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Recovering Forgotten Pieces of Sandpoint History

The businesses, homes, saloons and brothels that lined the Northern Pacific Railroad in Sandpoint, Idaho, bustled during the late 1800s. Shortly after the turn of the century, however, town life along the tracks became a distant memory as the whole community moved west of Sand Creek and became more of a settled town than a frontier way station.

In the state’s largest historical archaeological excavation, University of Idaho alumni, anthropology faculty and graduate students are recovering significant pieces of North Idaho history.

Bob Weaver, a University of Idaho alumnus and historical archeologist with the Environmental History Company in Seattle, Wash., and Jim Bard, a prehistoric archeologist from CH2M Hill in Corvallis, Ore., lead an archaeological project funded by the federal government through the state highway department. In 2005, the Idaho Transportation Department approved plans to construct a byway extension on U.S. Highway 95 east of Sand Creek to address Sandpoint’s serious traffic conditions; byway construction intersected the historic Sandpoint town site. Under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, federally-funded projects that eliminate the opportunity for future study of historic and cultural sites require mitigation.

“Most of Sandpoint’s early history lies in the old town site east of Sand Creek,” said Weaver. “The mitigation process resulted in the most comprehensive urban archeological excavation in the state.”

Weaver’s company, CH2M Hill, and historical experts from Bonner County and the University of Idaho conducted the project’s research and recovery process. So far, nearly a half million artifacts have been recovered, linking the serene Lake Pend Oreille town to its colorful beginnings alongside the Northern Pacific Railroad.

“Most people don’t know that Sandpoint started along the tracks,” said Weaver. “Nor do they know about the Chinese settlers and the bars and businesses that once lined the railroad corridor. Few recall the saloons and brothels that were forced to relocate to the old town area in the early 20th century after proper Sandpoint moved west of the creek.”

Excavations uncovered hundreds of champagne bottles served by one of the bordellos along with marbles, toys and doll parts in the same areas, suggesting the presence of children.

“We have a variety of bones from the food eaten by the Chinese and the early settlers, along with the then-legal paraphernalia from smoking opium,” said Weaver. “Other artifacts range from Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce to whiskey bottles, along with fancy and plain tableware.”

Mark Warner, associate professor of anthropology and a historical archaeologist, joined the excavation team as a co-principal investigator in 2007. He is now heavily involved in the artifact processing and analysis. He said the artifacts tell great narratives of what people ate and the things they used.

“These artifacts will help us understand the way of life in early Sandpoint,” said Warner. “Archeology gets more compelling with more information. This dig provides us with so much information about the early town site that we can substantially add to the unwritten history about its past.”

Warner asked three University of Idaho graduate students studying historical archeology to help excavate the Humbird blacksmith shop, one of the areas specified for research. From Sept. 29 to Oct. 26, 2008, the students worked as field technicians to excavate and document the site. Though building remains were sparse, they helped recover thousands of blacksmithing artifacts including pliers, tongs, hammers, horseshoes, anvil parts and remnants of the blacksmithing techniques in use at the time.

Oliver Bielmann, a graduate student from Redwood City, Calif., said the fieldwork experience in historical archeology was rare since most fieldwork involves prehistoric digs. “I want a future career in cultural resources management and this experience is exactly what that career entails,” he said. “I loved being out there.”

Joe Mitchell, a graduate student from Burley, Idaho, said his strong interest in metal artifacts made the blacksmith project even more exciting. “These artifacts are interesting because they provide information as to how these settlers transitioned from blacksmith shops to machine shops in the 20th century,” he said.

Colleen Reynolds, a doctoral student from Charleston, S.C., said she used her knowledge from her dissertation on post-Civil War cavalry horses to interpret the recovered horseshoes and tools from the blacksmith shop. “I saw an amazing variety of specialized horseshoes that will help with my own research questions and interests.”

The University of Idaho Alfred W. Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology in Moscow is the official repository for the Sandpoint artifacts. Team experts, including faculty and students from the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Justice Studies, are analyzing the recovered items. Warner said it will take approximately two years to catalogue the artifacts and provide interpretations that amend our understanding of daily life in Sandpoint. He estimates that this massive collection will generate at least 30 years of research opportunities for future scholars.

“The huge collection of artifacts will be a major educational and historical resource for future students, professors and researchers, not only at the University of Idaho, but possibly throughout the country,” said Warner.

Weaver hopes the collection will spark more interest in the University of Idaho’s historical archeology program. “The Sandpoint dig essentially is a direct extension of this program. Idaho, for years, was the premier – if not only – historical archaeology program in the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “This project is so big and so visible in terms of archeology. I hope it changes attitudes toward the field, promotes appreciation of the Idaho program, and helps people understand the importance of preserving and sharing pieces of history.”

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