Welcome to the Kootenai River Valley

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Back in 1972 the Kootenai River Valley pretty much ceased to exist.

The Libby Dam was completed in 1972 as a joint project between the United States and Canada in an effort to provide flood protection and to generate hydroelectric power.

According to the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Libby Dam Project was a multi-purpose water resource development. Its purposes are flood reduction, hydro-power, recreation, and environmental stewardship.

Lake Koocanusa is the end result of the Libby Dam project. Don’t get me wrong here, Lake Koocanusa is a beautiful lake that extends some 90 miles to the north into Canada.

Everybody knows about Lake Koocanusa but not everybody knows about the Kootenai River Valley.

According to the old-timers it was a beautiful valley that was dotted with little towns and farms along the way. The construction of the Libby Dam changed all of that.

Rexford Montana
Old Rexford, Montana – courtesy Darris Flanagan (tap or click image to enlarge)

Northwest Montana towns like Warland, Tweed, Ural, Volcour and Yarnell disappeared from the map in those days with the exception of Rexford. In the late 1960s, Rexford incorporated in a last ditch effort to survive. The government agreed to let the town move to a new plot of land closer to Eureka. The construction of the Libby Dam meant that Rexford had to move for a second time. The first time Rexford moved was because the railroad came through about a mile from the original townsite.

Other towns along the way weren’t so fortunate.

As you drive north up highway 37 from Libby to Eureka, you might notice signs along the route that read, Volcour, or Yarnell, or Ural — These signs are a last indication that a townsite once existed along that route down it the valley. The towns of the Kootenai River Valley no longer exist. You can’t pull into the quick stop in Warland for a soda and you can’t get your windshield washed in Yarnell because as with the near entirety of the Kootenai River Valley these towns don’t exist.

Shadows of a portion of Montana’s past can even be seen over at bizapedia.com where the Warland Lumber Company would be 106 Years, 10 Months old just this year. Hard to believe, but yet here we are.

Warland Montana
Warland, Montana – courtesy Dee Haviland Fournier (tap or click image to enlarge)

The direct history of the Kootenai River Valley is pretty lost it seems — The history might be so lost as a matter of fact that no one would even know, short of maybe a few family members, that Fred Good was born in Warland in 1923 and Gordon Griffith was born in Warland in 1939 or that Jim Davis died in Warland in 1953 and that 11 month old baby Linda Woodward died in Warland in a house fire in 1951.

It’s unfortunate that I myself don’t directly remember much about the Kootenai River Valley. I was a young teen when the valley began to fill. I guess when you’re young you don’t pay too much attention to a lot of things.

Excerpt from the Missoulian August 22, 2004.

“Every evening, for weeks that stretched into months, Eileen Morey visited the grassy hilltop overlooking her childhood home.

She was marking time, her clock the rising waters that swirled around four tall trees in her front yard, slowly swallowing them whole. Inch by inch, branch by branch, the spruce trees, the homestead, the entire river valley slipped beneath the rising river, which was fast forming a lake.

“There was a terrible, terrible sense of loss,” Jim Morey said of the days when Libby Dam first plugged the Kootenai River Valley. “There were some real nice farms down there, great towns. Boy, just think what that would be worth today. That river was the prettiest crystal blue-green in the whole world; and that dam was about the ugliest thing you ever saw. I called it the concrete monster.”

Jim Morey is husband to Eileen, whose four trees were about the last left standing by loggers who stripped the valley before the river’s rise. “I miss it every day,” he said of his now-swamped hometown of Ural, where he was born in 1932. It was our home, and we let the government take it away from us.””

This is just one of the stories told from folks that actually lived in the Kootenai River Valley back in the day.

Though we didn’t live in Lincoln County, we sure had a bunch of family we would visit and as I recall, Libby was just a hubbub of activity back in those days with everyone going everywhere in relation to the construction of the dam.

Do you have memories of the Kootenai River Valley or have parents or relatives that were born in any of the towns listed above?

Sound off in the comments below and share your experience.

Thanks for the read.

Happy Trails.

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