History of Lake Pend Oreille

A gem of North Idaho

Geology | Settlement | Industry

What makes Lake Pend Oreille so special?

A gem of north Idaho, Lake Pend Oreille (pronounced pond oh-RAY) has an impressive history that includes Ice Age flooding, Native American traditions, and industrial development. Surrounded by majestic mountains and national forests, the area is sparsely populated and incredibly wild. Today, it is home to thousands of people and is an idyllic travel destination year-round. Read more below about why it is so important that we protect Lake Pend Oreille and why it holds such a special place in our hearts.

Lake Facts

Maximum Depth – 1,170 feet

Length – 43 miles

Surface Area – 148 square miles

Shoreline – 144 miles


Glacial Lake Missoula and the floods that shaped the Pacific Northwest 

The ice dam that formed at the mouth of the Clark Fork River, now the major tributary for Lake Pend Oreille

Glacial Lake Missoula formed multiple times during the last major ice age, between 15,500 and 13,500 years ago. The massive ice dam that held back the lake stood at the mouth of the Clark Fork River, today the major tributary for Lake Pend Oreille. The lake had depths of over 3,000 feet and held over 500 cubic miles of water – equivalent to the combined volumes of lakes Erie and Ontario. Due to increasing pressure from holding back the lake, the ice dam collapsed and refroze multiple times, resulting in the largest series of floods in the entire world. Dozens of these floods then poured through the Pacific Northwest, forever changing the land’s geology from the Idaho Panhandle all the way to the Pacific Ocean. 

This glacial activity shaped Lake Pend Oreille and helped create the unique geology of the surrounding area. Today, Lake Pend Oreille sits within three major mountain ranges, the Selkirk, Cabinet, and the Bitterroot, and much of the lake’s shoreline is surrounded by steep mountain sides.

Watch this educational video to see how the massive lake formed and how the floods that followed influenced local geology. Video by hugefloods.com.


Native American tribes and the introduction of white settlers

For thousands of years, local tribes utilized the endless resources within and around the lake. Lake Pend Oreille and the surrounding area were traditionally populated by three tribes of Indians: the Kutenai (Ktunaxa), Kalispel (Ql̓ispé ), and the Coeur d’Alenes (Schitsu’umsh). Before the great expansion to the western United States, the local tribes would frequently gather around the shores of Lake Pend Oreille in the summer, where they fished, made baskets of cedar, and collected huckleberries. These gatherings lasted into the 1930s, but there is no longer any designated tribal land around the lake.  It is believed that the lake’s modern name came from the French word for “ear pendant,” which may refer to jewelry worn by a Kalispel tribal member they encountered, even though it wasn’t a tribal custom to wear earrings, or to describe the ear-like shape of the lake. 

In the early 1800s, white explorers began to enter the area and realize the surplus of resources around the lake. They began to “legally” take over the native lands of the three local tribes under the Homestead Act of 1862. These early explorers included surveyors, fur trappers, and gold prospectors. In the 1880s, the lake’s largest community, Sandpoint, drew settlers with the opening of the first general store and the introduction of the railroads in the area. The railroads helped the population and the industries grow around Lake Pend Oreille.


How the resources within and around Lake Pend Pend Oreille influenced the surrounding communities

Before the railroad expanded into the Idaho Panhandle, canoes, ferries, and then steamships were used to traverse across Lake Pend Oreille. These boats transported gold diggers and surveyors as they sought out the rugged wilderness surrounding the lake and beyond into Montana and Canada. The prospect of precious minerals brought many miners through the area, but the vast lake and the treacherous mountains surrounding it proved to be tricky territory to navigate through and around. However, as the mining boom died down, people were still drawn to the area around Lake Pend Oreille.

The introduction of the railways in the 1880s led to the development of the first permanent settlements and was one of the main drivers of industrialization around the lake. Sandpoint was known as the largest shipper of cedar poles and pilings in the Northwest and North Idaho provided much of the central United States with lumber during this industrial era of growth and expansion. These logs were transported down the Pack and Clark Fork Rivers to the lake, where they were taken down the Pend Oreille River by tugboats. 

Train passing over the railroad bridge that spans nearly a mile across Lake Pend Oreille. Photo by Cole Golphenee.

Thanks to the unique depth of Lake Pend Oreille, Farragut Naval Training Base was established at the southern tip of the lake and extensively used during World War II. The conditions of the lake closely resembled the ocean without the risks, making it an attractive and unique location for a naval base and a testing facility. After the war, the facilities were decommissioned and the area is now a state park dedicated to the historical base. However, the Navy still has a presence on the lake and continues to perform tests from its Acoustic Research Detachment at Bayview.

Later, in the mid-1900s, Lake Pend Oreille hosted the largest kokanee fishery in the State of Idaho. Kokanee, the landlocked form of sockeye salmon, arrived in the lake during the 1930s from Montana and quickly established themselves in the ecosystem. These kokanee were popular for sport fishing and provided valuable food for larger fish species. Consequently, the lake produced prized trophy fish, including world records for bull trout and rainbow trout. By the late 1900s, kokanee numbers had dramatically declined due to food competition with introduced shrimp and the drawdown of lake levels threatening their spawning habitat. Their population in the lake became so depleted that kokanee fishing was closed to anglers until they reached healthy levels again. Kokanee fishing reopened in 2013. Thanks to bag limits and intensive management programs from Idaho Fish and Game, kokanee fish populations are now healthy and balanced within the Lake Pend Oreille ecosystem. This balance helps sustain endangered bull trout populations and trophy trout fishing has returned to the lake. 

Idaho Public Television’s Outdoor Idaho crew explores some of the history, the attractions and the issues surrounding the Panhandle’s “Pend Oreille Country.” Video b

Threats to Lake Pend Oreille

The long term impacts that threaten the lake’s ecosystem and water quality

Historical smelter

The Panhandle Smelting and Refining Company was founded on the northwest shore of Lake Pend Oreille near Sandpoint in 1904 as a smelter for local mines but stopped production after 1909. In 1922, the site was dismantled and scrapped. However, the site still contains smelter ruins, a pile of unprocessed ore, and a slag dump. Swimming is popular near the site in the summer, also known as “Blackrock,” even though there are elevated levels of lead, zinc, and other metals in the soils and slag dump. Leaching of lead and zinc into the lake is possible as the slag dump erodes into the water, threatening the water quality. In 2019, the EPA awarded the City of Ponderay a Brownfields Multipurpose Grant to begin a 5-year project that includes environmental site assessments, development of an area-wide plan, and clean up of the historic smelter area, which sits along the undeveloped Pend d’Oreille Bay Trail.

Joslyn Property

A historical wood treatment plant site in Sandpoint was used to preserve telephone poles. In the 2000s, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) noticed the presence of dangerous chemicals, including possible carcinogens, in the soil and groundwater around the property. The property owner was then charged with cleaning up the site in 2005, but through our stormwater monitoring program, we are still detecting dangerous levels of these chemicals draining into our lake untreated. 

Non-native Species

In Lake Pend Oreille, there have been 23 different species of fish observed in surveys done by Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG). However, the majority of these species are introduced and increase competition for resources needed by the native species, including bull trout and cutthroat trout. Large scale management programs by IDFG have helped conserve these native species, but non-native species are still present in the lake and require constant oversight in order to maintain balance in the lake’s ecosystem.

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Your generous support helps sustain drinkable, fishable, swimmable waters throughout the beautiful Clark Fork/Pend Oreille watershed, for today and many years to come.