By DEVIN HEILMAN
FARRAGUT STATE PARK — Pen d'Oreille City was not so much a city as it was a place to launch, a place to land and a place to dream about gold.
It was more like a truck stop, where adventurers of the 1860s and ’70s stayed a night, grabbed what they needed and took a steamship to their next destination.
"This was right at the cusp of the very beginning of history," professional archaeologist Dr. Robert "Lee" Sappington said Wednesday morning, stopping for a moment on the dusty trail near Buttonhook Bay that used to be trod by pack mules, horses and starry-eyed treasure seekers.
"This was the gateway to the gold rush."
In its heyday, Pen d'Oreille City was not a huge settlement, but it was an important one. It was established at the southwestern tip of Lake Pend Oreille in the mid-1860s to shave time and trouble off the journeys of those heading to gold sites in British Columbia and Montana. The location at Buttonhook could easily get travelers to Lakeview, Sandpoint and the mouth of the Clark Fork River.
"The lakes are really important," Sappington said. "It was so much easier to move stuff over water than land."
Sappington, who is an associate professor and interim director of the Alfred W. Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology at University of Idaho, was among several history professionals and U of I students and who spent this week unearthing artifacts at the Pen d'Oreille City site.
Broken plates, square nails, a glove, a partial boot. One long-gone man's trash is the treasure of Idah Whisenant, the U of I graduate student who chose this excavation as the capstone project for her master's in historic archaeology.
"I’m really excited because I think we might have actually identified some of the locations of the Pen d’Oreille City cabins, the hotel possibly, the blacksmith shop and the store,” said Whisenant, of Moscow. "Those are some of the things we found. And we even found a brick just over there with ‘Spokane, Wash.' on it. It’s really rare to find a brick with a stamp still on it.
"And the shoe, finding that preserved is going to be able to tell me who would have been here, what kind of occupation they might have had," she continued. "This is speculating, but it might be able to tell me. You can tell based on the manufacture period sometimes.”
This project was conducted in conjunction with the Kootenai County Historic Preservation Commission, which contracted with U of I to investigate and document the findings at the site. It was made possible by a grant from the State Historic Preservation Office as well as Whisenant's grant applications to U of I to complete the research.
The objective was to locate the city as well as the remnants of its buildings to determine if the site could be placed on the National Historic Register of Historic Places. Teams had copies of an old map and research done in previous years to guide them.
"I think as far as that goes, we’ve been pretty successful,” Whisenant said. "For me, the most exciting find was a pinfire cartridge, which dates to 1860. That’s one of the few artifacts we found that’s a definitive date of that period."
The community was invited to watch the teams work, and many volunteers assisted with the digging.
Craig Mangham, who is vacationing in Coeur d'Alene from Texas, was working as a volunteer when he and KCHPC Preservation Action Committee chair Laurie Mauser struck historical gold.
"We found the saloon," Mauser called out, crouched by a few shallow holes beneath overhanging trees. "When I was looking yesterday, I thought if there was a cabin here it would have been right here. It turned out to be the hotel and the saloon, and there was a stable between the two of them."
"We think we found the back of the saloon because there’s tons of trash back here, and square nails," Mangham. "Up a little farther there are more square nails. It’s a real diagnostic when you find a square nail.”
Pen d'Oreille City dissolved after about a decade when more convenient transportation became available, although the steamship landing was used for some years after the town began to fade. However fleeting its existence, its remnants are clues for historians to better understand North Idaho's past.
"It’s part of our identity, where we came from, it being one of the earliest settlements in Idaho," Whisenant said. "Idahoans, it's part of their identity and where we came from and how we got established here, especially in North Idaho."
The excavation wraps up at 5 p.m. today. Whisenant will be reviewing the findings and presenting her final project before she graduates in the spring.