Republic, the seat of Ferry County, inhabits a valley near the confluence of Granite Creek and the San Poil River in the Kettle mountains of northeastern Washington. On Clark Street are two motels, two bars, a grocery, a hardware store and some antiques shops.
Deer appear everywhere, grazing on the Ferry County Courthouse lawn, ambling around the Catholic church, approaching strangers for a handout. There are dozens of them, treated like town pets, and no flower garden is safe.
The Past: Republic has a history –let’s say 44 million years or so. It sits on the southern end of what was a vast Eocene lake. Fossils of plants and animals buried in the lake bed can be dug up at the Boot Hill fossil site at the edge of town. A simple dig can yield clear specimens of sycamore, cedar, sassafras and much else. It’s said to be one of the top 10 fossil leaf beds in the world.
Digging in the soft, layered rock is surprisingly easy. Dedicated rockhounds and academics often labor at the site and generously advise neophytes where to dig. Tip: Dig in the narrow, not the thick layers, which are the result of a large event that deposited lots of material –say a volcanic eruption. Specimens are less likely to be preserved there. Five dollars pays for a day’s digging, which is cheap considering that a half-hour dig can yield specimens suitable for paperweights or framing. Before digging, stop by the Stonerose Interpretive Center, a short walk from the fossil site. It’s a well-organized small museum, exhibiting some superb fossils that were excavated there.
The Gold Rush: Closer to the present, the history of white settlement dates to 1896, when, over the protests of local Native Americans, the northern half of the Colville Indian Reservation was opened to mineral exploration. Prospectors flooded in, and a rich gold deposit was discovered at Eureka Gulch. The gold camp’s population exploded, and soon a town was created and named Republic after the most productive mine. By 1900, the town offered more than 20 saloons, seven hotels and nine general stores, not to mention lawyers, doctors, prostitutes and hundreds of miners. Mining activity ebbed and flowed but most of the Eureka Gulch mines had reopened by the mid-1930s.
The most important of these was the Knob Hill Mine, which became the largest producer of gold in the state. Production halted in 1995, but gold fever still flares up. A new gold mine at Buckhorn Mountain, a remote peak just south of the Canadian border, means jobs and business for Republic .
The mining boom transformed the region. Remnants of boom days can be toured on the Highland Historic Loop Drive, a 152-mile route that passes through lovely scenery , atmospheric small towns and occasional log cabins that appear intact after a century.
Henry Ford Slept Here: Consider Curlew, a rough-looking village where the sweat and whiskey atmosphere of a mining town still hangs in the air.The old Curlew General Store operates about the same as it did a century ago, selling everything from hardware to snacks and much in between. On the shelf one day was a box identified as containing baby rattlesnakes. Up the street, the old Ansorge Hotel, now a museum, hasn’t changed much since it was built in 1903. Miners and mining bosses stayed in its nine upstairs rooms. Auto magnate Henry Ford signed the guest register July 1, 1917. The lobby looks as plain as it did 100 years ago. The Regina Hexaphone, a turn-of-the-century, coin-operated phonograph using cylinders, can still play scratchy versions of “Simple Melody,” “Casey Jones” and several other selections.
Night Life: Back in Republic for the night, the downtown doesn’t resound with horses’ hooves and drunken carousing as it did a century ago, nor has fine dining arrived. The Mexican restaurant looks good but in this town of ghostly miners, wild tales and wild dreams, the best places to imbibe the spirit of the place is at the Sportsmen Roost or the Madonna Bar and Grill. Both serve decent steaks and baked potatoes in full view of the bar, where the town’s remaining imbibers spend evenings drinking and wisecracking. At the end of the evening, the Prospector Inn down the street is a lot more comfortable than the Ansorge.