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More than a Rural Route

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Argle Mydland, Shirley Williams and dog, Sonny, greet John Thaxter as he arrives with the mail. Photo by Herb Huseland Argle Mydland, Shirley Williams and dog, Sonny, greet John Thaxter as he arrives with the mail. Photo by Herb Huseland

Lake Pend Oreille's Boating Mailmen

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” has been the unofficial motto of the U.S. Postal Service for many years. Nowhere does that motto fit better than right here on Lake Pend Oreille. John Thaxter carries the mail by boat, one of the few such water routes left in this country. When the snow starts to fall in late autumn and then through winter to early spring, the east side of the lake is unreachable except by snowmobile or helicopter. The mail, however, is delivered year round.

 In the beginning of our country, when roads were few and limited to cities, rivers and lakes became the nation’s highways. Way back, delivering the mail was a hit-or-miss proposition with travelers agreeing to carry letters for people. Starting around 1811, the post office organized steamboats to carry the mail where rowboats, packets and rafts served previously.

The years passed, growing into centuries as gravel, macadam, asphalt and pavement made inroads into most of the country, and planes, trucks and cars became the prime movers of the mail. The steamboats became fewer, finally becoming limited to a few tourist steamers. But there are still some areas in the country where roads don’t go; hardy carriers like Thaxter are not ‘stayed from their rounds’ even when those rounds travel a watery path.

Thaxter has run the mail boat for the last 14 years, delivering six days a week to places like Lakeview at the south end of the lake to Kilroy in the north. We rode along, meeting folks at the dock waiting for their mail who always came accompanied by a dog. John keeps a bag of dog treats on board which usually results in a wet nose poking through as the first visitor at all of the stops. From Lakeview, the mail boat presses on to Cedar Creek, the site of the Needham homestead, now owned by Dick and Shirley Hansen of Bayview. From there the boat stops at Whiskey Rock, Granite Creek and Kilroy.

Several water routes still exist as tour boats service the Rogue River in Oregon and the Snake in Idaho, but only as an adjunct to the fishing and touring business. Lake Pend Oreille is the only true mail boat route left in this country. It takes hardy souls to isolate themselves for months with the winter winds howling, the snow building up and John Thaxter, mailman, the only visitor. Some of these hardy types are people like Argle Mydland and Shirley Williams of Whiskey Rock, pictured below with the dog Sonny, greeting Thaxter as he arrives with the mail. Williams has lived there 17 years and Mydland for 7 years. Granite Creek has Earl Tacke, the only full time resident, but he’s joined by many others during the short summers of the area. Granite was the original ranch founded by the Charles Schroeder family back in 1893. They barged 15 head of cattle over. Kilroy produced Ken Gonzer, Jack Garland, Velda McTighe and, of course, a dog.

The U.S. Mail has traveled by many means over the years. Horseback, mules, dog sleds, hot air balloons and even a camel have taken their turn as carriers of the mail. Some of the history of mail service on the lake dates back to the 1860s. Individuals that were heading up lake from Pend Oreille City (Buttonhook Bay) would carry mail and goods on the way to their destinations. From 1866 to about 1872 the steamer Mary Moody was the official mail carrier, serving the water portion of the mail route from Fort Walla Walla in Washington to Helena and Ft. Benton, Montana.

From 1938 to 1939, Jack McCollough ran mail between Bayview and the present route with the early inclusion of Pine Cone, no longer in existence, and Cape Horn. Roy Ellis had the route from 1939 through 1942, and following the interruption for WWII, resumed the route in 1946 through 1950.

Danny Knolls carried the mail from 1942 to 1946, but drowned in one of the storms for which Lake Pend Oreille is famous. Max Krackenberg cruised the mail from 1950 to 1953, after which Jim MacDonald, now owner of MacDonald’s Hudson Bay Resort, took over. Jim began running the route shortly after his parents bought the resort. MacDonald ran the mail until 1965. It was then called the Star Marine Route. He delivered mail from Bayview to the Navy barge, anchored in Scenic Bay, then on to Lakeview, Cedar Creek, Cunningham’s Castle, (no longer in existence) Whiskey Rock, Granite Creek, Kilroy and Pine Cove, Cape Horn, before the road was built and back to Bayview.

A baker’s dozen years (1965 to 1978) were handled by Hugh Davis, a native of Arkansas. In 1965 he and his wife moved to Bayview, after running boats in Alaska. During the thirteen years he carried the mail he missed only two days. George and Darlene Johnston carried the mail from 1978 through 1991. Darlene would carry the mail during summer and George during the winter. Tragedy struck when Darlene was running one day in 1982. Just after gassing up at Boileau’s, and carrying a young man as passenger, the boat caught fire and sank. The passenger, 16-year-old Joe Dory, didn’t swim, nor did Darlene. Dory made it to shore. Darlene drowned, after throwing the mail sacks overboard. Boyd Westphal took over and ran the route until 1993. John Thaxter, the present mail carrier and our host, runs the lake six days a week, through rain, snow, fog; well, everything but famine and pestilence and maybe even then as well.  

Today, John Thaxer still plies the waters of Lake Pend Oreille through some pretty horrific weather at times. In addition to carrying the mail, he conducts rescues, and carries the occasional passenger who, having cabin fever, hits Bayview for a day or two. Sometimes, with an isolated party low on grub, he even delivers groceries. A mellow, low-key guy, John Thaxter is typical of the carriers who came before him, some sacrificing their lives in the process.


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Author info

Herb Huseland Herb Huseland Herb Huseland is known as "Bayview Herb" by fans of the Spokesman-Review's "Huckleberries Online," (www.spokesmanreview.com/blogs/hbo) and of Herb's own "Bay Views" blog (www.bayviews.blogspot.com). He is also a periodic columnist for the Spokesman Review

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