All Over The Map: Metaline Falls struggles through border closure

Oct 2, 2020, 3:25 PM | Updated: 3:49 pm
The United States Border Station north of Metaline Falls in Pend Oreille County was built in the early 1930s and, with minor modifications, is still in use -- when the border isn’t closed. (National Park Service) The border station north of Metaline Falls is the easternmost such facility in Washington, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (National Park Service) The compound at the border station includes two separate residences for staff; one is pictured. (National Park Service) The border station is located on Highway 31 north of Metaline Falls in far northeastern Washington; across the border in Canada, the adjacent community is Nelway, British Columbia. (USGS Archives)

There’s been much reported about how Point Roberts and other border towns in Western Washington are suffering during the pandemic-caused closure of the boundary between the United States and Canada.

But what about the Evergreen State’s easternmost border crossing town of Metaline Falls?

Metaline Falls is in the far northeastern corner of the state, way up in Pend Oreille County (and no, it’s not pronounced “penned oriole” – the correct pronunciation is “pond array”). The town is about 10 miles south of the Canadian border in an area that was home to indigenous Kalispel people for millennia.

Non-essential travel across the international boundary has been restricted due to COVID-19 since March 21. The restriction has been extended multiple times, and currently is set to expire on Oct. 21. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to think it will be extended again.

The “Metaline” name dates to the mid-19th century, when miners believed, according to Edmond Meany, that “the entire district was covered with minerals.”

“Metaline” was first applied to a water feature on the Pend Oreille River, and then to two separate communities: Metaline Falls, on the east bank of the river, just upstream from the falls, and Metaline, which is located on the west bank of the river a mile or so south (also upstream) of the falls. Being on separate banks was a bigger deal – that is, the communities were more distinct – before a permanent bridge was built across the river in the 1920s.

Metaline was founded in 1906; Metaline Falls was founded in 1910. Minerals found around the area from the 1850s to the early 1900s included gold, silver, lead and zinc.

Metaline Falls – the water feature, not the town – was a 19-foot drop when settlers first arrived more than 150 years ago, and the falls remained essentially unchanged until 1967. That was when Seattle City Light completed construction of Boundary Dam on the Pend Oreille River just south of the Canadian border, and created a long reservoir that mostly inundated the falls. The phantom falls do occasionally reappear when Seattle City Light lowers the level of the reservoir; this happened as recently as 2010.

The international border crossing is on what’s now called Highway 31, a roadway that first connected the town to British Columbia in 1923. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection building there dates to the early 1930s and is what’s called a classic “Northern Type” in Colonial Revival Style. Its architectural design is identical to other crossings built along much of the northern border between the United States and Canada in the 1930s. The Metaline Falls crossing – one of 13 total on the Washington/British Columbia border – is relatively unchanged from its original construction, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Metaline Falls has always been a small town, though it had a much more industrial feel at the height the mining era, and when a cement plant was in operation, during the first half of the 20th century. The current population is roughly 200 people.

Kimberly Petrich is proprietor of The Farmhouse Café, a popular Metaline Falls breakfast spot, known for its biscuits and gravy, as well as for homemade pies. Petrich says that since the border closure began last March, business has not exactly been good.

“It’s been terrible,” Petrich said Thursday evening, interrupting her nightly baking chores to take a phone call from a reporter.

“We have customers from Canada every day,” when the border was open, Petrich said, “especially during the good weather months,” including motorcyclists and others driving a border-hopping scenic highway known as the Selkirk Loop.

With hunting season right around the corner and the border closure still in place, Petrich says, the short-term outlook for businesses like hers isn’t very good. She says the quilt shop next door to her restaurant is also suffering, since along with offering up fabric and thread, the store serves as a package depot for British Columbians who buy things online that can’t be shipped directly to Canada.

Even with the border closure, the Farmhouse Café has remained open throughout the pandemic, offering to-go only for several months and now offering limited sit-down service.

“We hate the restrictions, everybody hates it,” Petrich said, citing relatively low numbers of COVID-19 cases in Metaline Falls and other nearby parts of Pend Oreille County.

“But, you know,” she said, “it’s another thing we’ll get through.”

For anyone eager to get a glimpse of Metaline Falls and environs but not willing to make the six-plus hour drive from the Puget Sound area, the post-apocalyptic movie “The Postman” with Kevin Costner – not “Waterworld,” as this reporter mistakenly said on-air – was filmed nearby in the 1990s.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: Metaline Falls struggles through border closure