All Over The Map: Northport, Velvet Station, and The Little Dalles

Mar 4, 2022, 6:26 AM | Updated: 9:01 am

During the COVID-19 pandemic – and especially during the long closure and more recently loosened restrictions at the international border – we’ve made an effort with All Over The Map to get to know some of Washington’s lesser known border-crossing communities.

After earlier “visits” to Danville and Metaline Falls, this time, we point the virtual ‘Heritage Cruiser’ toward the town of Northport.

Northport is in Stevens County, in northeastern Washington. The town is roughly 35 miles north of Colville – which is where the nearest grocery store is located, by the way – and right along the Columbia River, about 10 miles south of the Canadian border. In its heyday as the “Terminal City” and “Smelter City” between roughly 1910 and 1920, the town boasted a huge copper smelter, railroad shops, all kinds of businesses, and nearly 1,000 residents. For decades, Northport was the most populous community in all of Stevens County.

Clifford Ward is librarian at the Northport Public Library, which is located in an old house on Center Street – the main drag through Northport – and which is part of the library system in Stevens County. On Thursday, after helping a library patron use a computer (and while he was also physically checking-in returned books and other materials by running their barcodes past a scanner), Ward told KIRO Newsradio about the place he’s called home for more than 40 years.

“Northport is a small town of 300 people, with several thousand living in the area around in the country,” Ward said. “We’ve got some great schools, [but] there’s not much else here. We don’t have a grocery store anymore. We have a post office, a gas station, two bars, and a couple of nice stores. One [store] called The Barn is in an old Grange building. It got turned into a coffee roasting business with 50 different local artists that sell their wares in there. And then [we have] another place in the old Kendrick Mercantile that’s kind of an outdoor store.”

As a longtime resident and librarian, Ward knows his Northport history. He says the town was founded on the banks of the Columbia by Daniel C. Corbin as part of the northward expansion of the Spokane Falls & Northern Railway, which ultimately became a subsidiary of the Great Northern, 130 years ago.

“Prior to the railroad being built in the 1890s, it was just steamboats that would come up [the river],” Ward said. “And they could only go as far as The Little Dalles, which is about 8 [or] 10 miles south, downriver of town, where it narrows down into a real rocky and steep place.”

The Little Dalles – likely first called that by the French-Canadian “voyageurs” who traveled the Columbia River by canoe while in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 19th century – were enough of an obstacle to navigation that a novel solution was required to create a reliable system of transportation up and down the river.

“They had a steamboat on the other side, on the upper river side” of The Little Dalles, Ward said. After passengers made a short portage on foot, the upriver steamboat “would go way up into Revelstoke, B.C.,” or a distance of something like 200 miles.

The Little Dalles are not to be confused with The Dalles – a much larger obstacle farther downriver where a town of that name now stands on the Oregon side of the Columbia. Those “dalles” – French for “flagstones,” for the appearance of the rocky rapids – were inundated by The Dalles Dam in 1957.

Northport isn’t actually on the Canadian border, but it’s the northernmost town of any stature in that part of the state (the name comes from the railroad, which saw Northport as the northernmost station on the rail route). However, there are two nearby border crossings that are just that – border crossings — without much of a town nearby anymore. One crossing is almost due north of Northport in the foothills of the Kootenays on Highway 25 at the communities – some might say “ghost towns” – of Frontier on the Washington side, and Paterson on the British Columbia side.

“Original settlers,” writes Washington place-name compiler Robert Hitchman, “chose [the name Frontier] for the post office because of its location on the north border of the U.S.” According to historian Edmond Meany, the area was also known as Velvet, or Velvet Station, for the rail service it provided to the nearby Velvet Mine.

Paterson is named for A.N. Paterson, the first Canadian customs officer stationed in 1898 at what was then called Sheep Creek. The crossing initially served only the rail line between Northport and Rossland, B.C., until 1920; after that, rail service ended, and a highway eventually replaced the tracks.

The other crossing is northeast of Northport at the community of Boundary on the Washington side, and Waneta on the Canada side. The Canadian customs office there dates to 1896. Boundary/Waneta is along the Columbia, just south of where the Pend Oreille River joins the mighty “River of the West.” Boundary was named, not surprisingly, for the international boundary; the origin of Waneta, according to at least one journalist, “defies explanation.”

The history of that area, like much of the Pacific Northwest, is tangled up with the joint occupation by British and Americans, and the establishment of the boundary at the 49th parallel in 1846. In addition, the forced removal of Indigenous people via a flawed treaty process was particularly egregious in the case of the nearby Colville Reservation. Discoveries by prospectors there meant that boundaries were changed in order to give settlers better access to mineral-rich lands and deprive the Indigenous people of the potential wealth on what had been, temporarily, reservation land.

According to a Canadian history of that country’s customs services, what’s now Waneta was, for many years in the 19th century, an outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In “Customs Services in Western Canada 1867-1925: A History,” Herbert Legg writes:

“Fort Shepherd was a Hudson’s Bay trading post on the West bank of the Columbia River, a few miles north of the International Boundary. It was built to replace Fort Colville (Washington) which the boundary commission settlement of 1846 had placed in American territory. It was first known as Fort Pen d’Orielle, because it was almost opposite the mouth of the Pen d’Orielle river. It was renamed in 1859 in honour of John Shepherd, Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The post was closed in 1870. Buildings were destroyed by fire in 1872. In the autumn of 1855 gold was discovered ‘near Fort Colville at the mouth of the Pen d’Orielle river.’”

Clifford Ward says that if you do cross into Canada at Frontier or Boundary, you’ll find two very different towns just north of the border: Rossland and Trail.

“Rossland is kind of a hip ski town with a lot of outdoor people that do a lot of skiing and mountain biking and that kind of stuff,” Ward said. “And then Trail is more of an industrial town that’s got the big smelter there” where lead and zinc have been refined for a century, Ward says, creating significant air and water pollution.

Before the pandemic, Ward says, Northport did a modest but steady amount of tourism business with Canadians coming down to eat and drink year-round. Red Mountain Resort skiing area, Ward says, is north of the border and just a 20-minute drive from Northport.

In addition to serving as librarian, Clifford Ward also plays guitar. Before the pandemic, he had a steady gig performing during dinner hours at one of the two taverns in Northport. He hopes the Canadians and the gig will both return as tourism recovers to pre-pandemic levels; he clearly loves his community and cares about the people who live there.

“Northport is awesome,” Ward said, as he described a not uncommon blend present in many rural Pacific Northwest towns, in places as varied as Port Townsend and Tonasket. “There’s a mix of the traditional families that are from homesteaders from back in the 1800s, and then there was a big ‘back to the land’ thing in the 60s, 70s, and 80s where a lot of us more alternative people started showing up.”

“It’s a mix of lots of interesting folks,” Ward said, whose own journey to Northport came after being born in Ohio and raised in northern New Jersey.

Like all the border towns, Northport suffered during the pandemic, but things do feel like they are beginning to look up, Ward says. For those driving through or vacationing nearby, he says there are two places to eat in Northport: Rivertown Grill and Kuk’s Tavern – and Rivertown Grill has more choices.

What’s Ward’s favorite menu item at Rivertown?

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been there, honestly, but one of my favorite things was the turkey melt,” he said – which sounds a lot more tempting than a 70-mile trip to the grocery store.

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 or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: Northport, Velvet Station, and The Little Dalles