By: Jamie Paparich – Published March 11, 2010
The town of Northport Washington, located approximately 3 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, and its proximity to the Columbia River which provided a port and shipbuilding center for steamboat services, helped to create the town of Northport, once known as “one of the rowdiest mining camps in the west.”
When driving down from the Canadian border you can pull over and get a clear look at 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 change into the beautiful colors of fall, colors so amazing you would think they only existed on a painter’s paintbrush. When winter gradually sneaks in, the town is covered by a smoky, violet hazy sky and 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. Smoke billows from the resident’s chimneys, which 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 all its own. When the first settlers set their minds and staked their future in making Northport their home, the town seemed determined to drive away these hardworking, stubborn people.
By 1892 what was nothing more than a miners camp grew into the actual town of Northport. Unfortunately that summer a forest fire ripped through the new town, destroying everything in its path. The town quickly recovered and rebuilt. By 1897 the LeRoi smelter began production and the railroad was finished. With all the jobs created by the smelter, the railroad and the port, Northport was booming. Main street was lined with several saloons, mercantile shops, a barber, a post office, hotels, restaurants and a grand train depot. The train depot was described as one of the most elaborate designed depots of the time.
However, 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 the residents, their determination to stay growing more ignited after each blaze.
Due to labor problems the LeRoi smelter was closed a few short years after it began production. So, like most booming mining camps, Northport went from a growing town full of excitement and hope, to a virtual ghost town. The booming town of over 1,200 people seemed to become empty almost overnight. Lack of work did what the fires could not, forced the determined residents to walk away from their homes and community.
After the departing residents dust settled, what was left was a ghost of what the town once was. Northport’s bustling main street became an unused dirt road, lined with dark, empty store fronts and vacant buildings. The saloons sat dark and silent, a staggering difference from when laughter and loud voices, along with melodies being played on the piano used to drift out of the saloon at all hours. The once elaborate train depot was now just an empty structure, deteriorating. Vacated houses sat side by side, their overgrown gardens and the empty clothes lines a painful reminder to the remaining residents of the loss of so many friends. Those that remained would sit on their porches and fondly talk of stories of the past, laughing at the memories as they stared out into the now empty town.
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, hoping that would prevent the loss of the buildings in the next fire. They survived fire and time, now only to stand empty and unused.
Kuk’s Tavern, the town’s watering hole, never had to be rebuilt. Since 1888 the wood structure managed to stan unscathed after every fire. Not only did it withstand all four major fires, it had to be rolled up the hill, of what was then Main Street, on logs in the early 1900’s. The owners did this to distance the tavern 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 residents of Northport gather at Kuk’s for the two tacos for a dollar deal, drinks and to visit with old friends and neighbors.
Most of the patron’s friendships span well over 50 years. They grew up together, just as their parents had.
One of the reasons the town of Northport is so unique is because of these lifelong friendships. Lifelong friends are tied together by the unexplainable bonds of having shared their childhood, adolescents, and adult lives together. Many of the men shared the thrill and fear of being sent off to the war as young boys. The women remember waving goodbye to those men with one hand, while with the other hand they desperately clutched on to each other 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.
Soon these friends watched as their children’s friendships began, and grew much like their own. The older children eventually equipped the parents with plenty of willing babysitters, so they would kick up their heels at the local Grange Hall Dances every Saturday night. For at least one evening a week all seemed right in the world. 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, 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.
The children graduated, some moved on to start their own families, some 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. Eventually the visits home became further and farther between. But no matter the amount of time, be it 3 years or 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 firm hand shake. They says more with the intensity of their grip then any hug or words ever could. These are friendships few people 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.
If you are ever in Northport on a Tuesday evening I recommend you swing by Kuk’s Tavern. 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 simply 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 that create this unbreakable community. Listen to the choir of crickets and frogs singing in the soft, warm summer evening breeze, and the rush of the mighty Columbia River adding to the comforting, magical sounds, and smells that flow 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 you just might understand why they all fought so hard to stay.
~ Jamie Paparich