Priest Lake was home to Native Americans for thousands of years. It was one
of the main food gathering areas for both the Kootenai
and Kalispel Indians. The lake's name goes back to the
interaction between the tribes and Jesuit missionaries
in the 1840s. Father Peter DeSmet lived at the lake for
a time and so the Indians began calling the lake Kaniksu,
their word for the black robes the priests wore. Over the
years, Priest Lake became the more commonly accepted name
and it eventually replaced Kaniksu.
The next group to venture into the Priest Lake area was the miners. A gold discovery
in nearby British Columbia brought the first miners to
the region in the 1860s and later they began exploring
the lake area itself. On eight-mile island is a cabin built
in 1897 to work a nearby mining claim. The Vinther-Nelson
cabin is now a national historic site and one of the lake’s landmarks.
In the late 1800s rail lines reached northern Idaho, opening up a market for forest products. Timber companies and loggers began to find their way to Priest Lake. Flumes were built that sent raw logs into the lake where they werecollected in booms and then floated down the Priest River to sawmills.
“And men rode those logs and they called em river pigs…and sometimes they would have a log jam and the river pigs would go find the key log and they would peavey that log loose. A lot of men lost their lives as river pigs”.
--Catherine Simpson co-author, “North of the Narrows"
Logging was the primary industry in the area for many years and continues to supply revenue for Idaho schools through the harvest of trees from property owned by the Idaho Department of Lands.
Though logging was the main economic engine here for some time, tourism eventually became the area’s top draw. But tourists have been coming to the lake since the early 1900s. In the 1920s silent movie star and actress Nell Shipman brought her production company to the lake. She made several films showcasing the area’s beauty until she ran into financial difficulties.
From the steamboat era to today’s sleek lake cruisers people continue to discover Priest Lake’s appeal. A number of resorts have been established around the lake and rustic cabins are gradually being replaced by stylish waterfront homes. Yet, only about twenty-five percent of the shoreline is privately owned. Several forest service campgrounds and recreations areas as well as three units of Priest Lake State Park offer today’s
tourists plenty of places to get away.