Metaline Falls -- Thumbnail History

  • By John Nordstrand
  • Posted 11/20/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9216

The town of Metaline Falls is located in Pend Oreille County in the far northeastern corner of Washington. Outcroppings of exposed minerals led early non-Indian arrivals to name the area the "Metalines." The first substantial influx of new settlers did not arrive until gold was discovered in the late 1850s. Valuable deposits of lead and zinc were later found, but could not be profitably exploited until the railroad reached Metaline Falls in 1910. The town incorporated the following year. The economic core of Metaline Falls for much of the twentieth century was the Lehigh Portland Cement Company, sustained by abundant surface deposits of quartz and limestone. In the second quarter of the century the Metaline Mining District became the state's largest supplier of lead and zinc, and during World War II "soldier-miners" were deployed to help extract the metals for the war effort. The region's primary industries -- mining, logging, and especially cement -- declined during the 1970s, and the town evolved into a wilderness gateway and a home to a thriving art community. Two dams on the Pend Oreille River, one at Box Canyon and Boundary Dam at Z Canyon also contribute to the area's economy.

Metaline Falls lies on the banks of the Pend Oreille River approximately 83 miles north of Spokane, 13 miles south of the Canadian border, and 15 miles west of the Idaho border. Nestled in a heavily timbered valley of the Selkirk Mountains (a subset of the Rocky Mountain system), the .2-square-mile town sits at 2,100 feet above sea level and 100 feet above the junction of Sullivan Creek to its north and the Pend Oreille River to its west. The older town of Metaline, established in 1859 during the area's gold-rush days, can be glimpsed on the opposite bank of the river, about a mile downstream.

Kalispel Indians and Fur Trappers

A 1987 archaeological dig at Sullivan Lake near Metaline Falls established that Native Americans inhabited the Metalines area as long ago as 8,000 to 11,000 years. When the first outside explorers and fur traders came into the region in the early 1800s, the Kalispel tribe populated the area. There is evidence of hundreds of Native American camps and villages, some dating back thousands of years, along the Pend Oreille River, which was the life's blood of Indian culture. However, there is little or no evidence of Indian settlement along the river to the north of Metaline Falls, due no doubt to the difficulty of navigating its turbulent waters.

The North West Company's David Thompson (1770-1857) explored the Pend Oreille River (which he called the Saleesh) in 1809, hoping to find that the river would join with the mighty Columbia and provide a route to the Pacific Ocean. He and his party were the first non-Indians known to have set foot in Pend Oreille Valley, and Thompson noted in his journals that the Kalispel Indians were friendly and helpful. In 1810 Thompson made a second effort to reach the Columbia River via the Pend Oreille, but when he came upon the turbulent waters of Box Canyon he realized his quest was hopeless. (He would later stumble upon the Columbia at Kettle Falls, and he eventually reached its mouth at the Pacific Ocean.)  

For nearly 50 years after Thompson's visit, the Metalines, the Pend Oreille Valley, and its Indian inhabitants remained largely undisturbed by the outside world, with the exception of a few fur trappers. Thompson reported that trappers from both the Hudson's Bay Company and his own North West Company operated in the area after his visits, but the rugged terrain and lack of transportation slowed non-Indian encroachment.

In 1844 Father Jean Pierre De Smet (1791-1873), a Jesuit missionary, established the St. Ignatius Catholic Mission south of and upriver from Metaline Falls, near the future town of Cusick. (The Pend Oreille River is one of the few in the world that flows north.) This original mission was destroyed by floods in 1854 and was later rebuilt in Montana.

Gold Mining 

In 1859, prospectors found gold in placer sediments between Sullivan Lake and the Pend Oreille River and in the river from Metaline Falls to past Z Canyon. This would become the first mineral to supplant the fur trade as an economic attraction in the north Pend Oreille.

Placer mining, which requires laborious washing and dredging of gravel or sand that contain heavy ore minerals, is difficult under the best of conditions, and the Pend Oreille Valley placer deposits were less productive and harder to mine than those found in the earlier gold rushes in Nevada and California. White prospectors took out the easier gold, after which most of the hard-working and thorough prospectors were Chinese. They worked the area profitably for many years, until the gold resource dwindled in the 1870s.

New Prospectors and Settlers  

By the late 1870s, outcroppings of lead, zinc, and some silver had been discovered around the Metalines, bringing a new flood of prospectors into the area. Among the early arrivals was Carl C. Harvey. Harvey, a Civil War veteran, arrived in the Pend Oreille Valley in 1868, and by 1889 he had a homestead near Z Canyon. He worked the same placer sites on the gravel and sand bars of the river that the Chinese had earlier exploited. Though his cabin was a considerable distance away, he was an active participant throughout his lifetime in the development of the area both inside and outside the borders of the township of Metaline Falls. Harvey is buried at the base of a large rock at the foot of a hill one-half mile south of the Old Red Rooster, the former site of a cedar shingle mill and later a dance hall, about three miles south of the Canadian border. (In 1975, Pend Oreille County sheriff Tony Bamonte made and placed a headstone for his gravesite.)

In 1887, George Linton discovered deposits that would lead to the development of the first hard-rock mine in the area. He filed seven mining claims of 20 acres each, with different names. One, the Oriole, proved to have high concentrations of silver and gold. The mines were situated just a few miles from what would become the town of Metaline Falls, and yielded lead and zinc in addition to silver and gold. Although it was gold that first drew miners to the remote area, it would be lead and zinc that would eventually become the most sought-after minerals in the county. In these early days, lead and zinc were carried out on a small scale by by pack-train and riverboat, mostly for assay purposes. Also in 1887, the federal government cut a wagon trail east over the Selkirk Mountains into the Pend Oreille Valley, near Box Canyon and a few miles south and upriver from the Metalines.   

In 1889 the federal government began work to reshape the river and make it more usable for freight transportation. The biggest impediment was at Box Canyon, where the river narrowed and its flow accelerated to a swiftness far too dangerous for all but the most skilled boatmen commanding the most agile craft. In 1892 Joe Cusick built the first steamboat, the Red Cloud, to travel the Pend Oreille River. In 1907, under pressure from capitalists interested in the downstream mineral and timber resources, the federal government blasted and removed rock from the river to widen and deepen the channel at Box Canyon, clearing the river for water-borne freight moving north to Metaline Falls.

After three years of construction, the Great Northern Railroad had by 1892 reached Newport in the south Pend Oreille region, but it was not until 1910 that the railroad began to approach Metaline Falls.

Lewis Larsen 

In 1876, in Denmark, Lewis P. Larsen (1876-1955), the future founder of the town of Metaline Falls, was born. Decades later, Larsen's mining and entrepreneurial skills, and his interest in the area's mineral resources, would significantly affect the economy and the history of the Pend Oreille Valley.

In 1893, 17-year-old Lewis, son of Pedar and Christine Larsen, emigrated from Denmark to the United States with his parents, three brothers, and three sisters. He soon ventured out on his own, working in the mines in Wallace, Idaho, in 1897, and in 1900 he became associated with the Last Chance mine in Northport, Washington. In about 1903, when he was 27, Larsen married Bertha Brown of Port Carbon, Pennsylvania, four years his junior. A few years later they adopted a daughter, Giovonna.  

In 1905, Lewis Larsen made his first trip into the Metaline Falls area, packing in from Canada. He may have been in search of more information about the limestone and quartz that had been discovered around Metaline Falls in 1901, which reputedly was of a quality suitable for the production of cement. (Cement manufacturing had already begun upriver at the town of Cement, about one mile north of Ione.) Larsen found what he was looking for, and some four years later he joined with others to start the Inland Portland Cement Company (which soon became the Lehigh Portland Cement Company).  

Frederick Blackwell

Frederick A. Blackwell (1852-1922), the son of a blacksmith, was born in Fairfield, Maine. By age 17 he had moved to Pennsylvania, where he learned the lumber business and met his wife-to-be, Isabella. They soon married and had two children, Helen and Russell. Blackwell moved his family to Coeur d' Alene, Idaho, in 1903, where he began to assemble a diverse empire consisting primarily of lumber mills, railroads, and mansions. He was the key developer of early towns in the Pend Oreille Valley, including Usk and Ione. He built his Panhandle Lumber Mills in both Ione and Spirit Lake, Idaho, and the Ione mill was the largest in the county at the time. In 1909 Blackwell became one of the main investors in Lewis Larsen's Inland Portland Cement Company, the economic centerpiece of the fledgling town of Metaline Falls.

In 1907 Blackwell  incorporated the Idaho & Washington Northern Railroad. The first leg of the track, completed that same year, ran from McGwire, Idaho, to Newport, Washington. The following year Blackwell made several exploratory business trips by steamship into the Metaline Falls area. By 1909 a new leg of the Idaho & Washington Northern, costing $1 million, had been extended north to Ione, west of and parallel to the Pend Oreille River. In 1910 at Box Canyon, just north of Ione, Blackwell's railroad crews built the first bridge over the Pend Oreille, which allowed access to the east side of the river, and eventually to the emerging town of Metaline Falls, located just a few miles downriver to the north. 

Blackwell's business expectations in the Pend Oreille Valley did not pan out in the long run. Financial reverses  prompted him, on January 1, 1914, to turn over the operation of the Idaho & Washington Northern Railroad to the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad, which took over full ownership two years later. Blackwell maintained some investments in the Pend Oreille Valley, but after the loss of the railroad his interest in the area diminished. On December 8, 1922, at the age of 70, Frederick Blackwell died in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. 

A New Town in a New County  

Lewis Larsen was having better luck. In 1908, he began acquiring property claims in the Metalines area. The elevated terrace of land that would become the site for the town of Metaline Falls had been claimed by an early settler and prospector named Enoch Carr. Larsen bought out Carr's claims and patented them. This flat piece of land, hovering high over the Pend Oreille River, offered magnificent views of a pristine valley and the enthusiastic hope of a new town. Finally, in October 1910, the tracks of Blackwell's Idaho & Washington Northern Railroad reached Metaline Falls, ending the dominance of river transportation in the valley.  

Larsen completed platting three of the properties acquired earlier from Enoch Carr -- the Defiance, Spokane, and Homestake claims -- in late 1910. He also established the Larsen Realty Company to sell lots in his new town, and the new settlement opened a post office that same year. Larsen’s plan for  Metaline Falls included the most current public services and parks, as well as buildings designed by one of the most prominent Northwest architects of the time, Spokane’s Kirtland Cutter (1860-1939). By 1911 the town of Metaline Falls had both a shape and a future.  

On April 25, 1911, Metaline Falls voted to incorporate and elected a mayor, a treasurer, and five councilmen. With the signing of the official document  by the commissioners of Stevens County on May 13, the town of Metaline Falls was officially incorporated.

Pend Oreille County officially came into being less than two weeks later, on June 10, 1911, when the Washington State Legislature split the existing county of Stevens roughly down the middle, declaring the eastern portion to be Pend Oreille County. This new county included the towns of Metaline Falls, Ione, Usk, and Newport, the last of which would eventually attain the permanent position of county seat. Pend Oreille was the last county to be formed in the state of Washington. To celebrate the state's newest arrival, Governor Marion E. Hay (1865-1933) took a train tour of the county-to-be on Blackwell's Idaho & Washington Northern Railroad on May 29, 1911, ending in Metaline Falls.

Metaline's Cement Industry  

On March 27, 1909, Lewis Larsen, buoyed with investments from Frederick Blackwell and East Coast mining entities, had incorporated the Inland Portland Cement Company. The alliance with Blackwell had secured transportation for Larsen’s company operations, and the Inland Portland Cement Company would become the economic building block on which the town of Metaline Falls would grow. In that same year, Inland Portland Cement began work on the Sullivan Lake hydroelectric project, which would provide power to the company and to the town. In September 1911, a few months after the town's incorporation, the Inland Portland Cement Company began operation.

In 1914 the Lehigh Portland Cement Company bought most of the assets of the Inland Portland Cement Company. Inland retained ownership of the Sullivan Creek Power Plant. What remained of the Inland Portland Cement Company was liquidated in 1959.

In 1989, the LaFarge Corporation purchased the Lehigh Portland Cement Company. One year later, LaFarge closed its operations. After 80 years, Lewis Larsen's cement business -- originally Inland, then Lehigh, then LaFarge -- and the company around which the town of Metaline Falls was built, ceased to exist. The cement silos still stand, and many of the company houses were sold to employees and are still occupied.

Kirtland Cutter's Designs

In 1910 famed Spokane architect Kirtland Cutter began building a house for Lewis Larsen in Metaline Falls. Cutter was the favored architect of many business leaders of the era, and his influence was felt throughout the Northwest, in Southern California, and as far away as England. Author David H. Stratton described Cutter's Lewis Larsen House project this way:

"Even as his reputation and practice grew, Cutter continued to take on small commissions. The Arts and Crafts movement paid homage to the Cottage as an example of honest craftsmanship. In 1910, Cutter turned to the English cottage for inspiration when he designed a house in Metaline Falls for Lewis Larsen, the town's developer. This unpretentious dwelling is built of roughly coursed stone, with shingled upper walls and roof. Its most distinctive detail is the manner in which the shingles flow over the dormer window in a double wave. The idea for this probably came from thatched roofs, but it was reinterpreted, of course, in local materials and thus adapted to the site" (Stratton).

Larsen moved into his new home in 1912. Before this, he had to cross the river from where he had been living in Metaline each time he went to Metaline Falls, and once he almost drowned when he fell through the ice while making a winter crossing.  

Kirtland Cutter also designed the town's impressive $25,000 brick school house, which was built in 1912 and became the architectural soul of the Metaline Falls community. This building would later become the famous Cutter Theatre.  

Development and Decline

In 1919, J. H. Sexsmith built a toll bridge from the west side of Metaline Falls across the Pend Oreille River, connecting the town of Metaline Falls to the state highway, finally freeing it from the constraints of boat and train transportation. The 1920 census showed a population of 153; 10 years later, it stood at 816.             

In 1937, Larsen's Pend Oreille Mines and Metals Company successfully completed a water-diversion hydroelectric project near Metaline Falls. This was the first hydroelectric project on the Pend Oreille River, and although its main purpose was to provide power to nearby mines it also contributed power to the town of Metaline Falls. Its plan was unique -- instead of using a dam, river water was routed to generators through a diversion tunnel blasted through solid rock. The powerhouse was abandoned years later when the more efficient Box Canyon Dam was built, but its structure still exists. 

Metaline Falls thrived for many years on the success of the cement plant and nearby mining and timber companies. But over time the old growth timber was exhausted and the more accessible minerals were mined out. The successful industrial haven envisioned by the founders and developers of Metaline Falls and the north Pend Oreille Valley began to fade. Lewis Larsen, who maintained successful mining interests in the Pend Oreille Valley for many years, died in 1955.

The Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad continued operation into the late 1970s, but in 1977 announced plans to abandon the Pend Oreille valley branch line. County residents created the Port of Pend Oreille to take over the line, and on October 1, 1979, the Port's new Pend Oreille Valley Railroad (POVA) began operating from Newport to Metaline Falls. POVA later expanded into Idaho and continues to run regular service shipping wood products and other goods from towns lower down the line. The tracks between Ione and Metaline Falls are used for occasional shipments to and from the still-standing cement silos and by the North Pend Oreille Valley Lions Club to run passenger excursion trains through Box Canyon.        

Metaline Falls Today  

The town of Metaline Falls and its 223 residents (2000 census) are surrounded by a striking natural setting that offers ample opportunities for sightseeing and outdoor recreation. The Gardner Caves, Boundary Dam, Box Canyon Dam, Metaline Waterfront Park, and Sullivan Lake are all nearby, and the surrounding forests and waterways are popular for hunting and fishing. The Box Canyon Dam and Boundary Dam at Z Canyon provide employment in the area.

To the northwest of the town, the Metaline Falls cataract, which had stymied explorer David Thompson more than 150 years earlier, was to some extent tamed with the completion of Boundary Dam in 1967, although it remains dangerous at certain times of year. Only the tips of rocks poking out of the Pend Oreille River now mark the former site of the falls.

Today, Metaline Falls prides itself on its recreational resources and its nurturing of art and culture. In 1998 it was named one of the "100 Best Small Art Towns in America." Among the annual events hosted by the town are Spring Ding, a bluegrass/folk music festival held in March; Affair on Mainstreet, an arts festival on Labor Day weekend; and the Deck the Falls Winter Festival, held the first weekend in December. A restored railroad baggage car serves as a visitors' kiosk at the city park and features historic photos of the town and its environs. Historic sites in Metaline Falls include the Cutter Theatre, which is a nationally recognized center for the arts; the Washington Hotel; the Lewis P. Larsen House; the Old Miner's Hotel; and the abandoned cement plant upon on which the economic life of the town was founded.

Several of the works of the early builders of Metaline Falls have been honored in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1997, the Pend Oreille Mines and Metals Building (also known as the Lewis Larsen Apartments) was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It joined Larsen's Washington Hotel and the Cutter-designed Lewis P. Larsen House (both added in 1979); the Idaho & Washington Northern Railroad Bridge, which spans the Pend Oreille River at Metaline Falls (added in 1982); and the Cutter-designed Metaline Falls School, now the Cutter Theatre (added in 1988).

The future of Metaline Falls may rest on its location, off the beaten track in a setting of rugged beauty that offers a wide variety of outdoor recreation. The very remoteness that often constrained the town's economic development may now hold the key to its future prosperity.     


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Note: Details on the Pend Oreille Valley Railroad were expanded on January 31, 2010, and the essay was further revised on April 16, 2015.

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