Small Town, Big Dreams
By Mike Turnlund
Almost twenty years ago, I spent my first night in Idaho. I was searching for a particular place—somewhere to settle down, raise my family, and put my roots down deep. The place I found was northern Idaho. I stayed, bought a home, and my roots have indeed gone deep. That first night in Idaho was in spent in Ponderay.
A working man who needed a job, I found one in Ponderay, which accordingly left its imprint on my personal history. Today, Ponderay touts itself as the “little city with the big future.” The residents might be right, perhaps more than they realize. The slogan reminds me of Malvolio’s famous words in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” That’s Ponderay, and greatness might just be its destiny.
Like any town in Idaho or elsewhere, this one of barely thirteen hundred souls has a past—and its past is intimately intertwined with two communities that share its borders: Kootenai to the east, which is even smaller than Ponderay and with which it enjoys a common history, and Sandpoint to the west, the big town and the county seat. Coincidentally, Sandpoint was at one time briefly named Pend d’Oreille.
It could be argued that Ponderay did not begin to take its modern form until the mid-1980s, when the first shopping mall north of Coeur d’Alene was built within Ponderay’s limits. In many ways, that shopping center came to define the city as the premier retail and commercial center not only of Bonner County but of the surrounding region, drawing shoppers from Montana, Washington, and British Columbia.
This commercial bonanza was facilitated by Ponderay’s physical setting. The town occupies two important crossroads, one modern and one historical. Back in the day, when the presence of a railroad often determined the vitality and even the viability of a western community, tight geographical constraints meant that two important railways were funneled through Ponderay: the Great Northern (now BNSF) and the Northern Pacific (now Montana Rail Link). Today, when the role of rails has been surpassed by that of asphalt highways, Ponderay nevertheless remains in a fortuitous situation. Three important road systems all meet in the little city: Highway 95, the most significant north-south arterial in the state; the continent-spanning Interstate 2; and Highway 200, which begins in Ponderay and terminates at the Montana border. The latter state route, also known as the Pend Oreille Scenic Byway, offers beautiful vistas of Lake Pend Oreille as it traces the northern shoreline. Anyone traveling one of these three roads will invariably pass through Ponderay. Hence, the concentration of big-box retailers and a miscellany of other retail and wholesale outlets, from pet supplies and water pipes to restaurants, that can be found in the town. Not to forget the county’s only movie theater. Plus many specialist commercial businesses, some with a national presence. Probably everyone in the region shops in Ponderay at one time or another, and hundreds of county residents find employment there.