Working class roots to tourist central: See how North Idaho has changed in the past century

Long-term North Idaho residents have a love-hate relationship with regional growth

By: - June 22, 2023 4:30 am

Steamboats “Schley”, “Queen” and “Spokane” dock at what is now Independence Point in Coeur d’Alene circa 1910. (Courtesy of Museum of North Idaho)

North Idaho has more than doubled in size since 1990, with many newcomers from Washington and California settling in Coeur d’Alene – the region’s biggest city.

Coeur d’Alene grew from 24,500 residents in 1990 to 54,600 residents in 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That population boom has given way to development and a housing shortage — and a tension between old and new that nearly all cities must confront as they grow. 

In the midst of that economic shift, longtime North Idaho residents are grappling with a national spotlight on white nationalist groups in the region and threats of violence against marginalized communities.

But North Idaho was not always known for its controversial national headlines. The Panhandle has a working class history that still runs as an undercurrent through the region.

Beginning in the early 1900s, towns including Rathdrum, Sandpoint and Kootenai dedicated their workforce to the logging industry. At the same time, towns in the Silver Valley attracted gold and silver mining companies that went on to leave a legacy of contaminated sediment in Coeur d’Alene Lake.

Sandy Emerson, former executive director of the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce, told the Idaho Capital Sun that he worked closely with mining companies, grass suppliers and logging groups between 1980 to 1988. 

In recent decades, the region became a popular destination to raise a family or retire, and more tech companies have moved to the area, Emerson said.

Emerson has deep roots with the region. His mother was Miss Rathdrum in 1936, and his father was a pilot instructor during World War II. After the war, his father managed Weeks Field the first airfield in Coeur d’Alene. His father also served on the North Idaho College board of trustees and the city council. 

Sandy Emerson is a North Idaho native whose grandparents owned a farm in Rathdrum. Now retired from a career in real estate, Emerson stays active in the community by serving on the board of the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy. In his free time, he regularly strolls through downtown Coeur d’Alene meeting with friends and attending community events. (Mia Maldonado / Idaho Capital Sun)

“I had good examples, so it was perfectly natural when I became a chamber executive,” he said in an interview.

A 1963 graduate from Coeur d’Alene High School, Emerson grew up in military housing apartments near Mullan Park, or what is now McEuen Park in downtown Coeur d’Alene.

“As a youngster in junior high, we lived in the Sanders Beach neighborhood and we’d ride bikes everywhere,” he said. “Most of the roads weren’t paved, they were all gravel.”

Emerson said the biggest change he’s seen is the modernization of the city. While the town has preserved a lot of historical buildings in the downtown area, he said developers are building more high rise apartments and offices. 

One of the benefits to the town’s growth is that there are more restaurants, family activities and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure throughout the region, he said. 

“There are now trails, bicycle and hiking paths on the entire waterfront,” he said. “I don’t know how many communities can say that you can come from Spokane where there’s a network of trails along the river and go all the way to Tubbs Hill and Coeur d’Alene Lake Drive.”

116-year-old local business adapts to new generations

Located at its original site in downtown Coeur d’Alene, Clark’s Diamond Jewelers is a family-owned business that first opened in 1907. 

Jane Clark, the store’s owner, told the Sun that she has changed the business model to appeal to younger generations and offer more affordable products. The store still has century-old decor and jewelry cases that showcase a variety of bridal jewelry and gemstones.

Clark’s Diamond Jewelers is a family-owned business located on Sherman Avenue in downtown Coeur d’Alene. Its jewelry cases from the early-1900s Sears catalog showcase the store’s bridal jewelry, gemstones and custom orders. (Mia Maldonado / Idaho Capital Sun)

Before 2008, Clark said the store did not sell items for less than $500. Now, Clark said she includes more affordable, but quality, jewelry starting from $45 such as a line of Idaho lake jewelry and custom rock decor. 

“We’ve been through the Great Depression. We went through the ’80s. We went through 2008 (economic downturn), and we’re changing,” Clark said. “I’m doing more custom design and cool, different things with every generation. We’ve changed the model here. What I do is very different from what my grandfather did.”

Clark’s grandfather, Ralph Clark, is the original owner of the family business. After serving in the military, he used funds from his GI Bill to study watchmaking at North Idaho Junior College — or what is now North Idaho College — and open a shop. 

Students at North Idaho College participate in the school’s watch repair program in the early 1950s.  (Courtesy of the Museum of North Idaho)

Clark said that, while North Idaho has become associated with racism, threats against LGBTQ+ Idahoans and other forms of extremism in recent years, she believes longtime Coeur d’Alene residents do not align with those values.

Local authorities arrested 31 Patriot Front members on conspiracy to riot charges on the day of a Pride event last year.

Coeur d’Alene Mayor Jim Hammond was among the community members who spoke out, contrasting the arrests with the Aryan Nations neo-Nazi group that made North Idaho home for decades.

“We are not a city that wants to discriminate,” Hammond said, according to the Idaho Statesman. “We are not a city who wishes to bring any hurt upon anyone. It’s important because Coeur d’Alene has experienced that before. We’re not going back to the days of the Aryan Nations. We are past that. And we will do everything we can to make sure that we continue to stay past those kinds of problems.”

After years of county Republican Party members joining the North Idaho College board and denouncing its faculty, the local community college could lose its accreditation this summer, depending on a decision from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, Idaho Education News reported.

Clark said she has attended classes at the North Idaho College’s workforce training center, which she said is an asset to the regional community. 

“Growing up here, it wasn’t like that,” Clark said. “I think that the true North Idaho values are a live-and-let-live attitude… If you disagree with your neighbor, we’ve always been civil.”

Clark has lived in other states such as California and Arizona, and she said she has met people who are wary of visiting Coeur d’Alene because of its political reputation. While extremist groups are “painfully loud,” she said, they do not represent the greater community.

“We are more different and more diverse than we’ve ever been,” she said, adding that it’s a community where a small jeweler can grow and “stay a thriving downtown business.”

Affordable housing a top issue for North Idaho, longtime resident says

Annette Nolting was born and raised in Coeur d’Alene and has seen commercial and residential construction, particularly along the prairie between Post Falls and Rathdrum, continue to increase.

But most of those buildings aren’t meant for the restaurant servers, housekeepers or parking attendants who keep Coeur d’Alene and its tourism engine running.

Nolting, the development director of the Museum of North Idaho, told the Sun that affordable housing is one of the greatest challenges to come along with the region’s growth.

Earlier in June, the Coeur d’Alene Press reported that new commercial construction projects will welcome 12 restaurants and retail businesses near the Post Falls and Washington state line along with housing, warehouses and storage units. 

Nolting said that, with more businesses on the way, North Idaho will need to find workers who can afford to live and stay in the area despite high housing costs. Or wages will have to go up to accommodate those costs.

New apartment developments sit across from a mill in Post Falls. (Mia Maldonado / Idaho Capital Sun)

According to Redfin, the median price for a Coeur d’Alene home in May was $543,000 — meaning that half of the homes for sale were priced above that mark, and half were priced below it. The new median is more than double what it was in May 2018, which was $263,000. 

Data from Redfin shows the median home price in Kootenai County in May 2023 was around a half-million dollars, even for homes in rural towns:

  • Coeur d’Alene: $543,000 
  • Hayden: $530,000
  • Rathdrum: $480,000
  • Post Falls: $470,000 
  • Spirit Lake: $440,000

Nolting said people working service industry jobs struggle the most to find affordable housing. 

“I’ll encourage my kids to go to college,” she said. “I don’t care where it is, but if they go out of state then you lose that working demographic. Then people who are working those jobs can’t afford to live here because the housing is so expensive. It’s really hard, and affordable housing here is really short.”

Museum of North Idaho director: Coeur d’Alene had ‘very much humble beginnings’

Britt Thurman, the executive director of the Museum of North Idaho, told the Sun that she deeply cares about preserving the region’s history.

Thurman grew up in Coeur d’Alene after her family moved north from California. As a kid, she said she would spend her summers playing at Wild Waters and watching her father play softball downtown at Memorial Park.

“I love that the ball field is still there,” she said. “That location is prime real estate. If the city chose to sell that to developers, they’d make millions. And instead, they’re like, ‘No, we really want to keep this 100-year-old ball park.’”

Thurman said she believes there are ways for Coeur d’Alene to balance historical preservation and growth.

“We want to be able to maintain what this area’s sense of place is and our identity and heritage while still being able to have that growth,” she said. “If there’s a project that’s going to tear down a historic building, we’ll be an advocate to say, ‘Well, maybe there’s a way we can renovate it and use it instead of just demolishing it.’”

Thurman said the museum and its exhibits honor Coeur d’Alene’s roots as a working-class community.

Coeur d’Alene is a popular tourist destination for its water sports in the summer and ski resorts in the winter. In the last two decades, high rise apartment buildings have been built throughout the city’s downtown. (Mia Maldonado / Idaho Capital Sun)

“People worked at lumber mills, and they worked on the railroads,” she said. “It was very much humble beginnings. Even though there was still a lot of wealth here that was generated from natural resource extraction, now we are the playground for some of the wealthiest people in the country.” 

Thurman said she has friends and colleagues who are leaving the town because of the political climate — in which a “very vocal minority” gets an outsized amount of attention. 

“It is not a misconception that extremist groups exist here,” she said. “By and large, the majority of people that are here are kind, loving and inclusive. They’re just not as loud. Those of us that have lived here for a while, we don’t like them here.”

Thurman said she is working with other individuals and businesses in the community to support marginalized populations in Idaho including the LGBTQ+ community. The museum had a booth at the North Idaho Pride event earlier in June, for example. 

“We make a very strong stance that we are a museum for absolutely every single person,” she said. 

Of the groups the museum supports, Thurman said the Coeur d’Alene Tribe (Schitsu’umsh) has played an important role in the region’s development. 

“It’s a community that had everything just constantly taken, and now they’re in a position where they have an abundance,” she said. “They’re not like, ‘Oh, well, we’re just keeping it all to ourselves because you took from us forever,’ but it’s: ‘How can we reinvest this in this community?’”

‘We’re better off working together’: Coeur d’Alene Tribe talks growth

The history of Coeur d’Alene didn’t start with those logging and mining industries.

Before it was developed into what it is today, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe lived on land throughout the region.

Coeur d’Alene Tribe spokesperson Tyrel Stevenson told the Sun that the tribe is a significant community partner to the region and has prioritized a good relationship with the city and its surrounding communities. 

According to the tribe’s website, Coeur d’Alene Tribe-related activity benefits Idaho’s economy an estimated $330 million annually. Over the last two decades, the tribe has expanded its operations and workforce through the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel, Spa Ssakwa’q’n and the Circling Raven Golf Club. 

“The tribe has seen a lot of changes over the years with the influx of Europeans, beginning with the Jesuit priests who first had contact with the tribe,” Stevenson said in a phone interview. “But the tribe has always been a good neighbor. That’s always been important to the tribe.”

In the mid-19th century, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe first made contact with European Catholics who settled along the Coeur d’Alene River.  Built by members of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, the Mission of the Sacred Heart church in Cataldo is the oldest standing building in Idaho. The property became a National Historic Landmark in 1962

Today, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe ranks behind only Kootenai Health as the second largest employer in North Idaho. The tribe employs nearly 1,700 full-time employees in hospitality, recreation, government and health care, according to its website.

In addition to providing jobs, Stevenson said the tribe has significantly contributed to the community through funding transportation infrastructure over the last decade. 

The image above is an aerial view of Interstate 90 in 1972 east toward Coeur d’Alene. (Idaho Transportation Department)

To address community transportation challenges, Stevenson said the tribe and Kootenai County sought federal funding through the Federal Transit Administration for bus transportation investment. In 2005, the tribe provided significant funding in addition to the federal grant to establish Citylink Transit, a free public transportation system in North Idaho.

“The tribe really led the way in getting Citylink going,” he said. “It buses people all the way from De Smet clear up into Coeur d’Alene, Hayden and Post Falls.”

With the region’s growth, Stevenson said the tribe’s main concerns are related to education and water quality in the Coeur d’Alene Lake.

“With the legacy of mining contamination in the lake, one of the factors that can really impact the lake is phosphorus,” he said. “And one of the major sources of phosphorus in the environment is from disturbing the soil and runoff into the lake.”

Stevenson said the tribe has been vocal about growth in southern Kootenai County on the west side of the lake. 

“The tribe’s very concerned about the impact to the resources, as well as the loss of irreplaceable farm and timberland,” he said. “The water supply in southern Kootenai County is very limited, and the impacts of development on that area are concerning to the tribe.”

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s ancestral lands include nearly five million acres across Idaho, eastern Washington and western Montana. With its ancestral trade routes now used as interstate highways, Stevenson said the tribe recognizes its dark past of forced removal from its land.

“There are some parts of history you can’t change, and, even though there were some things that were not good, they were not fair and they were not just, the tribe is working all the time to improve the conditions for its members,” he said. “The tribe also recognizes that it is part of the community and we’re better off working together to make it better for everybody.”


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Mia Maldonado
Mia Maldonado

Mia Maldonado joined the Idaho Capital Sun after working as a breaking news reporter at the Idaho Statesman covering stories related to crime, education, growth and politics. She previously interned at the Idaho Capital Sun through the Voces Internship of Idaho, an equity-driven program for young Latinos to work in Idaho news. Born and raised in Coeur d'Alene, Mia moved to the Treasure Valley for college where she graduated from the College of Idaho with a bachelor's degree in Spanish and international political economy.