpoint, and more than likely in Priest River, Bonners Ferry, Hope, Clark Fork and any other Bonner County berg big enough to have a saloon – which was not very big – the party went on until midnight. In Sandpoint, the celebrants even began a display of fireworks that the sheriff immediately shut down for the obvious reason: concern that they might start a fire.

But the fires were pretty much over by then, though the smoke from them was still drifting across New York City and Denver. Gov. Brady of Idaho was sending his condolences and a $500 donation to Wallace fire victims, and he had moved the Idaho state troops into the Coeur d’Alene district to offer assistance.

It had been a horrendous season, with fires in the news since early July, when the Pend d’Oreille Review reported on July 8 that a “heavy fire was raging” in eight sections owned by Humbird Lumber Company between Matchwood, a rail siding in the Selle Valley, and the Pack River. Two hundred men, mostly Humbird employees, were fighting it, and Charles Selle had lost $1,000 worth of posts and pilings.

July 15, it was reported that 200 men of the Pend Oreille Fire Protective Association were battling a blaze in an area six miles long and two to three miles wide north of the community of Boyer, also in the Selle Valley, but much nearer Sandpoint, and “timbermen are afraid it will burn to the lake.” At Culver, a now long-gone rail stop located near where the Sunnyside Road leaves Highway 200, Sandpoint Lumber Company lost 28,000 ties, and a fire northwest of Clark Fork had burned across the state line and Blue Creek into Montana.

In late July came a reprieve – a cooling trend and bit of rain. “The long hoped for rain,” wrote the July 22 Pend d’Oreille Review, “which meant thousands of dollars to this country, has put a damper upon the forest fires which were raging all through the northwest. … Foresight and carefulness can now avert a repetition of the dangerous fires which have raged for the past few weeks.”

But the newspaper was wrong. No amount of foresight or carefulness could avert the coming maelstrom, which would arrive in full force four weeks later.

In Timothy Egan’s new book about that summer, “The Big Burn,” he concentrates his story on the fire that came in August around Wallace, the heroic Ed Pulaski and the St. Joe country, where the worst of the firestorm was. There is not much mention of the country north and west of the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River, but they did their share of burning, too.

Saturday, Aug. 20, was a full moon in 1910, but not many in northern Idaho, western Montana and eastern Washington witnessed it except as a shadow image of the sun, a faint red ball through a pall of smoke. On that day, the mountains around Wallace blew up in the most destructive forest conflagration known to man. Dozens of people died fighting it or running from it. This was the day that Ed Pulaski stood at the entrance of a mine shaft in the midst of hell with a pistol in his hand, promising to shoot the first of the men packed into the place who tried to run. It would have been a favor, for anyone leaving was sure to die a much more horrible death.

iron mountain snag
This snag seen on the way to Iron Mountain in the Cabinets is presumably a remnant of the 1910 fire

On that same day, in the mountains south of Cabinet, the rail town just east of Clark Fork, William Brashear’s crew of 32 men were fighting an independent fire in Defoe Gulch in the Dry Creek drainage when the big fire from the south broke over the top and into the gulch, catching them in between. Brashear had been to Clark Fork to consult with Pend Oreille Forest Reserve Assistant Supervisor Ed Stahl and was going back up Dry Creek to meet his crew when he met them coming down, fleeing the fire. After accounting for all of his men, Brashear led them to a clearing with a spring and had them soak their blankets and take refuge beneath them as the fire raged over the top of them.

Two men, though, “were stampeded,” as Brashear later put it; he couldn’t stop them from running. They were found barely out of the clearing, one evidently suffocated, the other burned beyond recognition. They were both “greenhorns,” possibly indigents recruited in desperation by the Forest Service for firefighting from out of Spokane. They were identified as J. Plant of Hope, Virginia, and J. Harris of Montreal, Quebec. They were both buried at Clark Fork.

The north face of the Bitterroots from the mouth of the Clark Fork River to Thompson Falls and beyond was scorched beyond recognition in a few short days. In many places, the fire jumped the Clark Fork – just plain blew across it – and began into the mountains north of the river.

Along the Idaho-Montana border at Clark Fork, at Cabinet and Heron, the fire approached from the south, burning across the divide into Johnson Creek, Dry Creek, Elk Creek, Pilgrim Creek and on to the east. Ruth McQuaide, née Dettwiler, was 3 years old at the time, living on a ranch across the river from Heron, and she describes the time in a letter to Elinor Compton, written in 1984.

“For days, we had not seen the sun. It was just a red ball in the sky. The air was thick with smoke. There was an eerie feeling of oppression and iminent (sic) danger. Roy (Ruth’s 5-year-old brother) and I did not want to play. The animals were confused. We knew our parents were very worried.

 “One day, small fires began to appear on Squaw Peak (now Star Peak), and on the heavily timbered flat towards the (Clark Fork) river. One could see burning pieces of branches flying through the air.”

One of those firebrands started the blaze that made that scar on Billiard Table.

Downstream of the Dettwiler place, folks living on the Cabinet Flats and in Cabinet waded to a sandbar in the middle of the Clark Fork just downstream of the Cabinet Gorge and watched the fire jump the river, and then watched their world burn up.

West of Sandpoint at Wrencoe, Laclede, Priest River, Priest Lake and Newport, smaller fires that had been burning, some of them for nearly a month, blew up on the 20th, also, brought to colossal sizes by the same front of wind that kindled the blowtorch which seared the Silver Valley. Six miles north of Newport, along the Pend Oreille River, Ernest Deinhardt was swept off his feet by this blast of air as he tried to save his buildings. His sons also were “picked up and carried some distance” by the wind as they tried to find their father.

The father and sons did manage to find each other and took refuge in the root hollow of a huge, blown-over larch, covering as much of themselves as possible with dirt. They survived, though all were badly burned. Ida Deinhardt, though, wife and mother, died in the root cellar she had tried to convince her sons to enter with her. Her “almost cremated” remains were found on Monday, the 22nd.

Also burned to death nearby was George Ziegler, in an attempt to return from Newport to his farm down the river. Facing a road blocked by timber fallen by the same wind that buffeted Ernest Deinhardt and his sons, he abandoned his team and wagon. He was found less than 100 yards from the dead horses.

iron mountain snag
This snag from the 1910 fire stands on the north face of Fatman Mountain in the east fork of Blue Creek, Montana

The raging fires of that weekend burned a sawmill at Laclede, though A.C. White Lumber Company’s mill at Laclede was spared. Their timber crews were already in the woods fighting fire, having been sent out a month before to battle blazes around the town.

South of Sandpoint and west of Lake Pend Oreille, a strip of country beginning at the Kootenai County line three miles wide and 20 miles long burned up with dozens of farms, homes and businesses lost. Nobody was killed by the flames, but many barely escaped with their lives, and often these people were left destitute as the fire they ran from ate up their life’s work, as well as millions of board feet of standing timber and thousands of dollars worth of posts, poles, cordwood and lumber waiting to be sent to market. The names of families who lost all or part of their investment in Bonner County included Pontius, Montout, Brown, Frick, Swigerts, Hagan, Leiik, Husted, Craig, McKinney, Matthews, and Kloph. In Sagle proper, in spite of the efforts of dozens of men fighting the flames, Oliver and Thomas Turnbull lost their store and Krum’s boarding house burned to the ground.

Northeast of Sandpoint and southeast of Bonners Ferry, a huge, pretty much unpopulated chunk of the western Cabinets burned, including the drainages of Kootenai River tributaries Boulder Creek and Twenty-Mile Creek and Grouse Creek, which feeds the Pack River. Hundreds of acres on the east face of the Selkirks were scorched near Copeland and along the border at Porthill. These fires were all in Bonner County at that time, as Boundary County was not formed until 1915.

Sandpoint, though spared the full horror of the fire, suffered its losses. Two young men from the city, George Strong and Andrew Bourrett, both died fighting fire in the Swamp Creek canyon near Trout Creek, Montana. They were buried at Lakeview Cemetery. Clarence Ames of Wrencoe traveled to Wardner, near Kellogg, to claim the body of his brother R.A. and take it “home to Minnesota.”

The worst of the damage was done and the wind had stopped by the evening of the 21st. The weather cooled and the fires began to decline. On the 26th, the Pend d’Oreille Review reported “a deadly frost,” and a few days later, the first snows appeared in the Cabinets, Selkirks and Bitteroots.

By Sept. 2, the worst forest fire season ever was over, and folks all over the Inland Northwest were left to count their losses and mourn their dead.  Ninety-two souls perished, both firefighters and civilians. Hundreds more were scarred for life, and thousands lost part or all of everything they had. “1910” and “fire” were fused together in the Western lexicon.


Summer 2010

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