During the spring runoff period of 2018, the lower Clark's Fork River reached one of the highest river water levels on record
Following that event, the water level behind the Thompson Falls Dam, completed in 1917, was reduced to almost unprecedented, historic lows to facilitate badly needed structural repairs. This action provided a brief window of about three weeks when the water level at the mouth of Thompson River was probably no more than about 10 feet above what it would normally have been at the same time period when David Thompson was here.
These two water events occurred less than three months apart providing new information, and what we think is likely new evidence, related to the location of Saleesh House.
Fortunately, two of my talented friends with very different interests in the river level fluctuations chose to share information with me. As far as I know, neither was aware of the others efforts, nor did they have a clue about how important their contribution would be in providing us with a couple more pieces of the puzzle about the location of Saleesh House.
My friend Dave Bennett is arguably one of the best aerial photographers around. The photos used on our website are with his permission.
2018 – High-water behind the Thompson Falls Dam.
Photo by Dave Bennett
From left to right in the photo are (1) the powerhouse, (2) the overflow outlet and (3) the dam at Thompson Falls. The dam is 40 feet high. When full, it backs up a reservoir that ends about a mile above the Saleesh House site. Pre-dam high water flows beyond the capacity of the falls would follow the original channel where the overflow dam is now constructed.
Depending on water levels, Thompson's men had four choices about how to get the furs and pemmican collected at Saleesh House around the falls: (1) run the canoes through falls, (2) line the canoe over the falls, (3) portage around the falls or (4) pack them on horses. All four options were used at one time or another.
This level of spring runoff would not have been unusual when Thompson was here. The Lower Clark's Fork carries all the runoff west of the Continental Divide from near Butte, MT and into Canada along the North Fork of the Flathead River.
This second photo is a low-water shot of the reservoir and dam.
2018 – Low water behind the Thompson Falls Dam.
Photo by Dave Bennett
The normal water level since the dam was completed is clearly visible in this photo where the white rock is exposed.
THE SALEESH HOUSE SITE
The low-water level at the Saleesh House site provided a brief glimpse of what lay beneath the impounded water. As far as we have been able to find, the water has probably not been this low since the mid 1950s.
A few days before the water level was raised back to normal, my friend Ron Petrie went to the canoe landing area to see if there might be anything of historical value hidden beneath the water's of the river.
A sandy canoe landing area was necessary to protect the fragile, bark hulls used in most early, fur-trade canoe construction. This sandbar, and a similar one on the south side of the river, was formed by sand-laden water rushing through the rapid just upriver. As the water velocity below the rapid slowed quickly due to the widening of the channel, a backwater swirling effect allowed suspended sand to drop out and form the bars.
You might recall the following photo from elsewhere on the website showing a photo of the original members of the local David Thompson Brigade (Linda and I are on the left) standing on the sandbar where we believe, according to his Journal, Thompson landed his canoe loaded with furs and pemmican on Sunday, March 25, 1810, when he noted:
"...here it is become dusk so that I cannot see the figures distce 1/5 M to the Brook [Thompson River] +_ R [Rapid] +1/5 M to the House Road..."
The key words here are that this was where the "House Road", the well-used path down the hill from the Road to the Buffalo to the river, terminated at the canoe-landing site. For reference purposes, note the brush in the white circle.
This Google Earth image provides a slightly different perspective of the Saleesh House site and its proximity to the small bay that Thompson noted in his description of the house location. The lower end of the sandbar in the preceding picture is exposed and clearly visible at the bottom, center of the image. The river flows in from the east at the top of the image. For reference, the brush shown above is circled here as well.
Saleesh House was located on the flat ground just a few yards north of the rather steep, natural
bank that would have existed in 1809 between the post and the river. The railroad, constructed c1882, is clearly visible between the house site and the brush and trees along the river.
This next photo, taken by Ron Petrie, shows how much lower the water level was at the canoe landing when compared to normal pool levels since the dam was completed. The brush in the near-center left of this photo is the same patch circled in the preceding photo and image. Note the sandbar now stretches completely to the brush on the bank making it about double the size shown in the photo of the Brigade.
The sand bar shown in the previous photo is exposed
here at the 2018 low water level. Photo by Ron Petrie
The size of the sandbar at any similar low-water level would have been significant in terms of canoe access to Saleesh House. Amazingly, as shown in the following photo, a closer inspection revealed, in my humble opinion, a very significant feature that has managed to survive and remains recognizable, after having been hidden and protected by being submerged for all these years.
Look closely at where Ron and Tim Leventhal
are standing. Photo by Elizabeth Petrie
In the foreground is Tim's replica fur trade period canoe. Behind it is Ron's heavy, dugout canoe described earlier in this OBS article.
He found the fragile but largely intact remains of the old dugout several years ago in Lake Samish near Bellingham, WA. It apparently had been sunk and filled with rocks by its original owner, probably to hide it. Ron spent several years restoring the dugout so it could be used once again.
Ron has submitted a detailed article about his recent canoe trip to The American Mountain Men organization in hopes of having it published.
Rock-lined trail leading to sandbar.
Photo by Elizabeth Petrie
I have little doubt this trail is part of the original "House Road", lined by larger rocks on the downhill side, leading to the sandbar where Thompson landed his canoe in 1810.
Ron's search of the area for items that might further support the idea that this trail and sandbar were, indeed, related to the Saleesh House operation revealed even more. Following is a photo of four artifacts he discovered along the trail that appear to be period correct, based on location and age—but not necessarily directly related to Saleesh House.
Items found by Ron Petrie. Much of the rust color of the plate/hinge has
been removed to enhance the visibility of the tack. Photos by Ron Petrie
The next photo is an aerial shot of the Saleesh House site looking downriver at the 2018 low-water event. Shown in the upper left is the only segment of the Clark's Fork River that flows in a southwesterly direction—a key clue to the post location.
Saleesh House was located three miles east of the town of Thompson Falls.
Photo by Dave Bennett
The head of the rapids near the mouth of Thompson River is clearly shown here. The two sandbars where Thompson recorded his canoe landings when returning from his trading camp near Dixon, MT are shown in the red circles. The one farther downriver is where the Petrie photos were taken.
The small "delta" formed where Thompson River spills into the Clark's Fork is clearly visible as well.
I have also marked the spot near where—according to his Journal—David Thompson stood on his first visit to this place in the fall of 1809 and took compass bearings up the river and to the point where the Indian road crossed the river.
Two more red dots show (1) where I believe Saleesh House—renamed Flathead House in 1821—was located and (2) where the "traditional" site is located.
The traditional site was marked with signs several decades ago. Located on the old Dubia Farm, the assumption about it being the location was based primarily on Thompson's Narrative written about 40 years after he retired—not on his daily Journal—which we used during our 15 years of research into his journeys. You can read more about the Legacy of Saleesh House on another of my OBS pages.
A FINAL NOTE
Following are photos of the Road to the Buffalo
signs installed along Highway 200 in Sanders County.
The first, located at a Department of Transportation pullout near Weeksville, shows Linda standing by the sign installed next to a MDT historical sign about Flathead House. The Flathead House sign is based, in part, on our research during the past 15 years.
The second shows the two signs located adjacent to the bridge at Noxon. A fourth has been installed at Thompson Falls.