Chewelah -- Thumbnail History

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 8/24/2010
  • Essay 9534
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Few Washington towns can claim a more idyllic setting than Chewelah, located some 45 miles north of Spokane in the southern Colville River valley in Stevens County. To the east, the dark bulk of Quartzite Mountain, part of the Selkirks, broods over the town. To the west, across the valley, rise the Huckleberry Mountains. This region was once the home of Indians, particularly Colvilles and a few Spokanes and Kalispels. Then fur traders and missionaries passed through. Beginning in the 1840s, French-Canadian, Scottish, and mixed-race former employees of the old Hudson’s Bay Company Fort Colvile (HBC spelling) began farming in the Chewelah area. Pioneer settlement from elsewhere began in the 1850s, drawn to opportunities for mining, logging, and ranching. Conveniently for settlers as well as miners on their way to points farther north, the future town site lay near the Colville Road, the main route between military forts Walla Walla and Colville. Chewelah’s greatest economic boosts came in 1889 with the arrival of railroad service and in 1916 with a decades-long magnesite boom. The town’s recovery from the loss in 1968 of this industry is a study in community self-help that continues today and bodes well for the future.

Missionaries and Fur Traders 

David Thompson (1770-1857), fur trader and cartographer with the Canadian North West Company, traversed the Colville Valley in 1811 and 1812. Congregational missionaries Cushing Eells (1810-1893) and Elkanah Walker (1805-1877) established the ultimately unsuccessful Tshimakain Mission near present Ford in September 1838. On September 16 at what is now Chewelah, Eells preached to the Indians through an interpreter. The historic marker beside the Congregational Church reads:

“Dedicated to the memory of the Rev. Cushing Eells, pioneer missionary who preached his first sermon in the territory of Washington [still Oregon Territory at that time] in Chewelah, Sunday, September 16, 1838. The bell in this tower was donated by the Rev. Mr. Eells to the First Congregational Church of Chewelah, arriving February 11, 1893, the day of his death.”   

“Father Eells,” the founder of Whitman College, returned to the Chewelah area sporadically, eventually establishing the Congregational Church there in 1879 in the home of Thomas Brown (1827-1908). 

Catholic missionaries served the Indians as well as Catholic Hudson’s Bay personnel of the region. A half mile from the future location of Chewelah, in 1845, they established the St. Francis Regis Mission under Father Louis Vercruysse. In 1869 this work was relocated to Kettle Falls. In June 1885, the Rev. A. M. Folchi, S.J. (1834-1909?) founded St. Mary’s Church in Chewelah. Its first building was a humble log structure. A year later, James Monaghan donated land for a frame building, presented the church with a bell, and gave Father Folchi a railroad pass to facilitate his missionary travels. The early churches no longer stand: Protestants and Catholics worship today in churches built long after the pioneer period.

First Settlers

The early settlers named the town Chewelah (spelled various ways). According to some sources, this was an Interior Salish Indian word for small, striped snake, which refers either to snakes in the area or to the narrow, serpentine appearance of the river. Alice Sherwood Abrahamson, a member of one of the Indian families still living in the Chewelah area around 1900, offered this explanation in a memoir: “The name Chewelah comes from the Indian word ‘S che wee leh,’ meaning water or garter snake. There was a spring in what is now the southwest end of Chewelah. The old McCreas lived there and their homestead was called ‘S che wee leh ee,’ for the spring that bubbled up there. The motion of the water gave the illusion of snakes moving about in the water” (Oman, 60).

Thomas Brown, the “father of Chewelah,” and his wife, Jane Mowatt Brown (d. 1900), had set forth from the Selkirk Settlement (also called the Red River Colony) near present Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1854, headed for California. However, he liked the looks of the Colville Valley and decided to settle there, first at Addy, then in 1859 at what eventually became Chewelah. They were soon joined by several more families. Originally, Thomas Brown handled the few pieces of mail coming to and from Chewelah. The Chewelah post office opened on March 10, 1879, with James O’Neill as postmaster.  

Brown engaged in a variety of enterprises: farming, working for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and building and operating a gristmill. His Chewelah ranch soon provided a respite for others: According to Thomas Graham Jr. (1868-1946): “The Brown home was a stopping place for all travelers. ... There the weary traveler was always sure of a square meal, a good bed and plenty of stable room and feed for his stock, and above all a friendly reception from both Mr. and Mrs. Brown” (Graham, Book One, 89).

The first school, taught by Brown’s daughter, met in his home. A schoolhouse, possibly the first in Stevens County, was built at Chewelah in 1868. In 1910 Civil War veteran Colonel David P. Jenkins (b. 1823) donated a portion of his land for a high school which bore his name. The first school bus was a horse-drawn vehicle, but students from distant farms lived in a dormitory. There was a new high school in 1928 and, in 1938, a grade school built with the aid of Works Progress Administration funds. The present high school was built in 1976. Chewelah’s handsome earlier brick school now serves as the Municipal Building. The Catholics maintained parochial schools in a succession of buildings from 1909 until 1969.

Although the close proximity to the Colville Road was a benefit to the fledgling town and its surrounding farms, merchants and farmers soon realized the need for a more direct route to and from the Spokane River valley, particularly as a means of supplying miners heading north. Therefore in 1867, with much volunteer labor, they cut the Cottonwood Road beginning at Chewelah through 60 miles of forest. It angled southeast roughly along the route of U.S. Highway 395 as far as the east side of Loon Lake, then southeast through present Deer Park and Denison to just south of Chattaroy, where it branched into two routes to the Spokane River. This “early farm to market road” (Coffin, 301) proved a boon to the prosperity of Chewelah, and until 1889, when the Spokane Falls & Northern Railroad came through, it was the main commercial route between Colville and Spokane. For many years freight wagons as well as mail and passenger stages rumbled through the valley on the Colville and Cottonwood roads, although they were sometimes virtually impassable because of winter snows or spring mud.  

Indians and the Indian Agency

An Indian agency opened at Chewelah in 1868 or 1869 with John A. Simms (1827?-1890) as agent. It eventually consisted of his home, an office, store, granary, and gristmill. An agency cabin still standing in Chewelah bears a marker “Built 1868.” It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 17, 1974. The mill, operated by Louis B. Fenwick, was on Chewelah Creek about where the Congregational Church now stands. Although during the 1850s there had been deadly encounters between Indians and miners making their way through the Colville Valley, after the agency opened:

“It was agreed by all the people of this county that it was his [Agent Simms’s] fair dealings with the Indians, together with his almost parental solicitude for their welfare that prevented them from committing any acts of hostility against the white residents of the Colville valley” (Graham, Book One, 88).   

The Chewelah agency taught the Indians farming methods and provided them with seeds and equipment. It was closed when Nespelem became the headquarters for the Colville Confederated Tribes. By the early 1900s most of the local Indians had relocated to the Spokane or Colville reservations, although a few families continued farming in the valley.

James Monaghan and Family 

Another important settler at Chewelah was James Monaghan (1839-1916) also of Spokane and Coeur d’Alene fame, an immigrant from Ireland, who arrived in the Northwest in 1858. Upon his marriage in 1871 to Margaret McCool, he settled at present Chewelah. Today some of Chewelah stands on property once occupied by the Monaghan ranch. In 1873, while continuing to farm at Chewelah, he opened a trading post at Fort Colville and secured the contract to supply the troops. Soon he also held the contract to carry mail between Spokane Bridge and Colville, and later between Colfax and Colville, operating a stage line along the route. He influenced his sister and brother-in-law, Rosanna and Thomas Graham Sr., and their family to emigrate from Ireland in 1878, and his teenaged nephews then worked for him herding cattle and driving the mail stage. Thomas Graham Jr. recalled later:   

“It was during our residence at Chewelah that my brothers and I each took our turn in handling Uncle Sam’s mail, as well as operating the farm [Monaghan’s]. In those early days my brother John was the only one of us old enough to be allowed to carry the mails, as a carrier had to be 16 years old before Uncle Sam would entrust him with anything so valuable. However, the good nature of the different postmasters throughout Stevens County kept them from inquiring too closely into the age of the drivers” (Graham, Book One, 87).

A plat map dated March 21 (or 31, the writing is not clear) 1884 shows that Henry F. Ortley and his wife registered a plat of “Chewelah City.” On March 28, 1884, E. J. Webster, L. L. Kaufman and Eugene Miller and their wives recorded a plat of a portion of the town. On August 18, 1884, James Monaghan platted the “Town of Chawelah,” a common spelling at the time, followed by an additional Monaghan plat of the downtown area on November 24, 1900. In 1907 Col. David Jenkins platted the Jenkins Addition, the northern part of town. The Chewelah Independent reported that members of the Oppenheimer family were selling lots in 1908.  

During the 1880s and 1890s, Chewelah was a point of departure for large cattle drives. Ranchers throughout the valley would round up their cattle to drive to Spokane and then over the Mullan Road or to ship east by railroad from Spokane. A major figure in this enterprise was Spokane cattle baron Daniel M. Drumheller (1840-1925). According to Tom Graham, who rode herd during several of these drives, in 1894 Drumheller and his associates purchased all the beef cattle available in Stevens County, amounting to 1,200 head, for the drive to Spokane.

Several generations of Grahams became major figures in the valley, especially as newspaper publishers in Colville. Monaghan eventually lived in Colville, Walla Walla, and other locations before settling in 1886 in Spokane Falls, where he went on to become wealthy and renowned through railroading and other far-flung interests in the Northwest. However, he got his business start in Chewelah and kept the ranch there for many years, managed by the Graham family or others.

Chewelah’s most honored native son is Monaghan’s oldest child, John Robert Monaghan (1873-1899). He was among the first 18 students at Gonzaga University (then College) in Spokane and went on to become the first Washington resident to graduate from the United States Naval Academy. As an ensign, he was killed in 1899 in Samoa while defending a wounded comrade during an obscure skirmish between Samoans and American troops. One of the principal landmarks in downtown Spokane remains the Monaghan statue that his father erected in his memory in 1906. A crowd of 10,000 witnessed the unveiling on October 25, 1906.

Becoming a Town

Chewelah rejoiced at the arrival of the Spokane Falls and Northern Railroad in 1889. Years later John Thomas Raftis (b. 1892) recalled: “Two passenger trains ran each way daily from Spokane to Rossland and Nelson [British Columbia]. Since there was no diner service my mother, Mrs. James Raftis, and a crew of girls prepared meals for the passengers, often 75 to 100 in number, in the old section house” (Tales, 103). The Great Northern eventually acquired the SF&N, then the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe operated over the route. In 2004 the Kettle Falls International Railway, a division of OmniTRAX, took over 160 miles of former BNSF track, including the portion at Chewelah.

Chewelah in the 1890s was still primitive: “Streets were of dirt, with much dust in summer, deep mud holes in spring and snow in winter” (Tales, 103). Businesses included a creamery, hotel, livery stable, brickyard, sawmill, the Otto Mengert (1856-1900) Brewery, Joseph Oppenheimer’s (1856-1925) mercantile business,  a drug store, and others. There were at the time three churches, numerous lodges, and “always four or five saloons doing a rushing business on Main Street.” (Tales, 101) John Raftis further recalled: “The Grand Army of the Republic was at its peak around 1900. Encampments were held in the open in the City Park area along Chewelah Creek. … and the veterans often paraded with their fife and drum corps and were much in evidence on Decoration Day and the Fourth of July” (Tales, 104).

Chewelah was incorporated on January 26 or February 4, 1903, depending on the source. The first council meeting convened on February 7, with mayor W. W. Dickson and council members, Hugh Sherwood Spedden (1872-1950), Fred Kieling, H. E. McIntire, Henry Pomeroy, and George H. McCrea (d. 1910), and Fredrick L. Reinoehl (1866-1962). Reinoehl was clerk and Spedden treasurer. That same year, the Chewelah Independent began its remarkable record of uninterrupted publication.

In 1907 The Coast magazine described Chewelah as having a population of about 800: “South of Colville, upon the line of the Spokane Falls and Northern Railway, in the Colville Valley is located the thriving and prosperous city of Chewelah which is supported by various lumbering institutions ... and the mining and farming in the country surrounding” (Coast, 33). The article emphasized the building of many new homes, and excellent schools, concluding “an enterprising and liberal public spirit is dominant” (Coast, 34). This could be said of Chewelah in the ensuing years.  

Where Copper Is King

Such mines as United Copper and Copper King were producing heavily in the early twentieth century, following the original silver-lead discovery in the immediate area of Chewelah in 1883 at the Embrey Camp two miles northeast along the Flowery Trail. Profits from mining resulted in many of the commercial buildings in downtown Chewelah. Prospecting and the mining of silver, copper, lead, and zinc continued largely uninterrupted for decades until the Depression of the 1930s. Thereafter, various mines reopened and closed with the fluctuation of mineral prices.

In January 1908 “City Lights were turned on in Chewelah Tuesday evening ... seven 900-candle power arc lights are distributed on Main and First Streets” (Independent, City Lights). Then a consortium of businessmen built the Yale Hotel, designed by Spokane’s distinguished architectural firm of Kirtland Cutter (1860-1939) and Carl Malmgren. The building materials were local, with bricks from the Jarvis and Mowatt Brickyard and granite for the foundation and trim from the J. F. Harbottle Quarry. Once considered the finest hotel north of Spokane, the Yale was a center for social and business life of Chewelah until its closure in 1959. The building still stands, currently housing a hardware store on the ground floor.

A 1909 promotional brochure for Stevens County stated that Chewelah owned its own water and light system and made the surprising claim that the population had reached 1,500. It stressed “agricultural advantages ... large lumbering resources and a mineral belt that adds to our promising future and industry of wealth,” claiming Chewelah as the base for “the greatest copper camp in Washington” (Some, 21).   

Farming the Valley

Originally the Colville Valley was dotted with seasonal bogs and wetlands, and the river often flooded. An early gravity-flow irrigation system helped redistribute some of this water, greatly increasing the production of hay, the area’s main cash crop. Then in about 1910, dredging of the Colville River channel and the ditching and draining of the lowlands began to produce additional farm land and to control flooding.

This change disrupted the habitat of many native plants and animals, but resulted in numerous small farms able to support a family. Yet there was never much distinction in the area between urban and rural. Whether you lived in town or on a nearby farm, you were “from Chewelah.” Today, although a beautiful mosaic of crop and grazing land is still visible from Chewelah, small subsistence farms are largely a thing of the past.


The defining event in Chewelah’s economic history was the magnesite boom beginning in 1916. Magnesite, a mineral related to marble, dolomite, and limestone, was once essential for lining open-hearth furnaces that produced high-grade steel. World War I disrupted European sources, and luckily some rich veins were discovered in the Huckleberry Mountains a few miles west of Chewelah. Several companies began quarrying and processing it. The largest and most successful, the Northwest Magnesite Company, built a large plant just south of Chewelah for “deadburning” or “calcinating” the ore to reduce it for shipment to the steel manufacturers of the East and Midwest.

A key to Northwest Magnesite’s success was its aerial tramway, built by the Riblet Tramway Company of Spokane for transporting the raw material quickly and economically from the quarry to the plant at Chewelah. Magnesite produced at Chewelah made a major contribution to the United States efforts in two world wars. In fact, during World War II, Chewelah was the nation’s largest producer of magnesite. Northwest Magnesite was always the largest single employer in Chewelah and the Colville Valley. Gene A. Schalock (b. 1932), a long-time supervisor, states that before mechanization of rock handling, the company employed 1,200. Another magnesite-based company at Chewelah was Thermax, which made fireproof insulation board. Chewelah magnesite was also used for a kind of stucco called feltstone and even for medicinal milk of magnesia!  “The Magnesite” as it was called locally provided

 “summer jobs for high school kids and top-notch recreation equipment in the park ... . Struggling farmers made their land payments by working the swing shift ... . While some townspeople worried about the sterile grain fields downwind from the plant and the incidence of emphysema among the Thermax workers, most accepted the Magnesite because it provided a steady, predictable pulse to the economy of the whole community” (Nesbit, Purple, 32),  

Then mainly because of advances in steel technology, such large quantities of magnesite were no longer needed, and the plant closed in 1968. All that remains today are partially dismantled hulks of the former buildings along Highway 395 south of town.

Changing with the Times

Although magnesite dominated its economy for over four decades, it would be inaccurate to call Chewelah a single-company town. Mining continued, dairy farms dotted the valley, and some residents of the Chewelah area continued to earn a living with logging and sawmills. Many farmers supplemented their incomes by logging or trapping, especially during the Depression. The money thus generated was spent in the many stores and businesses that lined Chewelah’s main streets. Yet upon the closure of Northwest Magnesite in 1968, which at the time employed 250 (sources vary on the exact number), the community realized it needed to exert drastic efforts to keep Chewelah viable. In 1968 the population was 1,856, and by the end of 1970 it had dropped to 1,354.

Community leaders immediately began holding emergency meetings and sought the help of the Washington Department of Economic Development and the Area Development Council of Washington Water Power. The result was the formation of Chewelah Industries, Inc. with Gerald R. Chalmers as president. A $30,000 bond issue plus local investment enabled the purchase of a vacant armory building from the General Services Administration to use as a garment factory. The new company’s first enterprise was a contract with the Pacific Trail Corporation to manufacture winter wear. Instructors from Spokane Community College trained a work force of women in the use of industrial sewing machines. Previously, there had been few employment opportunities for women in the area.

Chewelah Industries opened in 1969 and eventually employed 60. At its first birthday party in February, 1970, “jacket 60,001 rolled off the assembly line” (Community). Chewelah Industries subsequently landed a contract with Eddie Bauer and later sold to another garment company, Kathleen Louise, Inc. (K-L) The Northeast Washington Community Action Association was able to help find employment for some of the men laid off from Northwest Magnesite. Some retired and a few others, including Gene Schalock, went into business for themselves. The new garment industry hired several men in supervisory and maintenance positions.

In 1973 Chewelah came under legal scrutiny when the state auditor discovered that four sitting City Council members were also investors in Chewelah Industries. In their zeal to rescue Chewelah, they had unwittingly run into a conflict of interest. Fortunately, the state attorney general’s office decided that no laws had been broken. Court of Appeals Judge Jerome Farris, upon reading reports in the newspapers, wrote to board member Gene Schalock: “I suspect that the good people of Chewelah think that something must be wrong with the law if it is illegal to save a town” (Schalock, 51).

Under Mayor Rolland B. Millay, Chewelah was chosen by the National Urban League and Saturday Evening Post as an “All-American City” for 1973. Another boost to the economy came in the mid-70s when Northwest Alloys, Inc., a subsidiary of the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), began planning for a magnesium smelter at Addy eight miles north. Fearing carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide emissions, environmentalists opposed the Northwest Alloys plant unless stringent pollution controls could be guaranteed. Northwest Alloys opened, and a new high school and airport were completed in 1976. In 1977 Industrial Mineral Products began reclaiming magnesium and magnesium oxide from dust gathered from the stacks at Northwest Alloys, a process which itself brought complaints from neighbors of breathing and health problems for themselves and their livestock. Northwest Alloys closed its smelter at Addy in 2001.

Not all went as well as hoped with the garment manufacturing enterprises either. Mike Doohan of K-L Manufacturing, with plants in Spokane, Post Falls and Chewelah, complained in 1986 about the inability to attract workers. The previous year, its Chewelah plant had closed because of a decline in work orders. Then when Doohan landed a contract from Levi Strauss to make denim jackets, he attempted to assemble a work force there in a hurry. Although Stevens County had an unemployment rate twice the national average, with Chewelah’s running at 16 percent, he found himself unable to attract enough workers to meet his 1,000 jackets a day quotas.

Admitting that the pay was minimum wage, with added incentive pay for piece work, he still expected to find eager workers among the area’s chronically unemployed. He said: “In industrial environments back East, where I come from, people show up at 8 a.m. and work through the day. Here ... they’re not used to it. It’s a social shock for them” (Bartel). Marvin Ray of the Washington Employment Security Department speculated that part of the cause was that former miners or loggers would have trouble adapting to sewing machine work. Also among the chronically unemployed were counter-culture folks who had sought refuge in Stevens County during the 1960s and 1970s.

The Economics of Recreation  

Chewelah’s civic activism involved more than economic development. United Festivals was a community organization that kept summer and winter celebrations going after the magnesite plant closed. Community Celebrations, another volunteer organization, began in 1974 to plan for Chewelah’s contribution to the 1976 United States Bicentennial. In 1975 it held a Bison-Tennial I and in 1976 Bison-Tennial II. Chewelah’s version of Chautauqua, which they intentionally spelled Chataqua, began in 1978. The events it sponsored raised money for the Center Stage Pavilion, seating 800. It was completed with a grant from Northwest Alloys and given to the city in 1989. The annual four-day Chataqua has been a great success, with attendance estimated at over 50,000. Its proceeds continue to fund community projects. Since 1980 Community Celebrations has sponsored a December Festival of Lights.

In no endeavor has community activism been more evident than in the development of skiing in Chewelah’s nearby mountains. The Chewelah Peak Ski Club was formed in 1935 with 64 members. Its earliest assets were a cabin and, in 1938, a cable tow. In 1951 the club moved to a nearby slope leased from the Forest Service and installed a chairlift. Not surprisingly, it was a product of the Riblet Tramway Company, which had already installed chairlifts at Mt. Hood and Mt. Spokane. However, the Forest Service eventually became concerned about the safety of the wooden towers of the chairlift, so the Chewelah Ski Club moved again, opening in 1972 with a steel-towered lift, naming the area 49 Degrees North. Local investors undertook considerable financial risk to establish this now major Washington ski area just 10 miles from Chewelah, with multiple chairlifts for skiers of all levels of proficiency. Beginning in the late 1970s, skiers and vacationers began building homes at the mountaintop Flowery Trails subdivision a half mile from 49 Degrees North.

The next huge project town boosters undertook was the Chewelah Golf and Country Club. Tired of traveling to Spokane to play golf, a group of local leaders began planning for Chewelah’s own golf course. As with the development of skiing, a great deal of volunteer time and manual labor, as well as personal financial risk, went into the project over many years. Work began in 1975 at Sand Canyon Flats, a timbered area north of and uphill from the city, abutting the new airport. Spokane landscape architect Keith Hellstrom designed the initial course as well as additional phases as the project expanded. In order to finance the golf course, the developers sold lots, resulting in an extensive residential golf community, with rows of houses and trees interspersed among the many fairways. Vacation mansions next to the airport have personal hangars.

A Good Place to Live

Another challenge for the community leaders of Chewelah was the improvement of health care. Dr. S. P. McPherson, who set up his practice in 1901, was long remembered in the community. The venerable St. Joseph’s Hospital, founded in 1929 by the Dominican Sisters, was totally replaced in 1983. Now part of the Providence network of hospitals, it has added facilities for long-term care. Since 1977, two organizations, the Southern Stevens County Health Care Association and Northeast Washington Health Programs have worked hard to expand accessibility to health care in the Chewelah area. In 2002 an assisted living facility became a reality.

With its scenic location, pleasant climate, golf course, excellent library, an active regional history museum, and good health facilities, Chewelah attracts retirees. Many of these newcomers not only enjoy what the area has to offer but pay back with volunteerism and a fresh perspective.

Chewelah currently (2010) has a population of 2,450. Although the garment industry and Northwest Alloys have long since closed and the town is somewhat overshadowed by Colville, the county seat 20 miles north, Chewelah perserveres. In addition to the skiing, golf, hunting, fishing, and hiking the area offers, the nearby Spokane Tribal casino brings some tourism and income, although not as much as anticipated. Yet being on a major route from Canada has always been a plus, and promotional brochures tout Chewelah as “a place for all seasons.” The general impression Chewelah creates today is that of a well managed town with pride in its past and confidence about its future.

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