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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on place-based stewardship education. Since 2001, a partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department (KNRD) has supported this newsletter and allowed us to expand class offerings through EPA funding. Further staff support comes through Renewable Resources Extension Act (RREA). Many thanks to our partners and to you, our readers, for your continued enthusiasm for "digging" into the natural history and culture of this part of the world.

A Very Thicketty Road


by Jack Nisbet

In April of 1826, a Hudson's Bay Company trader named John Work arrived at Kettle Falls with a daunting set of orders. The company had decided to move their Spokane House post north in order to have better access to the Columbia, and the trader was charged with establishing an entire new trade house, to be named Fort Colvile. As the lead agent of the move, Work was charged not only with constructing a stockade, warehouses, and living quarters for his men, but also with laying out livestock pastures, grain and potato fields, grist and saw mills, and an efficient network of trade routes that would connect the new Fort Colville to tribes and smaller trading posts in every direction.


Work was an interesting choice for the job. The son of an Irish farmer, he had run away from his home chores to sign on with the Hudson's Bay Company on the Orkney Islands in 1814. After serving almost a decade on the Canadian Shield, Work was sent to the Columbia District, where he had spent the past several years roving the river's eastern tributaries, especially in the Flathead and Spokane country. When Work moved up to Kettle Falls in 1826 he was 34 years old, and he brought along his new wife - a woman of Spokane ancestry named Josette Legace, who he affectionately called his "Little Rib."

John Work knew one of his most difficult challenges would be to establish a clear path to the lower Pend Oreille River. Although that river drained into the Columbia only about 40 miles upstream from Kettle Falls, the 60-foot drop of what came to be known at Metaline Falls, plus the dangerous rapids of Box and Z canyons, would make it very difficult to load canoes at Fort Colville and send them around to the Flathead country by water. Since the establishment of the British fur trade in the region fifteen years before, the standard path from Kettle Falls to the Pend Oreille had followed a tribal trail south through the Colville Valley, then over prairies and low hills to Spokane House, at the junction of the Spokane and Little Spokane Rivers. From there goods and furs moved east across Peone and Rathdrum Prairies, then north through the Hoodoo Valley to cut the Pend Oreille River at the ancient crossing of Sinyakwatin.

John Work knew that was the long way around. He also knew that Flathead, Kootenai, Spokane, and Kalispel people had a complex network of trails that crossed the low range of mountains separating the lower Pend Oreille from the Colville Valley. In midsummer of 1826, he sent six of his voyageurs out to clear and widen one of those trails. On August 16, accompanied by seven more men and trader William Kittson, Work set out himself do his season's business with the Kalispel, Flathead, and Kootenai tribes. The brigade included nine horses carrying trade goods, provisions, and gum to help refit the canoes that were waiting for them at a tribal encampment on the Pend Oreille River.

In his journal account of the journey, Work reported that on their first day out the party moved south from Kettle Falls to near the present city of Colville before bearing southeast and camping near a "small river" which must have been the Little Pend Oreille.

The road was in general good and lay through clear woods and small plains, except a piece near the fort called the Cedar, where the woods are very thicketty and the ground swampy and boggy and a deep gully of a river to cross. There is a small lake close by our encampment.

Historian T.C. Elliott, who followed Work's rough route in the early 1900s, reckoned that the "small lake" was a pond on Section 3, Township 34 North, Range 40 East. Work's own writing provides no landmarks that would clarify that, but his brigade was probably following the Little Pend Oreille through the present-day wildlife refuge, heading for the chain of lakes that today remain spotted along Washington Highway 20 to Tiger.

On August 17, the brigade started before sunrise and, partially because they couldn't find any good grazing ground for the horses, did not stop until nearly dark. Work figured their progress to be around 40 miles, and pronounced that all the horses were "much fatigued."

The road for a short distance in the morning was pretty good, but afterwards it was very indifferent. The woods very thicketty, often fallen trees across the road (though the men had removed a good many). The country very rugged a continual succession of hills some of them steep, and the road intersected by a number of small brooks and deep gullies some places the ground boggy.

This description still matches the route up Highway 20, then the Olsen Creek cutoff just past Scrabbler's Flat. From there the forest service road continues to the creek's headwaters to crest a divide and follow Tacoma Creek to the Pend Oreille River. The route emerges in a pleasant wetland south of Brownie Lake and only a few miles north of the same encampment where North West Company fur agent David Thompson met Kalispel people in the fall of 1809.

Although John Work kept a very spare journal, he had an eye for practical details. He noted that the trail would be totally impassible for horses during high water or soft snow, and that horse browse was scarce from the meadows near the first night's encampment until they reached the lush plains around the Pend Oreille River. Nevertheless, the Tacoma Creek route represented a reasonably easy portage between long canoe routes, and in time became a familiar way to cut the angle between that Kalispel encampment and Fort Colville.

When John Work's boss, Hudson's Bay Company governor George Simpson, made an inspection tour of the Columbia District in 1842, his horse brigade zipped up the trail as if it were a picnic route.

Early in the afternoon our people arrived from the Kullespelm Lake [Lake Pend Oreille], bringing us such a report of the roads as made us double thankful for the accommodation of the boat. Leaving our old band of horses under the charge of the Indians, we immediately started with thirty-two fresh steeds. After crossing a prairie of two or three miles in length, we spent two hours in ascending a steep mountain, from whose summit we gained an extensive view of ranges of rocky and while the shadows of evening had already fallen on the valley at our feet, the rays of the setting sun were still tinging the highest peaks with a golden hue….Next morning, as Fort Colvile was only fifty miles distant from our encampment, we resolved, in reliance on fresh horses and tolerable roads, to wind up with a gallop.

Ten years later, agent Arthur C. Anderson, one of John Work's successors at Fort Colvile, drew a map of the Columbia District. On this map, Anderson clearly dotted in the Tacoma Creek route crossing the mountains between the Kalispel encampment at Cusick and the confluence of the Colville and Little Pend Oreille rivers. The advantage of the trail's location is immediately apparent on this map, because: just downstream from the eastern entrance to the trail, Anderson marked the waters of the big Pend Oreille as a series of "violent rapids and overfalls." The tribes knew how to flow through the countryside; John Work knew how to pay attention to local knowledge.


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