Chewelah: A Town of Firsts

Church in Chewelah

    In 1873 Thomas and Mary Brown founded the town of Chewelah. They named it Chewelah after the native word that means either small, white snake or water snake, after the winding patterns of the rivers that flowed through the Chewelah Valley. Chewelah was a town of firsts in Stevens County. It had the first Protestant Congregational Church in 1891, the first school in 1869, the Spokane Falls and Northern Railroadcame in 1889, the Catholic Church came in 1885, in July 1885 the first county newspaper was founded, and Mary Thomas (Aunt Mary) was reportedly the first white woman to live east of the cascades.

 

G.A.R. Picnic, 1909

     At first the town of Chewelah was a regular mining town. There were prospectors as early as 1842, but most mines weren’t established until 1886. The first was a lead and silver mine. Other mines popped up in Embry and surrounding areas. The town was platted in 1884 and was known for being a rough and tumble mining town. J.T Lockhard owned the first store. His merchandise consisted mainly of whiskey. Prohibition hit and the miners didn’t mind too much, saying, "Addy’s product was just as good as the store boughten." The late John Raftis Jr. recalled of early Chewelah that there were five saloons and a brewery. Beer was five cents a glass and whiskey wasn’t much more. Butter was fifteen cents a pound, eggs ten cents a dozen and potatoes were fifty cents for 100 pounds. Of course keep in mind that good wages were $1.50 a day for ten hours of work.

     In 1905 the population had reached 650. By 1914 there were many good-working mines in the area. They mined copper, silver, lead and some gold. However, the most successful ore to be mined in Chewelah was magnesite

The Land of Jobs: Chewelah Magnesite Plant

     Magnesite was used for making bricks and furnace linings that could withstand high temperatures and was an important ingredient for making high quality steel, which was in high demand during World War One. Austria was the main provider of magnesite, but they stopped shipping it to the U.S. during the War. By 1916, Chewelah’s plant was said to be the largest producer of magnesite in the country—and at full production it was the largest producer in the world! Chewelah shipped around 700 tons of magnesite daily. During the war there was said to be 800 people working at the plant making refractory brick. The population in 1920 was 1,600 people. Chewelah continued prospering until the summer of 1968 when the plant closed down due to cheaper competition from Japan and changes in the steel industry. However, Chewelah survived after it ceased to be a "One-company town." Today, a ski hill and other industries are prospering.