Monday, March 28, 2011

Life in North Idaho Part 1 - A Little Geography and History

So we've officially been in North Idaho for a year now, and that requires some updating.

Bonner County is an interesting place to be. The county has all of 41,000 residents spread out over 1738 sq miles with the majority of residents living outside of incorporated areas. The county seat and center of the county is Sandpoint, with all of 8,300 residents. Sandpoint has a few other incorporated cities attached to it (Ponderay, Kootenai, and Dover) but mostly incorporated areas are few and far between.

Bonner County is home to a huge-ass lake, Lake Pend Oreille, the surface area of which is 148 sq miles. Other than the southern tip (which Kootenai County claimed for one reason or another) the vast majority of the lake is in Bonner County. Most of the incorporated areas in Bonner County are either on the lake itself or on the Clark Fork River (the major feeder river from Montana) or the Pend Oreille River (the outlet which winds its way to Washington).

The rest of the county is a mixture of valleys and mountains and plains, with a mixture of meadow and forest.

(a horribly stylized map, but it will do)

Those mountains happen to be very important to the history of North Idaho, and to why Idaho has a Panhandle in the first place.

See, the Idaho Panhandle has always had two different problems; a bunch of mountain ranges, and the people drawn by mountain ranges in the West. This second group included a whole bunch of "independent" types; displaced Southern Democrats (Confederates), polygamists up from Nevada, other minority religious groups (including Anabaptists), loggers, millers, miners, railroad workers, and their entire service industry.

These groups are, shall we say, rather difficult to govern.

So when the Idaho territory was split between Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming along geographic features like the Bitterroot Mountains and other mountain ranges and rivers, a proposal was floated to split Idaho in two. The northern half would go to Washington and the southern half to Nevada. It's said that Idaho was kept whole as a personal favor to then-governor Edward A. Stevenson, but in reality Washington didn't fight too hard to claim the northern part.

The reality is, the Panhandle in 1887 was (and still is) extremely difficult to govern. Too many mountains, too many independent types, too much distance to travel. Even now the Panhandle is pissed at the southern part of the state for moving the capital from Lewiston to Boise, and even now people refer to Boise in the same ways that the rest of the country refers to D.C. (i.e. not very flattering).

Sandpoint, for all of its pretensions of being "Tahoe North", started its days as a port on the rivers and lake for the mills and mines, a railroad junction, and a tavern and whore town for all of the workers.

In certain ways it still is, just don't remind them. To this day there's 10 bars within Sandpoint city limits alone (only 3.9 sq miles) and many more restaurants that sell alcohol.

But anyway... in order to understand the culture of the area, you need to understand the roots. North Idaho is rooted in independence, self-sufficiency, and general distaste for too much government. The rural life is strong here, whether farmer, rancher, logger, miner, hunter, or fisherman. Property rights are strong here for that reason; almost everyone who buys land outside of city limits here is using it for at one of those purposes; those who aren't buy the land for the waterfront or the ability to do whatever they want on their own land without anyone complaining.

That's not to say that's the sum of economic activity; Bonner County is home to many businesses looking for cheap land, low taxes, and good workers. Coldwater Creek and Litehouse are both based in the Sandpoint area, as are many other businesses.

Still, at the end of the day, most of the workforce in Bonner County goes home to a house outside of city limits. All of this is what makes the culture of where we live.

1 comment:

  1. 10 bars withing 3.9 miles... you might as well be in Wisconsin!

    Actually... if I had to leave Wisco, I wouldn't mind Idaho (as long as you have good cheese there, too!). Take our four seasons and add mountains... sounds perfect! I'm not a drinker myself, but there are A LOT of bars here.