All Over The Map: Tiny Washington town of Danville eagerly awaits reopening of border

Oct 22, 2021, 8:42 AM | Updated: 11:17 am
In the 1890s, the Nelson brothers' store was situated directly on the international boundary in what's now Danville, WA. (Public domain) What's now Danville, WA was still shown as Nelson on a 1904 USGS topographic map. (USGS Archives) Danville, formerly Nelson, on a 1917 USGS topographic map. (USGS Archives)

On Monday, Nov. 8, Canadians – who follow strict vaccination and COVID testing protocols – will once again be able to enter the United States via border crossings along the 49th parallel. It’s an understatement to say that all along the northern boundary of the Evergreen State, merchants and civic leaders are looking forward to a resumption of economic activity that’s been interrupted by the pandemic since March 2020.

Point Roberts has, justifiably, gotten much of the attention during the extended border closure, but it’s not the only Washington town on the 49th parallel that’s been suffering economically and otherwise during the COVID shutdown.

Last year, All Over The Map looked at the struggles of residents and businesses in Metaline Falls in the extreme northeast corner of the state.

This time, we’re looking at Danville, a tiny border community in Ferry County. Danville is located in North Central Washington, north of the town of Republic and north of Curlew, on the Kettle River. The much larger Canadian town just across the border is Grand Forks, British Columbia – though the official Canadian border crossing is actually at a place called Carson, B.C.

It was mining that first attracted large numbers of non-Indigenous settlers to the area back in the late 19th century, though there’s not much in the way of mining happening nowadays. The tiny town of Danville is named after the Danville Mine and the Danville Mining Company, though it was originally called Nelson, after brothers Peter B. Nelson and O.B. Nelson who are credited with founding the community. The Nelson brothers also ran a store located right on the border which reportedly had an entrance in Canada and an entrance in Washington – where customs and duty avoiding shenanigans allegedly took place.

“Nelson” may have also been the name of the town in Nebraska where the brothers were from, but that name didn’t stick in the Evergreen State as it has in the Cornhusker State. Because there’s also a city in British Columbia called Nelson – and because it, too, was served by the Great Northern Railway – the name of the Washington town was changed to Danville around 1901. Old U.S. Geological Survey maps from the early 20th century still show the town name as “Nelson” as late as 1904.

Danville is in the part of Washington that was once the Colville Indian Reservation. However, when valuable minerals were discovered there, the land was taken away from Indigenous people by the federal government and opened to settlement and mineral claims by white homesteaders and miners. This little-remembered episode surely ranks as one of the great injustices in the state’s history.

With mining mostly out of the picture, economic activity in and around Danville is these days centered on the post office and on a nearby retail store and gas station called the Danville Outpost. Mark “Uncle Swany” Swanson helps run the business. He’s in his 60s, and has lived in Danville since moving there from the Seattle area in 1994.

“I think 90-plus percent of our customers were Canadians [before the border closure],” Swanson said. “The gas is usually cheaper, that’s part of it. They like American beer, they’d come down and get that and cheese and chips and stuff.”

The border closure has taken its toll on the Danville Outpost.

“We used to have several cashiers and [we were] open seven days a week, 9 p.m. to 7 a.m.,” Swanson said. “Since then, we’ve gone down to just having one family member run it, and [we’re] closed on Sundays, and open noon to 5:00 p.m. [the rest of the week].”

But even that reduced schedule made a difference for the Outpost’s American customers.

“The local people in the whole town of Danville are happy,” Swanson said. “They don’t have to drive 30 miles to Republic to get every little thing, but [the pandemic] has made a big difference for this place.”

Swanson also told KIRO Radio that before the pandemic, a big part of the Danville Outpost’s business was receiving packages on behalf of Canadian customers who would then easily cross over the border to retrieve whatever it was they had ordered (and which was cheaper to ship to a U.S. address, or which was only able to be shipped to a U.S. address). These packages ranged from small stuff on up to even big items including large appliances and lawn furniture. That part of the business has been on hold since March 2020, and the packages – and even some lawn furniture — have piled up.

“I’ve got packages sitting here that have been here for over a year and a half,” Swanson said, though items for a few Canadian businesses deemed “essential” – including a nursery, an auto repair shop, and an electrical company – were able to be picked up and taken back over the border.

Many of the Danville Outpost’s Canadian customers also rent post office boxes at the Danville Post Office. Because of an inability of the Danville Post Office to take credit card payments for box rentals by phone, this inadvertently created a new line of pandemic-era business for Swanson.

“For some reason, at the post office, their credit card terminal doesn’t take phone transactions,” Swanson said. “So because ours does, [Canadian customers] will call here and I’ll run their credit card and charge a couple bucks for the processing. And then I’ll bring their money down to renew their post office box or to get something sent up to them.”

It’s a short walk for Swanson to make those payments. Danville’s “business district” – comprising the border crossing, the U.S. Post Office, and the Danville Outpost right in the middle – is tiny.

Just how tiny is it?

“The border’s a few hundred feet up to the north, and the post office is few hundred feet south,” Swanson said.

Uncle Swany and everybody at the Danville Outpost are thrilled to welcome their Canadian customers back beginning on Nov. 8. However, Swanson believes Danville and everywhere else won’t quite be back to normal normal until there aren’t any vaccination or testing requirements for crossing the border.

Either that, or maybe just move the Danville Outpost a bit farther north and recreate the Nelson brothers’ infamous international entrances.

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

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All Over The Map: Tiny Washington town of Danville eagerly awaits reopening of border