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Big Dig Tells Nuanced Story About North Idaho Town

SANDPOINT, Idaho - The Northwest is filled with towns that have their own storied histories. Sandpoint is a fashionable resort village in scenic north Idaho. But it used to be a rougher place, built around the timber and railroad industries. Today, researchers are piecing together much of that history after an unusually large archaeological dig. Correspondent Doug Nadvornick reports the dig was prompted by a highway construction project.

I’m standing in downtown Sandpoint, Idaho. About a block behind me is US Highway 95. That’s Idaho’s major north-south highway. It runs through downtown Sandpoint, a bustling little downtown area.

Right across a big creek from here is a bypass road that the state of Idaho is building to move the highway out of downtown Sandpoint.

What’s significant is that the bypass is built on Sandpoint’s original town site from 1882 and that meant the state had to do an archaeological project to find whether there were cultural artifacts. And what they found was pretty significant.

Marc Münch: “This is probably the largest archaeological project ever conducted in the state of Idaho.” Marc Münch is Idaho’s highway archaeologist.

The state hired a team of archaeologists who spent more than a year digging at 11 sites in a mile-long stretch. University of Idaho anthropology professor Mark Warner says this dig stands out in the Inland Northwest. Mark Warner: “There’s a track record of similar large-scale projects on the West Coast and there’s track records of very large-scale projects on the East Coast, but there’s not a whole lot in between.”

The crews doing the digging recovered more than a half-million objects. Those are now bagged, catalogued and piled in boxes that sit in a basement storage room at the University of Idaho.

Many of the artifacts, such as old bottles, are intact. Warner says those offer a glimpse into just how far people in the 19th century went to bring their creature comforts with them.

Mark Warner: “We’re learning somebody from Sandpoint, Idaho really needed to drink Florida water from Murray and Landman’s druggists, manufactured in New York. And this made it all the way across the country.”

Other objects came from even farther away; for example, shards of Chinese pottery. Archaeologist Jim Weaver says those artifacts help piece together the story about how and when Chinese workers came to the U-S and, ultimately, to Sandpoint.

Jim Weaver: “They either came over for the gold rush or came over for construction of one of the railroads in California. But there are a number of little clues, like the coins that we got, Chinese coins.”

Weaver says by the time the Chinese workers came to Sandpoint, many of the town’s first inhabitants had moved to a better neighborhood. The original town site became known as the Restricted District, populated by bordellos, lumber mill workers and the Chinese. Weaver says it was a rough place and respectable people avoided it. But the Chinese workers made their own little community.

Anthropologist Mark Warner says the artifacts give researchers like him a rare look at that.

Mark Warner: “I mean an extraordinary history of the disenfranchised and the invisible.”

Though the Sandpoint, Idaho dig is generally considered a big success, the project’s leaders are disappointed about one thing. Prehistoric archaeologist Bob Betts says they didn’t find many Native American artifacts from the time before Sandpoint was settled.

Bob Betts: “The area had been so disturbed by the historic townsite, fires that had gone through that townsite, and they were mixed with historic artifacts. Now, for an archaeologist, that’s a major problem.”

Still, Betts says the dig has helped to confirm that people lived and travelled through north Idaho as far back as eight thousand years ago.

Betts and his colleagues are writing a report about the Sandpoint dig. Marc Munch from the Idaho Transportation Department expects it will tell a more nuanced story than what you read in the history books.

Marc Münch: “Tying it all together, the end story’s just going to be very unique and it’s going to shed a different light on the history of a logging and mining community in the West that we didn’t know.”

Ultimately, some of the artifacts may wind up in the museum in Sandpoint, just a short distance from their long-time resting place.

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