The personal connection:
The Spokane/Coeur d’Alene metropolitan area may be the largest in the Inland Northwest, but it is surrounded by dozens of small cities and towns, each with its own particular history and appeal. The one I know best is Northport, one hundred miles due north of Spokane, tucked into a valley along the Columbia River close to the Canadian border. More community than town, its population is just shy of 300 people. My parents-in-law built a log home near Northport around 1980, and I often visited with my husband and two daughters during the summer. When we left Puerto Rico, we stayed there until finding a house in Spokane.
The road approaching Northport, Highway 395, follows a dramatic landscape of low-lying mountains on either side of the Columbia River. Here, the river is wide and slow-moving as it makes its way into Lake Roosevelt, a large reservoir formed by the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam. On the far side of the river, hills ripple in a patchwork of short grass, evergreens, and jagged rocks. The highway passes through pastureland, small farms, two sets of railroad tracks, and a scattering of homes before descending into the town proper.
A bit of history:
The railroad plays an important role in Northport’s origins. In fact, the town’s name came from its location as the last stop before reaching Canada, both for the trains and for steamboats plying the river. But even before trains and boats, men settled here to mine the nearby hills, and a smelter was built along the river. By 1898, the railroad was complete, the smelter booming. Northport, now an official town, had a wild-west feel to it, complete with saloons, hotels, and a fancy train depot. In 1922 the smelter shut down, and boom turned to bust.
Even in the early 1900s, evidence showed that fumes from the Northport smelter damaged nearby orchards and livestock. Another smelter and refinery complex across the border in Trail, British Columbia, has been in operation for over a century and has released large amounts of toxins into the air, ground, and river. Being downriver, and often downwind, of the smelter, Northport has received its share of pollutants. Some residents suffer from related health issues, and an advocacy program known as the Northport Project has gained national attention in its work to deal with the effects of pollution.
Northport proper consists of one main street, and a dozen or so side streets on either side. Entering from the south, you pass a collection of homes and buildings that include the school, the Mormon church, a bed and breakfast, a Protestant church, a small library with WiFi reception, the post office, Tony’s Market, Rivertown Grill, the Mustang Grill, overnight cabins, and an unsightly collection of junk before the road curves onto a bridge over the Columbia. To the north, a small park borders the river.
When our daughters were young, we often had breakfast at the cafe now called Mustang Grill and shopped at Tony’s Market, but we did not enter Kuk’s Tavern, a two-storied gray clapboard building located a block away. Established in 1888, it survived several town fires and is now known as Washington’s oldest bar. I have to admit its appearance spooked me back then. Life-sized dolls appear in the upper windows, alluding to a former brothel from the wild-west days. Old and weather-beaten, the place seems to sag, reminding me of something out of Carson McCullers’s Ballad of the Sad Cafe. Years later, neighbor friends took us to Kuk’s for Taco Tuesday. Residents living in remote corners of the region congregate at the bar for this popular weekly event. Its interior, I discovered, is more inviting than the exterior, an eclectic clutter of posters, memorabilia, a shuffle board, and an old-fashioned ice box.