Remote and rugged, Idaho’s Priest Lake has remained a wild place. Even today, the upper lake is accessible only by foot, mountain bike or boat. Despite being a favored location for Native American encampments, brutal winters discouraged any permanent settlement. Sportsmen and tourists discovered the region’s assets and frequented the area, but only during warmer months. Finally, beginning in the 1890s, adventurous souls—a wide cast of homesteaders, prospectors, speculators, and loggers—all dazzled by its natural resources, tried their best to tame it, with limited success.
Priest Lake’s impressive white pine forests did not escape notice, but grand turn-of-the-century Western expansion bypassed the area, sparing its idyllic beauty. Most venture capitalists considered the ore and timber too expensive to extract. At the same time, forestry leaders like Gifford Pinchot were guiding the country toward new land management and conservation ideals. By creating the Priest River Forest Reserve in 1897, President Cleveland expanded federal influence over the region and introduced an enduring tension between public and private lands. Still, over the ensuing decades industrial and recreational use increased.
The Dalkena Lumber Company won a Forest Service contract in 1914, and within three years, there were thirteen logging camps. The Diamond Match Company was another major lumber harvester. Along with timber, summer cottages were in high demand. Rangers doled out permits and scrappy residents eked out a living. Families christened their cabins with names like the Playawhile, Sylvan Haunt, Slabsides, and This-L-Du as they created a seasonal community cherished for generations.
Devastating wildfires—especially in 1926—also initiated profound change. During the Depression a few years later, work by the Civilian Conservation Corps centered on fire suppression, although conservation efforts and recreational improvements were also part of their mandate. After World War II, population growth accelerated. Electricity became commonplace in the 1940s, and in 1947, a local newspaper crowed, “Priest Lake has become a cult with many vacationists.”
Today, every privately-owned acre and lot represents past optimism, opportunity, hard work, greed, or politics. Wild Place traces those remnants—focusing on little-known yet captivating stories of the colorful characters who navigated Priest Lake’s demanding physical, political, and economic challenges.
Illustrations / map / notes / bibliography / index / 240 pages (2015)
Watch Kris Runberg Smith and Tom Weitz on Idaho Public Television’s Outdoor Idaho.