A Gathering Place, The Historical Fort Sherman

A place of beauty, used for centuries as a gathering place, became the foundation of the city we know today as Coeur d’Alene.

The first rule of business is to be careful who you partner with. The beauty of Coeur d’Alene drew attention that changed the course of history for both the Coeur d’Alene people and the inland pacific northwest.

The beautiful plot of land known to the Coeur d’Alene people as Hnya ‘(pqi’nn (pronounced “hin-yap-keehn-un”) is where Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Spokane River meet. It has been used as a gathering place for centuries.

Long before the current city or historic fort existed, this plot of land was used by the Coeur d’Alene Indians as a place for hunting, fishing, gathering and trading. The folklore of the name, according to a local historian, comes from the history of fur trading between local Indians and French fur traders which was popular at this spot. The French fur traders who frequented the area were known for trying to take advantage of their equally clever Indian trading partners, which earned them the title of “men of small hearts”. The French traders liked the sound of the title “Coeur d’Alene” which mixed the French and Indian words together, and they over time began referring to the local tribe as the Coeur d’Alenes.

In 1877 General William T. Sherman (of Civil War fame) stopped by the area on a tour of inspection of western military posts, coming from Montana across the Mullan wagon road, en route to the Columbia river with a military escort in tow. The general was so impressed with the beautiful setting that he recommended the establishment of a fort to the federal war department, saying it was “vital to have a fort in the Idaho territory” to keep peace with the local Indians, to protect railroads and prospectors heading to the nearby mountain mines, the Canadian border, and migrants coming through the country in covered wagons. On April 16th, 1878 the war department established the official Camp Coeur d’Alene settlement. With the Fort, lucrative mining and attractive lake amenities, the adjacent city of Coeur d’Alene grew. However, tribal members were driven from their gathering place to a reservation near the southern tip of Lake Coeur d’Alene.

April 6th, 1887 the name was changed to Fort Sherman in honor of the general, three years after his retirement from the US Army. The Fort can be credited with bringing a hospital, library, school, chapel and amusement hall to the city, mainly housed in one building. The Fort Sherman Chapel is Coeur d’Alene’s oldest church, school, library and meeting hall.

With soldiers from the fort stationed in Cuba for the push on San Juan Hill with Theodore Roosevelt in 1898, the Fort officially became abandoned just after the Spanish-American war on March 5, 1900. A large push was made, with local demonstrations across eastern Washington and through Idaho, to utilize the buildings at the Fort for the purpose of a national soldier’s home. A memorial had been introduced to the Senate by multiple local Senators “in order that the men who defended the country’s flag in the time of peril may have a pleasant and healthful place to spend their last days.” However, the war department decided to formally abandon the place on July 1st, 1901, removing all portable property and transferring ownership to the interior department for further disposal action. The buildings and property were sold at public auction in 1905 to developers of the area. The worry was that the fort would be razed and turned into a resort due to its location and amenities, but that development never materialized and the property sat unused and under private ownership until after the area began to emerge from the Great Depression.

The idea of establishing a college in the area began during the Great Depression, as a way to lift spirits and create new opportunities in the area. Moritz Brakemeyer roused the support of community members and local organizations, as a result of his efforts he became the first President of Coeur d’Alene Junior College. Established on August 10th, 1933 with fifty-five students enrolled and located on the third floor of city hall. The Idaho state legislature passed a bill establishing organization and funding for junior colleges in 1939, and Kootenai County taxpayers endorsed new property taxes as a means for funding the newly minted North Idaho Junior College.

In 1949 land from the former Fort Sherman was donated to the college and it officially moved locations to its current site where the Spokane River and Lake Coeur d’Alene meet. Most of the early buildings from the Fort had deteriorated. During early college construction, you could have described the remaining buildings as little shanties with attached cesspools. A bulldozer had even fallen into one of the cesspools. In 1971 the college dropped the “Junior” title out of their name, now North Idaho College.

In 1979 the Fort Sherman Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places, the former powder magazine had been converted to house the Museum of North Idaho. A handful of original buildings were set for preservation with a few scheduled for demolition, and the chapel was donated to the Museum of North Idaho in 1984 for use and preservation.

In 1997, the college joined forces with the Coeur d’Alene tribe to form the Nine Points Agreement. This agreement was created to honor the tribe and respect the whole history of the area, creating a new and inclusive gathering space for all.