By Ben Olson
Editor’s Note: This is the third installment on an ongoing series highlighting the “Dark History” of Old Sandpoint. The Bonner County History Museum helped provide information for this article, and is currently hosting the “The Dark Side of Sandpoint” exhibit that takes a look at the seedy days of prostitution, gambling, bootlegging and murder in our town’s history. In this third installment, we learn about the night the cribs burned on First Ave.
In the years after the turn of the century, Sandpoint was a raucous place. At one time, there was probably a saloon for every five people that lived in town. Prize fighting and gambling were common pastimes, as were visits to the “cribs” or prostitution shacks where soiled doves would entertain the rough and ready night denizens.
As Sandpoint grew, downtown began its slow relocation across to the west side of Sand Creek. Increasingly, town residents expressed concern that the established “Red Light District” along First Avenue was detrimental to a civilized community.
One of the most notorious of Sandpoint saloons—the Stockholm Bar located at the current site of Starbucks and Spud’s Waterfront Grill—was also the home to a half a dozen cribs where ladies of the night plied their trade. On a cold, windy morning in late November, 1905, the cribs burned.
No one ever found out who set the cribs afire, but it is assumed that they were deliberately torched by an irate patron who threatened revenge when he was ejected just hours before. However, since the man was a prominent citizen of Sandpoint, the police did not investigate him.
“Cribs are Burned” read the headline of the Pend d’Oreille Review on Dec. 1, 1905.
“Two frame structures, occupied by six cribs, situated directly in read of the Stockholm saloon, were burned to the ground at an early hour Monday,” the story read. “Five inmates of the redlight houses had to make hasty exits from the tinder boxes into the ice and snow. That none of them were burned to death is a wonder, and the roof fell before they had hardly got outside.”
Town residents first heard about the fire at 3 a.m., when four shots from a night policeman’s gun was followed by a long blast on the fire whistle at the light works. Such was enough to bring people “out of their beds to find the fire in full headway, with a howling wind carrying embers and sparks, and the fire itself threatening adjacent property.”
The news story states that though the volunteer fire brigade struggled with their hose cart in the mud, they “did good service and had two streams of water on in time to confine the fire to the cribs.”
The soiled doves who lived and worked at the cribs had no time to gather any of their valuables. A list of their losses includes: “Dixie Colton, $32 in cash, $700 in clothes and furnishings; Victoria Jefferson, colored, $695 in cash, $600 in clothes and furnishings; Grace Freeman, colored, $75 in cash, $100 in clothes, (the Freeman woman got out one trunk containing valuables); Gertie Smith, $200 worth of goods; Maud West, $20 in cash, property loss given out by her at $1,000. Two dogs were burned to death.”
The report states that the fire started in crib No. 3. When questioned, the crib’s inmate stated that a man had been put out of her crib a short time before the fire and that he threatened vengeance, “but the man is pretty well known and the police do not believe he set it.”
The cribs were rebuilt as a larger, two-story structure by the madame, Grace Freeman, with assistance from James M. Bradley, who also owned several cribs on the east side of Sand Creek.
“Since the city council could not legitimize prostitution by passing an ordinance regarding the practice so they just let it be known in the summer of 1907 that ladies of the evening practicing their trade on the west side of the creek would be arrested for real for violating state laws against prostitution,” wrote Dale Selle in the ‘Sandpoint Historic Red Light District’ Project.
Before, it was general practice to “arrest” the ladies of the night about once a month and collect a fine of $10 as a form of taxation. Though the new ordinance surely meant business, the city fathers continued to have trouble eradicating prostitution in Sandpoint.
The ordinance did, however, spurn the “restricted district” to take root on the east side of Sand Creek, where Bradley owned a bath house and brothel.
It was on the east side of the creek that brothels made their final stand in Sandpoint, lasting another decade before finally being stamped out for good.
Next week, town mothers go undercover as ladies of the night to uncover a prostitution ring, a sheriff who makes a special trip to Newport to tell the gaudy girls to “behave themselves,” and other ways Sandpoint tried to stamp out prostitution.