Take a Walking Tour of Sandpoint
Young entrepreneur offers up a slice of history
At 16 years of age, Joel Smith is an unlikely entrepreneur. The lanky (6’4”), homeschooled teenager, with his laid-back attitude and quiet charm, got hooked on Sandpoint’s history, however, after spending some of time on Sandpoint.com’s collection of historical articles (written by the late Bob Gunter), and at his father’s suggestion, decided it was time to start offering walking tours of some of downtown Sandpoint’s historic sites.
“I only scratch the surface of what’s there,” Joel said, and it’s true—local history buffs are not going to discover anything new or amazing. But for the visitor, newcomer or resident of the area who doesn’t know much of its background, Joel’s one-hour tour is a delightful introduction to the history of Sandpoint. (It’s delightful for history buffs, too.)
The tours start at the old Panhandle State Bank Building, now the Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce (among other things), located at the corner of Third and Oak across from Farmin Park, and leads visitors to the Cedar Street Bridge, the historic buildings along First Avenue (including the Panida Theater and the now-community center), over to the Old Power House and along the boardwalk to visit City Beach (and the site of the original town of Sandpoint). Then it’s back toward Farmin Park, where tour-goers can gaze on the new statue of David Thompson erected outside U.S. Bank and reflect on a little of the history that’s occurred since he first entered this area with his sextant and telescope and drew those painstakingly accurate maps that laid out for the rest of the world the mysteries of the Pacific Northwest.
Despite the opening of the bypass, travel through downtown Sandpoint is still marred by loud vehicle noise... on our 11 am tour, gravel trucks, motorcycles, diesel pickups, delivery trucks and more made it difficult to hear what Joel had to say. And while he provides some pretty basic information on the history of the area, one still doesn’t want to miss the humorous and/or interesting anecdotes he peppers throughout his lecture. Despite his youth, by the way, Joel gives his talk almost entirely extemporaneously, referring only rarely to his clipboard of notes.
While the focus is on what historic structures remain to us, Joel also briefly marks some of the original pioneers who came to this area and created this town: Finan McDonald, who he notes is credited with naming Lake Pend Oreille; Jack Waters, builder of the MacFarland House (considered to be the finest house of its time in town), who died after being accidentally shot in the arm by a ricochetting bullet near the slaughterhouse; the gentleman who drove his automobile onto the ferry and continued on off the other side, into the lake; the aforementioned David Thompson; and more.
If my own experience is indicative, then Joel’s tours appeal to both the tourist and to the resident who would like to learn more about this area. And did I mention this tour is free of charge? Businesses sponsor Joel’s effort (Finan McDonald downtown is the major sponsor) and others buy advertising in the short guide he offers at no charge to tour-takers. The Bonner County Museum has also supported his efforts, and has allowed him to use some of their historic photos of the area within the guide. In return, Joel encourages tour-takers to visit the museum to learn more of the buildings, people and events he talks about.
Joel maintains a website for this effort, SandpointWalkingTours.webs.com, that lists the times of tours. Currently, he’s running tours Monday-Friday, and the typical tour takes about an hour to complete. Be aware, this is Sandpoint—times can change. My 10:30 tour turned into an 11 am tour. So give Joel a call at 208-946-9446 to reserve a place and confirm the time.
Enjoy this tour while you can, as Joel will be returning to full-time schooling in September; it’s well worth the effort, whether you’re new to the area or have been here a while. You’ll get another view of this place that Rand McNally named one of the most beautiful small towns in the USA.
Some tour tips? Walk close to Joel to hear what he says... traffic noise is still terrible.
It’s hot out there. If the heat/sun bothers you, bring a parasol (or umbrella). You might want a bottle of water as well.
Don’t forget your camera. While I managed to take a large collection of photos of invasive tansy growing on government property, to send to Brad Bluemer at the County Weed Dept., Sandpoint offers a number of views that just beg to be preserved.
Wear comfortable shoes. The path taken on the tour is in good condition, but you are walking for an hour.
Tip well. This young man is doing a great job at promoting our history.