Payette River - History


The river's watershed was originally settled by the Shoshone, Nez Perce, Paiute and Bannock Native American tribes. Before white contact, many of these indigenous peoples had no permanent villages or settlements. For hundreds of years, in the fall and winter, they would camp in the arid grasslands along the main stem of the Payette River, while in spring and summer, they temporarily moved to the lusher upper basin of the North Fork to hunt and fish in preparation for the coming winter. Camas bulbs, coming from a widespread flowering plant in the basin, was their primary staple throughout the year. In order to maintain the naturally occurring fields of camas, they would set controlled fires whenever they left their camps for the biyearly move through the river basin. The seasonal burning came with added benefits, including clearing unwanted vegetation and protecting their campsites from overgrowth.

In the 19th century, white settlers began moving into western Idaho and established trading posts, towns and farms in the area. One of these early pioneers was Francois Payette, for whom the river is named. A French-Canadian fur trapper who worked for the North West Company, he was one of the first people of European descent to settle in the Payette River area. Payette ventured east from Fort Astoria in 1818. From 1835 to 1844, he headed the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Boise trading post near Parma, on the Snake River some distance south of the Payette River. In 1844, Payette retired to Montreal, still over twenty years before emigrants began to arrive in great numbers. One of the first settlements was on Clear Creek, a tributary of the South Fork Payette River. Many of the Native Americans were unhappy with the new settlers and the great numbers of pioneers traveling through the area bound for the West Coast for causing damage to their lands, leading to the Nez Perce War of 1877 and many small conflicts with miners, ranchers, farmers, homesteaders, and soldiers.

Logging in the basin began soon after the arrival of settlers, but did not reach large scale until the early 20th century. Demand for wooden railroad ties for the Oregon Short Line (OSL) in the 1880s helped to kick off the logging industry in the area. From then on, heavy logging commenced along the North Fork Payette River in Long Valley, downriver of present-day Cascade Lake. A splash dam was built in 1902 by the Minnesota-based Payette Lumber and Manufacturing Company on the North Fork in order to better facilitate the transportation of logs downstream. Logging helped to spur even more people to move into the area, and in 1911, the Idaho Northern Railroad was constructed by the OSL, running from Emmett near the mouth of the Payette along the river, past present-day Black Canyon Reservoir, up into the North Fork watershed and ending just below Long Valley at Smith's Ferry on the river, named for a settler who bought the operation in 1891. The ferry's primary purpose was to transport livestock and agricultural products between Long Valley and the Snake River.

Agriculture, however, became the primary mainstay in the lower valley of the Payette River. Following from 1874, irrigated farmland surrounded much of the main stem of the Payette River. The Last Chance Canal and Nobel Canal were among the first irrigation ditches constructed, but did not provide a firm yield because of the lack of water regulation. Black Canyon Dam was constructed on the Payette in 1924 not as a storage facility, but to divert water into the Emmett and Black Canyon Canals, which vastly increased the irrigated acreage in the valley. Deadwood Dam on the Deadwood River, a tributary of the South Fork Payette River, was built in 1929 to provide some degree of flow regulation, though much more effective was the Cascade Dam, constructed on the North Fork in 1948 to form Cascade Lake.

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