~ Northport, Washington ~
The town of Northport Washington, located approximately 7 miles south of the Canadian border, sprung up during the late 1800’s mining boom. Due to several surrounding mines it was the the perfect location for a smelter. That, along with the construction of the railroad, helped to create the town of Northport, once known as “one of the rowdiest mining camps in Washington”.
When driving down from the Canadian border you can pull over and get a clear look at most of the town and the mighty Columbia River.
The river flows right through the town and the surrounding ranches and farms. It is a breathtaking view. Mother nature helps paint the landscape with thick, rich green trees in the summer, their leaves slowly changing into the beautiful colors of fall, colors so amazing you would think they only existed on a painters paintbrush, created by the luck of mixing just the right amount of just the right colors of paint. Winter gradually sneaks in and the town appears to almost fall asleep. The sound of the rushing Columbia River seems to become louder as the town grows quieter with each falling leaf. Eventually most of the trees are barren. The sky turns a soft grayish violet hue, a color that might be part of the reason the town slows down and makes everyone want to stay in and enjoy a warm fire. The smoke billowing from the small house’s chimneys only adds to the atmosphere that invites hibernation.
Northport is a community of families, some carrying with them the original settlers’ last names as well as their ancestors fighting spirit and determination to stay on the land they so love. The town itself seems to have a spirit and determination of its own. When the town was first settled it seemed determined to drive away the spirited, hardworking, stubborn people who fought so hard to stay.
Within the first year a forest fire ripped through Northport, destroying everything in its path. The town quickly recovered, in part due to the completion of the railroad that same year. With all the jobs the railroad and smelter were creating Northport was rebuilt even bigger and better than before. Unfortunately, several more fires would burn through the tough little town. Once the smoke had cleared, all that remained in each fire’s extinguished path were piles of ashes and the sweat stained faces of those stubborn mining and farming families, their determination to stay growing more ignited after every blaze.
However, due to labor problems and the owner selling the rights, the LeRoi smelter was closed a few short years after it began production.
So, like most booming mining camps, it went from a growing town full of excitement and hope to a ghost town. The booming town of over 1200 people seemed to become empty almost overnight.
After the departing residents dust settled, what was left was a ghost of what the town once was. The town’s bustling main street became an unused dirt road, lined with dark and empty store fronts and buildings. Vacated houses sat side by side, the gardens overgrown and the empty clothes lines a painful reminder to the remaining town residents of the loss of so many friends. The residents that remained would fondly dwell on their stories of what the town once was and of the people, now long gone, who had made it the community it had been.
Several of the original structures of Northport still stand today because, ironically, after the last devastating fire destroyed the town the residents had rebuilt the commercial buildings with brick.
Except for Kuk’s Tavern, the town’s watering hole. It never had to be rebuilt. The wood structure managed to stand unscathed after each fire. Not only did it withstand all four major fires, the last one burning most of the town to ash, it had been rolled up the hill of what was then Main Street on logs in the early 1900’s, to distance itself from the river and the threat of flooding each spring.
The tavern still stands on top of that same hill today. It hosts one of the most exciting nights of the week, Taco Tuesday. Every Tuesday the stubborn, hardworking, determined residents of Northport gather at Kuk’s for the two tacos for one dollar deal and to visit with old friends and neighbors.
Most of the patron’s friendships span well over 50 years, beginning on a sandy bank by the river or the city park when, as toddlers, their parents introduced them to each other.
One of the reasons the town of Northport is so unique is because of these lifelong friendships. Lifelong friends share the joys and misery of adolescents. The men shared the thrill and fear of being sent off to the war, as young boys, with a hero’s departure. The women, then girls, waved goodbye to those boys with one hand, and with the other hand they desperately clutched on to their friend’s hand for support. They held their heads high and kept their eyes dry, with a strength so relentless I have, to this day, only witnessed it in the women of Northport. Then they all shared in the deep sense of relief, pride and joy as they were reunited with their lifelong pals and loved ones, back from their tours of duty. They also wept and mourned those dear friends who they would not get the chance to welcome back.
Life moved forward with decades of ups and downs, happy times and sad ones. Struggling to survive in hard years and bad crops, or when no jobs were to be found. Each resident either had a friend, or was that friend, who gave all they could to make sure the other friend made it through the tough times. Nothing needed to be said about how the favor would be repaid, no agreements needed to be signed, the favor would be returned, without hesitation, if and when the same trouble would fall upon the other.
As they watched their children grow they also witnessed the friendships deepen and grow between their own children. Soon the oldest siblings equipped them with plenty of willing babysitters so the parents would kick up their heels at the local Grange Hall Dances every Saturday night. For at least one evening a week all in the world seemed right. They were with beloved friends and family in their home town, living and working on THEIR land. The land that, after pouring their blood, sweat, tears and a few curse words, and countless prayers into, finally seemed not only to be cooperating, but possibly feeling the same bond, respect and love their owners had come to feel for it.
So went life. The children graduated and moved on to start their own families, or stayed in Northport to follow a similar path their parents and grandparents had. No matter what path they took, or where life lead them, they did their best to keep in touch with each other, all friends since toddlers, much like their parents had been. The visits home eventually became further and farther between. But no matter the amount of time, be it 3 years of 30, when they do return home for reunions or Labor Day festivities, the now middle-aged men, become young boys again, smiling ear to ear when they recognize each other. Greeting each other with a hard hand shake. They says more with the intensity of their grip then any hug or words ever could. They are friendships few of us will ever be so lucky to have. With the women, when reunited, it is usually happy screeches and crushing hugs and laughter that speak the words of the years of memories and secrets they share. Many of their parents, some siblings, as well as shared friends, have been gone years now, most much to early from diseases and illnesses that the community is well aware might have been prevented. However, the hardworking, stubborn, determined residents of Northport do not waste their time on thoughts of self-pity. They play the hand life dealt them, thankful they are still in the game, and gracious when it is their time to fold.
Another rare aspect of the towns deep seeded friendships is the unwavering loyalty they feel toward each other. One memory I have of Northport, which will remain crystal clear in my memory and my heart for the rest of my life, was also the first time I truly understood what real friendship and a real community was. As we were coming out of the church at the end of my Grandfather, Louie Paparich’s, funeral service I looked up and, overwhelmed with emotion and confusion, it took me a moment to realize what I was seeing. Rows and rows of people were sitting in folding chairs or standing solemnly, filling the entire street in front of the church. Countless men and women, all lifelong friends of my Grandfathers. As I walked down the church steps I noticed speakers on the last step, set up so these old friends could share in remembering the stories of his life as retold by family and friends inside the church during the service. To this day every time I attend church services while in Northport I stop on the steps of the Catholic church and look out to the street that had been lined with his beloved friends that day and I take a moment to remember what real friendship, and a true community looks like.
If you are ever in Northport on a Tuesday evening I recommend you swing by Kuk’s. You can’t miss it, just look for the tall grey building that leans slightly to the right, it is just off main street standing atop the hill where it was rolled up to over 100 years ago. Or just listen for the sound of laughter and bits of conversations, escaping through the tavern’s door, propped open to let in the cool summer breeze and to welcome any stranger who might wander by. Once inside you can listen in as the residents tell stories of the old days, people gone but not forgotten, or just funny jokes and memories they have retold each other a few hundred times over the years.
Before driving away make sure to take a moment and glance back at the tall, unbreakable tavern full of unbreakable spirits, of an unbreakable community. Listen to the choir of crickets singing in the soft, warm summer evening breeze, the rush of the mighty Columbia River adding to the comforting, magical sound that flows through the old streets and buildings of this little ghost town. You may catch a glimpse of what that rowdy little mining camp looked like over a century ago, and then you just might understand why they all fought so hard to stay.
~ Jamie Paparich