Priest River is truly a “town that logs built.” Ever since the early 1890s when Italians from southern Italy flooded into the area to hew ties for the Great Northern Railroad, the woods product industry has fueled Priest River’s economic engine. This has been both a blessing and a curse. Periodic downtums in timber’s fortunes have been the norm over the years, but recent efforts to expand and diversify the economy have helped to address the problem. Today timber isn’t the only game in town, but it’s still crucial to the community’s economic well being.
The city of Priest River, population approximately 1700 in 2007, is located in Bonner County, Idaho, on U.S. Highway 2, about 7 miles east of Newport, Wash., and the state line, and approximately 22 miles from Sandpoint, the coimty seat of Bonner County. The Keysers and the Kramers, related couples bom in Germany, were the first white settlers, in 1888 or 1889. Close on their heels came many other newcomers, including a large influx from the Great Lakes states, following the timber.
Answering the Great Northern’s call for laborers, the Italians began arriving by 1892, and stayed when construction moved on. They settled an area on the east side of the town and the river that became known as the Italian Settlement. The Italian influx continued until about 1920. Priest River was known as “Little Italy” until well into the 1950s.
The original town of Priest River was situated on the east side of the Priest River at Keyser’s Slough, near the confluence of the Priest and the Pend Oreille. It was moved to its present location, on higher ground, following the great Pend Oreille River flood of 1894.
The name “Priest” is believed to have been derived from the Kalispel Indian word Kaniksu, meaning “Black Robe”, the name the Indians gave to the Jesuit missionary priests who worked among them. Priest Lake, a resort area to the north on State Highway 57, was referred to as Kaniksu Lake on some old maps.
Although the early pioneers tried other means of making a living, notably agriculture and mining, it was the dense virgin timber covering the mountains and the valleys that soon became the means by which most people eked out a living. For decades, Priest River was a wide-open logging town. By 1920, according to the census, it was the fastest growing town in North Idaho.
From 1901 through 1949, an annual log drive on the Priest River took place each spring as the industry worked its way into the Priest Lake country. As far as is known, the drive was the last log drive to take place in the Lower 48 except for the Clearwater drive, also in Idaho. The drive on the Priest gave rise to an annual Loggers Celebration, which lasted through 1980. Today, the town celebrates its logging heritage with Priest River Timber Days, which is kicked off on the last Saturday in July.
written by Marylyn Cork