The beautiful community of Priest River, Idaho sits at the confluence of two pristine rivers located 7 miles east of the Washington border and 75 miles south of the Canadian border. Visit Priest River and its approximately 1,700 friendly people, and you may find yourself staying for a long time! Priest River has a diversified economy reflecting the changing times of the American West, and is currently driven by the tourism and timber industries.
Priest River sits at an elevation of 2,100 feet, and enjoys a pleasant four-season climate: an annual rainfall of 23 inches and annual snowfall of 72 inches keeps the lakes and rivers full, and the nearby Schweitzer Ski Resort thriving. In the summer months, temperatures rarely exceed 90 degrees, and the many local rivers and lakes provide ample access for all water sports and activities.
The annual Timber Day Festival during the last weekend in July, along with the Priest River Museum and Timber Education Center, provide history and activities relating to the surrounding community. Additionally, several city parks, the Pend Oreille and Priest Rivers, and beautiful rural scenery in every direction offer a multitude of recreation opportunities.
The City of Priest River, population approximately 1,700 in 2020, is located in Bonner County and is truly a "town that logs built." Ever since the early 1890s when Italians from southern Italy flooded into the area to hew ties for the Great Northern Railroad, the woods product industry has fueled Priest River's economic engine. This has been both a blessing and a curse. Periodic downturns in timber's fortunes have been the norm over the years, but recent efforts to expand and diversify the economy have helped to address the problem. Today, timber isn't the only game in town, but it's still crucial to the community's economic well-being.
Answering the Great Northern's call for laborers, the Italians began arriving by 1892, and stayed when construction moved on. They settled an area on the east side of town and the river, that became known as the Italian Settlement. The Italian influx continued until about 1920. Priest River was known as "Little Italy" until well into the 1950s.
The original town of Priest River was situated on the east side of the Priest River at Keyser's Slough, near the confluence of the Priest and Pend Oreille Rivers. It was moved to its present location, on higher ground, following the great Pend Oreille River flood of 1894.
The name "priest" is believed to have been derived from the Kalispel Indian word "kaniksu," meaning "black robe," the name the Indians gave to the Jesuit missionary priests who worked among them. Priest Lake, a resort area to the north on US Highway 57, was referred to as Kaniksu Lake on some old maps.
Although the early pioneers tried other means of making a living, notably agriculture and mining, it was the dense virgin timber covering mountains and the valleys that soon became the means by which most people eked out a living. For decades, Priest River was a wide-open logging town. By 1920, according to the census, it was the fasted growing town in North Idaho.
From 1901 through 1949, an annual log drive on the Priest River took place each spring as the industry worked its way into the Priest Lake country. As far as is known, the drive was the last log drive to take place in the lower 48, except for the Clearwater drive, also in Idaho. The drive on the Priest River gave rise to an annual Logging Celebration, which lasted through 1980. Today, the town celebrates its loggin heritage with Priest River Timber Days, which is kicked off on the last Saturday of July.