The Town That Wouldn’t Give Up
Every town has its hard luck stories. Then, there’s Northport, WA. "The town of Northport in northern Stevens County probably has had the most hectic history of any community in the Northwest, and for sheer ‘hard luck’ undoubtedly holds first place among municipalities that have survived." (Colville Statesman Examiner: May 15, 1953)
When D.C. Corbin’s Spokane Falls and Northern Railroad made plans to head north, it brought a boom in construction to the tiny hamlet that had been homesteaded by Fred Farquhar, Frank George, and A.V. Downs. As early as 1882, ten years before the railroad moved in, Northport was a town in its own right. L.L. Savage managed a small store and served as collector of customs.
In the latter half of 1892 several hundred new-comers joined the pioneers. Among the first to arrive was W.P. "Billy" Hughes, a businessman hired to construct buildings for Corbin’s railroad. That same year, Hughes had a printing plant hauled in piecemeal by ox teams and established the first newspaper, the Northport News. The first issue rolled off the presses shortly before the railroad crews descended upon town. There was no lack of things to report. In August of 1892 the first of four major fires consumed much of town. That same month, the News published an article voicing the town’s need for a ferry to cross the swift Columbia River. Up to that point, all crossings had been made in a rowboat—a dangerous and laborious trip. Before two months had passed, a cable drawn ferry was plying the wild surface of the river, linking Northport to the Colville Indian Reservation. Problems arose when white prospectors began to exploit Indian lands, without permission or approval of the tribe.
The success of Northport took its toll on other communities as well. As the railroad replaced the steamboats of the Columbia as the most efficient way to transport goods and passengers, other river-front towns began to dry up. "Little Dalles even lost its post office because of the railroad. Postmaster Cy Townsend put the whole building onto a railroad car that moved north as the line was build, and unloaded it at Northport.
Later a postal inspector criticized Townsend for combining his postal and saloon businesses, but the locals reportedly had no qualms about getting their mail and lubrication together." (Spokane Spokesman Review: 1998) The town kept growing, men making up the vast majority of the population. With a reported 26 saloons, Northport gained a reputation for being a wild town. "…there hasn’t been a shooting or a highway robbery for weeks," an 1893 issue of the Northport News declared. "A couple of charming young ladies from a neighboring Canadian town have been paying us frequent visits of late and a wave of wild insanity has in consequence swept over the town, affecting most of the young men." (The Northport News: October 1893) A busy red light district was soon established. Such matters were, at that time, none too hush-hush, for an article in the Northport News read, "A ‘Lady of Elegant Leisure’ has rented four bedrooms in a parlor over a business place on Columbia Avenue and will leave for Spokane tomorrow to lay in a ‘supply of girls.’"
For all the growth and ‘Leisure,’ Northport had more than its fair share of problems. On the 8th of May, 1893, a second fire swept through the young town, wiping out much of what had been built. Those that didn’t leave town started rebuilding. They didn’t get very far along. A third fire on the 10th of August that same year consumed portions of the business district. The following year it wasn’t fire that threatened Northport, but water. In 1894, the mighty Columbia broke its banks and washed through town. Following two years without major mishap, on March 18th, 1896, "Northport suffered its third disastrous fire. Most of the business buildings were destroyed." (Colville Statesman Examiner: May 15, 1953) According to Margaret Evans, area historian, there was something unique about the character of Northport, "…that there was an independent way of handling problems. In all the tragic fires which… wiped out the business district, there was no mention of outside help to rebuild. The people tightened their belts and began again." (Evans, Margaret: Another Northport Landmark Will Soon Disappear)
Despite their frontier independence, the May 3rd, 1898 "daddy of all fires" (Colville Statesman Examiner: May 15, 1953) might have marked the final blow to the town. "The Northport News reported that there was lots of discouragement, and it was thought by a lot of people that the blow was too great for the town to recover." (Evans, Margaret: Another Northport Landmark Will Soon Disappear) Damage was incredible. More than three full blocks, including the red light district, burned to the ground. Losses were estimated at over $100,000, with over 70 individuals and firms losing property in the blaze. Again the town burned, and again its citizens started over.
However, there could be no abandoning Northport now, what with the construction of a bridge over the Columbia, a new smelter, and all the jobs that it promised. Operations had begun at the Northport smelter, constructed by American capitalists who owned the nearby Le Roi mines in Rossland B.C., during the winter of 1897-1898, and things quickly recovered for the town. In 1898 Northport incorporated.
The economy grew rapidly as ores from mines on both sides of the inter-national border made their way to Northport, also known as "Smelter City." In 1899, a British company bought out the smelter, and the business was named the Northport Refining and Smelting Company. "The town’s population… swelled to 1,500 to 2,000 in the smelter’s short-lived heyday, when it employed 500 to 600 workers." (Spokane Spokesman Review: 1998)
The Ladies of Silver Crown Saloon
"There are many articles written in the Northport News about the old Silver Crown Saloon, and some of them tell of the troubles the patrons had with "girls" who used to be a part of it." Many of the girls lived in the alleys off of 4th and 5th Streets in "a warren of small houses," and this area served as a red light district. "The News tells that one day one of the girls was walking past the Kendrick Merc. Co, and looked up to see one of the clerks standing at the window smiling at her. She quickly kicked up and broke out the window! Another time one of the girls playfully put her arm around a patron of the saloon, and in so doing, lifted his wallet. When he found it missing, he had all the girls searched, but they so skillfully passed it from one to the other that he never did regain it." Of course, not all the girls were so lucky. "Saloon girl Millie Powers was said to have fought like a tigress when Marshal Jack Dietrick had to search her to recover Robert Johnson’s wallet."