Newport -- Thumbnail History

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 6/16/2009
  • Essay 9056
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Newport, the county seat of Pend Oreille County, is roughly 45 miles north of Spokane on the bank of the Pend Oreille River. The area is still the home of the Kalispel Indians, with human habitation going back some 10,000 years. David Thompson (1770-1857), North West Company fur trader and explorer, passed through the present Newport area in 1809 and 1810. The next recorded outside explorer to visit was Dr. George Suckley, whom Governor Isaac I. Stevens (1818-1862) commissioned to follow Thompson’s route and report on potential timber resources, the terrain, and transportation possibilities. Present Newport is the second town of that name: The first is now Oldtown, Idaho, which borders Newport and straddles the river. During its frontier days, Newport was a steamship port serving the settlers in the Pend Oreille Valley. In 1892, with the arrival of the Great Northern Railway, the town was able to link river with rail, relieving the isolation of its people and eventually transporting Pend Oreille County’s wealth of mine and forest products to distant markets. James J. Hill (1838-1919), president of the Great Northern, gets credit for Newport’s initial growth. Three years later, Charles (1873-1940) and Warren E. Talmadge (d. 1945) formed the Newport Washington Land Company and three years later platted the town. By 1901, Newport, Washington, was assigned a post office and in 1903 was incorporated as a fourth-class town, with Tom J. Kelly (1863-1933) as the first mayor. Newport, Idaho, gradually dwindled and was renamed Oldtown in 1947. In 1912, a year after Pend Oreille County was carved out of Stevens County, Newport defeated rival towns to become the official county seat. Another milestone was the completion of the interstate bridge across the Pend Oreille River in 1927. Albeni Falls Dam, completed in 1955, reduced the severity of periodic flooding in the Pend Oreille Valley. Because of its position as county seat and commercial center, as well as the energy and vision of key residents, Newport has remained a viable town with a prosperous appearance and a population of about 2,000.   

A New Port on the Pend Oreille

Newport, originally in Idaho, acquired its name by virtue of being the “new port” when Albeni Poirier (1861-1936) established a trading post and port on the Pend Oreille River in the 1890s. Upon moving the short distance into Washington, Newport soon became the major town in Pend Oreille County, the last homestead frontier in the United States. Settlers in the area first took out logging claims and then carved out “stump farms” on the logged-over lands, eventually developing a number of dairy farms. Initially they depended on steamboats on the Pend Oreille River for transport of themselves and their goods. Soon the combination of river and rail transport greatly increased commercial opportunities. The first steamboat to serve Newport was built in the East, transported to Sandpoint, Idaho, for assembly, and launched on the Pend Oreille River in 1888. By the late 1890s, two rival steamboat companies operated out of Newport, north to Metaline and Metaline Falls near the Canadian border; however, the trip involved a portage at the Box Canyon rapids. Such boats as the Red Cloud and the Volunteer competed for passengers and freight. A newspaper advertisement for the Red Cloud boasted:   

“Always on Time. Fastest boat on the Pend d’Oreille River from Newport to Box Canyon, a distance of 60 miles. ... meets all trains on the Great Northern Railroad east and west on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday” (Bamonte, p. 23).   

Much of the timber cut in the region was for cordwood to fire the steamboats and railroad locomotives, as well as for railroad ties and lumber to build Spokane and the small communities of the area.   

Trees and Trains

Among the early sawmills in Newport were Standard Lumber, Ashenfelter, and Fidelity, built between 1902 and 1909. Some mills, such as the Fidelity Lumber Company (later Humbird) and Diamond Match, stood across the river, but nevertheless provided employment for Newport residents, who crossed on ferries. In 1909 the Great Northern built a spur line to the Fidelity Lumber Company, which also owned its own tugs to barge logs on the Pend Oreille River.

The Newport lumber mills were involved in planing, shingle, cedar post and pole milling. A 1909 promotional brochure touted Newport as “the largest cedar pole shipping point in the entire Northwest and many thousands are annually yarded here awaiting shipment” (Bamonte, 34). Between 1910 and 1920, the Diamond Match Company gained ascendancy, and by 1923 was the largest employer in Pend Oreille County. The humble match was in great demand for lighting everything from pipes to kerosene lamps.   

Newport had come into its own with the arrival of the Great Northern Railway. On May 28, 1892, the first passenger train from Chicago en route to Spokane arrived in Newport amid great fanfare, and the town began to thrive “in its new role as the primary distribution center for Pend Oreille County’s vast natural resources” (Bamonte, 14) of timber and minerals. In 1893, the Great Northern reached Puget Sound, thus connecting Newport with the wider world, east and west. Beginning in 1893, the Cottage House Hotel provided lodging and meals to train passengers. The approaching train was not visible from the hotel, but a toot of the whistle alerted the staff to have the food ready. A new Cottage Hotel was built in 1904. On May 1, 1971, Newport’s Great Northern rail service came to an end, when the last westbound GN train between Newport and Spokane was discontinued.

In 1907, Newport’s rail transportation increased when Frederick A. Blackwell’s (1852-1922) Idaho & Washington Northern Railroad reached Newport from McGuires, Idaho, near Post Falls, with the promise of continuing north to Metaline Falls fulfilled in 1910. The I&WN Railroad hauled northern Pend Oreille County timber, Metaline Falls cement, and ores from later mines to Newport, thence with connections to more distant markets. In 1914, the Milwaukee Railroad (Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul) took control and operated the line between Newport and Metaline Falls until 1979, when the Port of Pend Oreille was formed to take over this route. In 1978 the Pend Oreille County Historical Society purchased the 1908 Newport depot to become part of its museum complex.    

County Seat and Center of Commerce

Newport flourished as the county seat. Newspaperman Fred L. Wolf (1877-1957), who had purchased the Newport Miner in 1907, and Fred Trumbull, an Ione attorney, led successful lobbying efforts for a new county, and Pend Oreille County was carved out of the huge Stevens County in 1911. On June 10, the law creating the county went into effect, and two days later, the new county government officially began when the new commissioners were sworn into office. Governor Marion Hay (1865-1933) was present for the festivities in Newport, which was designated temporary county seat. In 1912, Newport defeated Cusick, Usk, and Ione to become the permanent county seat. As the largest town, as well as the transportation and commercial center for the region, it was the logical choice. The handsome courthouse was built in 1915 and restored and refurbished in 1992, winning an historical preservation award from the Eastern Washington State Historical Society. A new city hall had been completed in 1914.   

Because of its importance as a governmental, commercial, and transportation center, Newport began to grow. By 1906, it had about 800 people. By 1909, the population had risen to 1,199, a considerable town for those days. In 1911, distinguished historian Nelson W. Durham described Newport in the Spokesman-Review as “a prosperous little city ... with the accompaniments of substantial homes set in a wealth of lawn, garden and orchard, handsome churches, broad streets, well sidewalked and graded, [with] excellent schools ...” (Billings, 4). Businesses included sawmills, general stores, a livery stable, blacksmith shops, dray lines, restaurants, a candy factory, barber shops, hardware stores, a ship yard, a brick plant, and of course a plethora of saloons.   

Many of the town’s earliest buildings, built of brick manufactured just outside of town, are still in use. Newport’s oldest building, the Koch Saloon, originally known as the Newport Club and now Kelly’s Restaurant and Lounge, was built in 1894. Its bar was brought around Cape Horn by ship and then transported overland to Newport. It claims the distinction of being the second oldest saloon in the state. The Newport Trading Company, built in 1903, was the city’s first brick structure. Once claiming to be the largest department store north of Spokane, it now houses Owen’s Grocery and Deli. The T. J. Kelly Building, 1906, the home of several businesses over the years, was for a time the Odd Fellows Lodge and now houses Club Energy. In addition to the Historical Society’s preservation of the 1908 Idaho & Washington Northern Railroad Depot, the 1910 Great Northern Railroad Depot is the regional office of the Stimson Lumber Company. Original buildings still in use today are designated with Pend Oreille County historic plaques.   

Not only did brothers Charles and Warren Talmadge plat the town, but they went on to be active for years in real estate, banking, publishing, and civic affairs. Charles later owned the Silver Birch Farm, which produced fruit, hops, and purebred Jersey cattle. Other dairy farms prospered in the Pend Oreille River Valley, and Newport soon became a center for production and distribution of creamery products.   

Water and Light

Early Newport residents had to get their water from wells or directly from the river. In 1905 Dr. George Sutherland (1854-1949), a chiropractor, and G. T. Thomas organized the Newport Water Company to pipe water two miles from Kellogg Springs in Idaho. The same year, the Northern Electric Company made an attempt at electrification, but its steam-operated generator with only one engine often broke down, resulting in power failures lasting for days.

The first reliable electric service began in 1909 when the Northern Idaho & Montana Power Company of Sandpoint, Idaho, built a brick building and substation that provided Newport with enough power for residential and industrial use as well as streetlights. In 1911 the Washington Water Power Company of Spokane contracted with Northern Idaho & Montana to service Newport and Sandpoint from its power plant at Post Falls, Idaho. Since 1936 Newport has received its electricity from the Pend Oreille County Public Utility District (PUD), with the power supply greatly enhanced by construction of Box Canyon Dam in 1955. 

Schools and an Exceptional Teacher  

Newport established a school district in 1892, and its first schools were the typical frontier wooden structures. The earliest was the Cemetery School. Then from the turn of the century until 1904 classes met in the first Fiedler’s Opera House, “something of a firetrap” (Howe, 28). Next came a 1904 two-story wooden school that was replaced in 1914 by a handsome and substantial brick structure that later became the grade school.

Another larger high school was built in 1936 and the old grade school was remodeled. A new elementary school was completed in 1953 and named for Sadie Halstead (1889-1981), Pend Oreille County’s most notable pioneer educator. Halstead was first a teacher and principal in Metaline Falls; then upon her move to Newport in 1939, became superintendent of schools for Pend Oreille County. Even in retirement, she continued as a substitute teacher. Newport’s most recent high school building opened on September 8, 1981. In 2002 the Sadie Halstead School was rebuilt after a fire.

Culture High and Low

The pride of many a fledgling Western town was its opera house, the term “opera” being loosely applied to a wide variety of mostly less refined entertainment. The wooden structure between 3rd and 4th streets, mentioned above as housing the early school, was such a venue during the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1911, its owner, Charles A. Fiedler (1872-1949), completed a new $17,000 opera house, thereafter, dubbed Fid’s Opera, at 4th and Spokane Street. Seating 400, it was much more distinguished than the old opera house, both architecturally and in the quality of its productions. N. W. Durham, writing in the Spokesman-Reviewed called it “the finest little theater in the state of Washington. ...[T]his temple of amusement is an architectural gem formed of concrete. With cement from Metaline Falls and sand and gravel from the excavation, the citizens regard it proudly as a Pend Oreille product” (Billings, 4).

It functioned as a playhouse and movie theater until 1918. Although handsome and fireproof, Fid’s Opera was not profitable. It went into foreclosure in 1919 and was modified over the years for different uses. Fid’s Opera probably was doomed from the start by its raked floor and fixed seats: Newport folks were used to the old opera house that could accommodate dances. Furthermore, many local people were unable to pay the steep ticket prices for the traveling theatrical groups that Fiedler booked.   

A Good Road and a Bridge

Newport could not rely indefinitely on the river and railroads for transportation. For years, primitive roads clung to the steep, slide-prone shores of the Pend Oreille River and wound between trees and stumps over mountainous terrain. One of the worst problems was the lack of a bridge linking Northeastern Washington and the Idaho Panhandle. Crusading newspaperman Fred Wolf, a leader in the Washington State Good Roads Association, spearheaded the effort to get better roads for the region and a bridge across the Pend Oreille River.

In 1916, Governor Ernest Lister visited Newport to view the proposed site of a bridge over the Pend Oreille, which he had vetoed in 1913. Finally, on June 15, 1927, the much-needed Interstate Bridge at Newport opened for traffic. Because of the terrain, it had to be placed just across the border into Idaho rather than at the very short stretch where the Pend Oreille River actually marks the Washington-Idaho boundary. Newport’s small airport, no longer functioning, was dedicated on October 19 and 20, 1929.

Newport's Country Doctor

Dr. John Thomas Phillips (1871-1942), Newport’s first doctor, is remembered with affection and gratitude. He came to Newport in 1900 at the urging of fellow Iowan Charles Talmadge. In addition to his private practice in the town and surrounding countryside, he was a contract physician for the Great Northern. Dr. Phillips was “a typical old-time country physician, who would answer any call, anywhere, at any hour, regardless of the weather and, if necessary, for no pay” (Lyle, 30). During the early years of his practice, he answered house calls on horseback, but later acquired a team and buggy. Many times after house calls in the country, “he would be so tired he would go to sleep after starting the horses toward home, depending upon them to get him there and wait at the home gate until he awoke” (Lyle, 30).

In 1907, he bought a Mitchell, the first automobile in Newport. This car proved crucial to saving Newport during the great forest fire of 1910, when Dr. Phillips and another car owner, Charles P. Moeser, Sr., continued day and night shuttling firefighters and rescuing people. His efforts were no less heroic during the influenza epidemic of 1918.  

Butter and Murder

A shocking event of the 1930s called attention to Newport not only at the time, but many years later. On the night of September 14, 1935, burglars fatally shot Newport Marshall George Conniff (d. 1935) at the Newport Creamery as he was making his rounds of the town. Amazingly, this crime was a butter heist for a Depression-era black market operation based in Spokane. The investigation that followed the theft and murder was totally inadequate.

The reason became clear in 1989 when a later Pend Oreille County sheriff, Tony Bamonte (b. 1942), solved this cold case by proving that the gunman, Clyde Willis Ralstin (1899-1900), was actually a Spokane policemen, who subsequently continued his law enforcement career with impunity! Despite Bamonte’s efforts, Ralstin, who was still living, was never brought to justice. The story became a nonfiction bestseller, Breaking Blue, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Timothy Egan.

Water and Snow

A Pend Oreille Valley disaster of the 1940s was the famous flood of 1948 that inundated towns throughout much of the Northwest. Although the flooding of some towns along the river, especially Cusick, was much worse, the lower parts of Newport were not spared. The flood certainly got the attention of Newport newspaperman Fred Wolf, who mounted the last major campaign of his life: the Albeni Falls Dam on the Pend Oreille River upriver in Idaho from Newport. It was needed not only for flood control but also for additional hydroelectric power. This United States Army Corps of Engineers dam became operational in 1955.  

The winter of 1968-1969 brought more weather-related problems to Newport and the area, when heavy snows collapsed the hangar at the airport, destroying most of the planes. The property sat empty until 1981, when the school district bought it from the city and constructed a new high school.

Stuart Bradley's Legacy

In 1990 Newport and Pend Oreille County lost one of their most important native sons. No one has been more important to the preservation of the area’s history than Stuart B. Bradley (1907-1990). He grew up on a timberland homestead on Tacoma Creek and received his early education in the one-room school there. Because his father needed him to help with the logging, Stuart could attend high school only one day a week. Yet by studying at night, he was able to graduate in three years at the age of 16, meanwhile editing the school annual during his senior year. He spent two years at Washington State College before transferring to the University of Chicago where he received a law degree. He became a prominent Chicago-area maritime attorney specializing in Great Lakes shipping. But Bradley never forgot his Pend Oreille County origins.

In 1968 Bradley began annual summer trips back to host a reunion for homesteaders and their descendants and to begin publication of a yearly book of regional history, which he titled The Big Smoke, after his high school annual, so named for the great 1910 fire. Since his death, others have carried on this excellent publication. He was also instrumental in the Pend Oreille County Historical Society’s purchase of the Milwaukee Railroad Depot at Newport in 1978. Stuart Bradley is an example of the remarkable people who have transcended the seeming material and educational limitations of a frontier childhood. Along the way, he acquired a love of learning, a penchant for hard work, and the desire to give back to his community.

Newport Today

In 1985 the new Public Library opened. The original beautiful and well-engineered Interstate Bridge, which had carried automobile and truck traffic across the Pend Oreille River since 1927, was replaced in 1989 with a modern but less elegant bridge.   

The 1990s saw some major improvements in Newport’s amenities and appearance. Realizing Newport’s importance on the tourist route from Spokane to Sandpoint and the lakes of Northern Idaho, the Chamber of Commerce built a new visitors’ center in 1995 on ground leased from the Pend Oreille County Historical Society. Tourists can receive information as well as visit the indoor and outdoor exhibits of the Historical Society’s Pend Oreille County Museum, including the “Big Wheel,” the Reynolds Corliss steam engine and flywheel from the old Diamond Match Company sawmill at Albeni Falls. Other major exhibits include three log cabins reassembled from their original locations, historic farming and logging equipment, a logging camp bunkhouse replica, and a Burlington Northern metal caboose.

The Stuart B. Bradley Memorial Building, dedicated in 1994, houses the research library, meeting room, and darkroom. Speaker of the House Tom Foley (1929-2013) was present for the dedication. The privately funded, volunteer-staffed museum is the major tourist attraction in Newport, but visitors also enjoy the historical murals that now decorate several downtown buildings.   

Health facilities improved in 1997 when a new hospital replaced the Newport Community Hospital, which had been built in 1958. In 2005, the River Mountain Village, an assisted-living center, became part of the hospital complex.   

In 1998, the community launched the partly grant-funded $2.6 million Downtown Street and Sidewalk Revitalization Project, which provided new street lighting, decorative sidewalks, trees, and old-fashioned benches. The project manager was Sean Hoisington, a young Pend Oreille County man with an engineering degree from Washington State University. That same year the Community Colleges of Spokane Newport Center completed the $1.26 million Newport Collegiate Center. For the younger folks, the city provided a skateboard park. A more recent achievement, the new T. J. Kelly Park named for the town’s first mayor, was begun in 2008 and will probably be dedicated this year (2009). 

Pride and Fame

During the history of Pend Oreille County, the majority of Washington’s governors made their way to this remote corner of the state. The twenty-first century brought two more. In August 2000, Democratic Governor Gary Locke (b. 1950) visited Newport during a re-election campaign swing through Eastern Washington. He declared that the highest priority of the Washington State Department of Trade & Economic Development would be to encourage Puget Sound-area companies looking to expand to do so in rural areas of Washington such as Pend Oreille County, rather than out of state. Newport has not seen the results of that priority. In August 2007, Governor Christine Gregoire paid a brief visit to the town and met with community leaders.    

Nothing in recent years generated more local excitement than Newport’s Olympic connections. Karen Kraft, a rather brief resident of Newport, took a silver medal in 1996 and a bronze in 2000 in pairs rowing events. For the 2002 Winter Olympics, Newport social worker and coach Rory Axel was cheered on by townspeople as he carried the Olympic Torch for a segment of its journey from Athens to Salt Lake City.

Like all small towns, Newport works hard to maintain its viability. Its location in one of the most scenic areas of the Northwest will always be an advantage. The continued presence of the venerable Stimson Lumber Company, with operations in four states, is important economically, as are the governmental, educational, and medical services the town provides. Recent improvements to the downtown’s appearance and amenities should ensure that this attractive town is far more than just a stop on the way to somewhere else. 

Sources: Tony and Suzanne Schaeffer Bamonte, History of Newport, Washington (Spokane: Tornado Creek Publications, 1998); Tony and Suzanne Bamonte, History of Pend Oreille County (Spokane: Tornado Creek Publications, 1996); Tony Bamonte, Sheriffs, 1911-1989: A History of Murders in the Wilderness of Washington’s Last County (Spokane: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1990), 123-147; Franklin Billings, “Fid’s Opera -- A Dream That Failed,” The Big Smoke (Newport: Pend Oreille County Historical Society, 1978), 3-10; Mike Denuty, “Newport Project Starts Next Week on Union,” Newport Miner, March 11, 1998; Timothy Egan, Breaking Blue (New York: Knopf, 1992); M. Claire Howe, Historical Sketches of Pend Oreille County (Newport: The Miner Print, [1976] 1996); M. Claire Howe, “Newport School District No. 56-415,” The Big Smoke (Newport: Pend Oreille County Historical Society, 1982), 28-31; “Newport Washington History: a Look at Downtown Through the Years,” Special Supplement of the Newport Miner and Gem State Miner, September 23, 1998; “Kraft Takes Olympic Bronze Medal,” Newport Miner, October 18, 2000; Cuba Berneck Lyle, “Dr. John T. Phillips, the Newport Area’s First Doctor,” The Big Smoke (Newport: Pend Oreille County Historical Society, 1989), 30-31; Newport Historic Tour (Newport: Pend Oreille County Historical Society, n.d.); William J. Piper, “Stuart Bradley,” The Big Smoke (Newport: Pend Oreille County Historical Society, 1990), 3-13; Faith McClenny, Pend Oreille County Historical Society, email to Laura Arksey, May 30, 2009, in possession of Laura Arksey, Spokane, Washington; Colleen Auble, Newport Public Library, email to Laura Arksey, June 10, 2009, in possession of Laura Arksey, Spokane, Washington; Pend Oreille County Museum website accessed May 2009 (

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