Ferry County -- Thumbnail History

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 6/01/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7787
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Ferry County, carved out of Stevens County in 1899, is bounded by British Columbia on the north, Stevens County on the east, Lincoln County on the south, and Okanogan County on the west. Its county seat is Republic. Ferry County is 2,257 square miles in area. By the 2000 census, the population was 7,260, with a density of 3.3 per square mile, the lowest of Washington counties. The Colville National Forest and the Colville Indian Reservation occupy large tracts of land within the county. Historically, Ferry County’s prosperity was based on gold mining, timber, and agriculture. Today there is little mining, and timber and agriculture have declined from their former importance. Yet much of the scenic beauty of Ferry County remains undiminished, and tourism, hunting, and fishing help sustain the economy.

First Peoples

The original inhabitants of what is now Ferry County were several semi-nomadic Indian tribes, with the Colville predominating. Their principal and time-honored fishing, rendezvous, and trading point was Kettle Falls on the Columbia River where it forms the boundary between present-day Stevens and Ferry counties. In 1811, the North West Company fur trader and cartographer, David Thompson (1770-1857), reached Kettle Falls but did not establish a fur post in the area. It remained for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) to do so in 1825, with Fort Colvile on the east bank of the Columbia River. (Fort Colvile is spelled with one l, the tribe and United States military Fort Colville with two). Although located just inside present-day Stevens County, the fort exerted its influence over a large area, including the future Ferry County. Indians already had vast intertribal trading networks and, with the coming of the fur trade, engaged in that enterprise as well. Most of the Hudson's Bay Company fur traders were Scottish, French Canadian, or “metis” of mixed Indian (largely eastern) and French blood. After the demise of the fur trade, many of these HBC employees remained in the area, marrying into local Indian families.

In April 1872, the Colville Reservation was established by executive order. Originally a vast part of present Ferry and Okanogan counties, the new reservation underwent a series of boundary changes and reductions in size. Some of the tribes from farther south, the Columbia, Chelan, Entiat, and Wenatchi (official tribal spelling), all under Chief Moses, were given an option to accept individual allotments along the Columbia River and Lake Chelan or to join with the Colvilles on the reservation. Most chose the latter option. The Northern Okanogans under Chief Joseph Tonasket, who owned large herds of cattle and horses, moved onto the reservation in 1883 or 1884. By 1885, some of the remaining Chief Joseph band of the Nez Perce, who had been exiled to present Oklahoma after the Nez Perce War, were allowed to relocate to the Colville Reservation, although that area had not been their ancestral home. (These were the Nez Perce who wished to follow traditional ways: those who had converted to Christianity settled in Lapwai, Idaho.)

Prospecting and Staking Claims

On July 1, 1892, the United States government purchased the northern half of the Colville Reservation for $1,500,000, about $1.00 per acre. However, it eventually cost the Indians $60,000 in legal fees to recover the purchase price. At least the Indians retained permanent hunting and fishing rights to the area. After minerals, especially gold, were discovered in the region, the northern half was opened to prospectors on February 21, 1896. When the southern half was opened to prospectors on June 30, 1898, “The rush to the South Half of the reservation ... was a stampede of vast proportions, excelling even the scenes incident to the opening of the North Half” (Walter, 33). By 1900, approximately 12,500 mining claims had been staked in Ferry County.

In 1900, the northern half of the reservation was opened to timber claims and homesteading, granting 160 acres to adult white claimants. As was the case with the mining claims, white settlers and squatters were already present on much of the land.

Prior to the opening to white homesteading, 660 Indians were given 80-acre allotments. This arrangement was of dubious value to them, as the allotments were too small to make viable farms. Furthermore, such a division into private plots violated the traditional Indian view that land was held in common for hunting, fishing, and gathering, rather than broken up into individual farms to be cultivated. On March 1, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt set aside 870,000 acres of former reservation land as the Colville National Reserve. The southern half of the reservation was opened to homesteading on July 1, 1916.

In 1956, the federal government returned about 800,000 acres of Colville Reservation lands to tribal ownership. The present reservation of the Colville Confederated Tribes covers 2,100 square miles or 1.4 million acres in the southern portions of Ferry and Okanogan counties and is a complex amalgam of Indian lands and properties owned or leased by others. Tribal headquarters are at Nespelem. Enterprises of the Colville Tribal Enterprise Corporation include resorts, casinos, and forest products.


In 1890 O. B. Nelson and Peter B. Nelson opened a store on the Colville Indian Reservation just south of the Canadian border, mainly to trade with the Indians. When the northern half of the reservation was opened to mineral prospecting, the Nelsons patented the townsite of Nelson as a placer claim. To facilitate duty-free trade with prospectors and miners, they soon built a store that straddled the United States-Canadian border. As both countries frowned upon this arrangement, the brothers were forced to move their store back into Nelson.

In 1897 the town was designated the first post office on the Colville Reservation, with Peter Nelson as postmaster, and was platted in 1899 by the Danville Mining Company. In order to avoid confusion with Nelson, British Columbia, a town on the same Great Northern rail line, the mining company re-named the town Danville in 1901. 

The Republic Mining District

The discovery of gold on Eureka Creek led to the 1896 gold rush and the development of what came to be called the Republic Mining District. John Welty was credited with filing the first legal mining claim in the Republic area. According to mining engineer J. C. Ralston, within two years, 67 percent of the mining patent surveys in Washington were conducted in the Republic area. Soon another even more important gold discovery was made on Eureka Creek when Tom Ryan located the Republic Mine. Some sources credit this find to his partner, Philip Creaser (sometimes spelled Creasor), who was in Rossland, B.C. at the time.

In 1897, the Republic discovery was incorporated as the Republic Gold Mining and Milling Company under its first president, Charles P. Robbins. He was soon succeeded by Patrick (Patsy) Clark (1850-1915), a Spokane mining tycoon under whose leadership the mine produced amazing quantities of “the richest ore ever shipped from a mine in the Northwest” (Walter, 134) and high profits for Clark and other investors. The company issued its first dividend on October 10, 1898, attracting a huge influx of prospectors seeking claims in the area. During its first year, the Republic Mine earned over $300,000, of which $150,000 was paid out in dividends. The town of Eureka, renamed Republic, became a boomtown, with choice lots soaring from $200 to $2,500 within two years. Patsy Clark eventually sold his major interest in the mine to a Montreal syndicate for the then astronomical sum of $3,500,000. But by 1901, the town was no longer as prosperous, due to the partial failure of the Republic Mill and the delays in arrival of a long-anticipated railroad.

Miners and Loggers

As was the case elsewhere, ordinary miners in the hard-rock gold mines chafed under low pay, long hours, and dangerous working conditions. Their champion was Edward Boyce (1862-1941), president of the Western Federation of Miners, who traveled the West to promote unionization. Boyce organized the miners at Republic on August 11, 1898.

The timber industry was also born during this period. As remembered by pioneer Hazel Jarvis Parr, “Initially Eureka Camp was a gold mining extravaganza, but timber, logging and sawmilling had a most vital and integral part in Republic’s development and future” (Walter, 215). Actually, even the prospectors’ tents needed timber foundations. In 1897, Patrick H. Walsh erected the first sawmill in Ferry County. The San Poil Lumber Company, incorporated in May 1899, was typical of many that supplied timbers for mines, building materials for growing communities and, soon, ties for railroads.


Of the homesteaders who arrived after the northern half of the Colville Reservation was opened, probably the most successful was Archibald Clark Mills, whose land abutted the Canadian border on the beautiful Kettle River near the village of Ferry. He took out a claim in 1901, bought some surrounding claims and leased additional land from Indian allotments. He established a dairy farm of purebred Holsteins and a creamery to supply the mines and surrounding communities. Beginning in 1909, his cows swept first prizes in shows all over the country. With his 1909 Cadillac, Mills was one of the first settlers in the region to own a car.

Another prosperous and influential pioneer, John Stack (b. 1859) “a sterling and capable businessman of Republic … [and] a moving spirit in the development of Ferry County,” (Walter, 117) was involved in mining interests, real estate, and a mercantile business. He was the first postmaster of Republic. His sister Mary was Mrs. Patrick (Patsy) Clark.

Most of the homesteaders who sought claims, however, struggled on their 160-acre plots of agricultural or timber land. Some succeeded modestly, while others left the area. Several homesteaders were women, including Annie Laura Vandervort, the first schoolteacher in the Ferry district of northern Ferry County. From her claim, she rode horseback to and from school. Another notable woman homesteader was Elizabeth Beecroft, an expert rider who out-raced male competitors for a choice claim.

International Neighbors

The border with Canada, established in 1846, made little impact on future prospectors or homesteaders. The area was a cultural, geographic, and economic entity that disregarded the international boundaries. People shopped on both sides of the border, Ferry County minerals were assayed in British Columbia, and many prospectors and mining companies had operations on both sides.

Pioneer Clara Scott Weed says Midway, B.C., within a stone’s throw of Ferry, “welcomed the opening of the Colville Reservation for homesteading, as it meant more settlers and business coming into Midway. Everyone was a neighbor then. The boundary line between Canada and United States was no barrier” (Weed, 33). Even the beautiful Kettle River meanders back and forth across the border on its way to the Columbia. Today, the Ferry County ports of entry are at Laurier, Danville, and Ferry.

Roads and Rails

The earliest roads in the area partly followed Indian trails. An old Hudson’s Bay Company trail, a favorite route for travelers, went mainly along the Kettle River and west to Vancouver, B.C. As early as 1897, a so-called state road ran east from Republic to Boyds on the Columbia (map in Walter, 170). From Republic, roads led north to Grand Forks, B.C., south via the San Poil Road to Wilbur in Lincoln County or west into Okanogan County. This was the era of freighting, with wagons pulled by long teams of horses hauling ore from the mines and bringing in supplies. Passengers traveled by wagon or stagecoach. Republic native Dick Slagle recounts Jesse W. Slagle’s 1904 stagecoach journey from Wenatchee via Oroville to settle in Republic, “the longest, hottest, dustiest and rough ride that he had ever had” (Republic News-Miner, August 26, 2004). Even during the early railroad era, stage connections were often necessary, as the following undated advertisement indicates:

“Carter Bros. of Kettle Falls will ... run a pack train and stage from Kettle Falls to Republic daily, leaving Kettle Falls after the train arrives from Spokane, and reaching Republic the same day. Parties at Republic can take the stage and reach the railroad in time for the Spokane or Rossland train” (Walter, 29).

Not until 1902 was the area well served by railroads. During 1901 and 1902, two railroads, the Kettle Valley and the Washington & Great Northern, raced to reach the mines at Republic, laying track over difficult mountain terrain and building high trestles over streams and gulches. The Kettle Valley Railroad was dubbed the Hot Air Line “in honor of its somewhat overblown publicity and its shaky financing” (Perry, 4). It connected with the Canadian Pacific at Grand Forks, B.C., location of the Granby Smelter. When it opened in Republic, a band from Grand Forks joined the festivities, as the ease of access across the border would prove an economic boon to communities on both sides.

The Washington & Great Northern (part of the Great Northern) connected in Stevens County with the Spokane Falls & Northern, by that time also part of the Great Northern. By 1905, the Great Northern linked Spokane to the town of Ferry via Marcus, then in 1906, extended to Midway, B.C. Both lines operated into the 1920s, when their demise led to the decline of Ferry County communities along the routes.

Ferry County Is Formed

The area that now forms Ferry County was originally part of huge Stevens County that covered all of Northeastern Washington. With the influx of miners and settlers, the residents of the western portion began to agitate for their own county. The Kettle Range and the Columbia River separated them from the county seat at Colville, and, furthermore, they felt they were not getting their fair share of county services. The Republic Miner of January 7, 1899, argued that a logical western boundary for Stevens County would be the Columbia River and complained about the county’s “failure to provide so much as a wagon road and the hopelessness of expecting that its [future Ferry County] proportion contributed to county funds will be applied to improvements within its limits for many years” (Walter, 33). Republic banker and merchant A. W. Strong was sent to Olympia to deliver to the legislature a petition for a new county.

In February 1899, Ferry County was formed and Republic, its only sizeable town, was declared county seat. The name first proposed for the county was Eureka (from the Greek for “I found it!”), after the popular name for the area’s mining district. Instead, it was named Ferry County for Elisha P. Ferry (1825-1895), Washington state’s first governor. Republic itself had undergone a name change in 1898, from Eureka to Republic, because of postal confusion with another Eureka in the state. By the 1900 census, the new county had a population of 4,562.

Rain and Crime

The new Ferry County got off to a difficult start because of weather. The area had just begun to recover from a serious flood of May and June 1898, in which the Kettle and Columbia rivers and their tributaries washed out roads and bridges, interrupting freight, mail, and stage service. (Exactly 100 years later, an equally devastating flood brought federal disaster relief to the county.) The next winter was called the “Rainy Winter of 1899,” for instead of the usual snow, incessant rain turned roads into impassable bogs, hampering the mining industry and stranding freight for days.

Lawlessness was also a problem, but frontier justice was swift. During the summer of 1899, the Republic area was plagued by rustlers. The band moved on after Deputy Sheriff J. W. Griswold shot and killed its leader, Charles McDonald, while he was resisting arrest.

The Twentieth Century

During the early twentieth century, gold mining declined, but timber and agriculture continued to support the county. Theodore Roosevelt’s Forest Reserves had formed the basis of the national forests, including the Colville, which occupies much of Ferry and Pend Oreille counties. This area remained virtually inaccessible until the 1930s, when the Civilian Conservation Corps built miles of forest road and strung electric lines in Ferry County, linking fire lookouts and ranger stations.

The Great Depression affected residents of Ferry County less than some in other parts of the nation. The rural folks, especially, were used to a simple, self-sufficient life. John Ellingson of Spokane recalls his teen years on a farm near Malo during the late 1930s. The family raised its own food and livestock, which routinely won prizes at the county fair. For electricity, they used an ingenious homemade generator. As a college boy in 1941, John spent a lonely summer staffing a forest fire lookout near Curlew.

As early as 1901, the Republic area had a rudimentary electric system provided by the Republic Light and Power Company of Patrick H. Walsh: hydroelectric in the summer and wood-fired steam generated in the winter. During the 1930s, the San Poil Power and Light Company also functioned, but sporadically. By 1937, Republic received power by means of a Washington Water Power link with Tonasket in Okanogan County. Soon a public utility district was created for Ferry County, and in 1945, through a loan from the Rural Electrification Administration, the PUD was able to buy the Republic Light and Power Company. It then contracted with the Bonneville Power Administration to provide electricity throughout the county.

The construction of Grand Coulee Dam, beginning in 1933, provided jobs for many throughout the region, including workers from Ferry County. Its completion in 1941 extended electrification and irrigation to a broad area of central Washington. The backwater from the dam altered the boundary of Ferry County and required the moving to higher ground the towns of Inchelium and Keller, as well as Indian burial places. These dislocations, plus the permanent blockage of salmon migration by a dam without fish ladders and the flooding of Kettle Falls “severely disrupted their [Indian] communities and cultural traditions, from which they suffered emotionally as well as physically from a dramatic loss of food, both fish and game” (Warring).

Ferry County Today

Today Ferry County maintains much of its frontier spirit, but the area has more than its share of problems, with unemployment rates among the highest in the state. Mining continues on a reduced scale, with “K2 mine [in] limited operation [and] Echo Bay Mill being maintained and [planning] full production when the Kinross Mine (Buckthorn) in northeastern Okanogan County is in full operation. The ore trucks will transport ore from Okanogan to Ferry County” (Warring). The last lumber mill has closed, and timber jobs have declined because of past over-harvesting and recent environmental restrictions on logging in the national forests. The tensions between timber interests and environmentalists are unresolved. Since 1964, a Job Corps center at Curlew has provided training in various fields, and a community college was established at Republic in 1984. Still many young people must leave the county for employment.

Fortunately Ferry County remains a mecca for hunting, fishing, and winter sports, and its scenic beauty continues to attract tourists. There are several small resorts and a state park on Curlew Lake. Republic has become something of an artists’ colony and hosts several music festivals during the summer. Furthermore, the county has even discovered a new resource: fossils. In 1989, the Stonerose Interpretive Center was established at Republic. Here, from May through October, amateurs under the supervision of expert staff can unearth and study “world class examples of Eocene plant life” from the nearby Boot Hill Fossil Site (Stonerose website). People from all over the United States and even abroad visit Stonerose, greatly increasing tourism in the Republic area.


Tony and Suzanne Bamonte, Pathways to History (Spokane: Tornado Creek Publications, n.d.), 148-149; Norman Bolker, “Daniel Drumheller, Nature’s Nobleman,” Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Fall 1982), 49-58; Mildred Couse, “100 Years Ago in Ferry County,” columns in Republic News-Miner (1997-1999); Republic News-Miner, May-October, 1998; John Ellingson, “Fire Lookout: a College Boy’s Summer in 1941,” The Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 45, No. 2 (October 2001), 3-38; Laura Arksey conversations with John Ellingson, May, 2006; Kettle River History Club, Reflections of the Kettle River Region (Republic: Kettle River History Club, n.d.); Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington’s Past: a Road Guide to History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990), 29-67; Madilane Perry, A Brief History of Ferry County (Republic: Ferry County Historical Society, 1994); Dick Slagle, “Slagle Family Marks 100 Years in Republic,” Republic News-Miner, August, 26, 2004); Stonerose Interpretive Center website, accessed May 12, 2006 (www.ferrycounty.com/stonerose); “This is Our True Story,” Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation website, accessed May 6, 2006 (www.colvilletribes.com/past); Edward M. Walter and Susan A. Fleury, Eureka Gulch: the Rush for Gold (Colville,Washington: Don’s Printery, 1985); Mary Warring, Historian, Ferry County Historical Society, email to Laura Arksey, May 19, 2006, in possession of Laura Arksey, Spokane; Clara Scott Weed, Memories of the Boom Town of Ferry and Surrounding District in Ferry County (The Author, 1973). See also: Mary S. Warring, Eureka! There's Gold in Ferry County; With Emphasis on the Republic Mines (Republic: Ferry County Historical Society, 2006). See also: Richard F. Steele, Illustrated History of Stevens, Ferry, Okanogan and Chelan Counties (Spokane: Western Historical Pub. Co., 1904).
Note: This essay was amended on April 19, 2011, to supplement the sources.

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