By Hannah Combs and Chris Corpus
Young Vernon Shook didn’t let anything stand in the way of his ambitions to become an engineer or doctor, not even the Great Depression. Upon graduating from Sandpoint High School, he took on dozens of jobs to raise college funds. One was a short stint as a lifeguard at the Natatorium (indoor pool) in Wenatchee, WA. The next summer, in 1932, he came back to his childhood swimming hole and had a vision that would change Sandpoint forever.
Up to that point in time, locals waded in the shallows around City Beach after the spring floods, cleared out driftwood, and danced around submerged logs that had escaped during log drives. Drownings occurred at the south end of the sandy area where the river started because of the swift current. The most notable was the young daughter of a local chief. Some say that was the beginning of the end of the annual summer Salish gatherings.
Vernon’s vision for City Beach included a safe swimming area, lifeguard training, swimming lessons for children, and a picnic area for all residents to enjoy. Of course, his exuberance also included a twelve-foot high tower so the lifeguards could see all the swimmers, and, of course take a periodic high dive into the deep waters.
The city leaders were hoping to entice tourism based on car travel, so they jumped at Vernon’s proposal. It helped that he was willing to do all of the work and be paid a pittance; but Vernon had a passion for his town’s cool waters. He cobbled together monetary donations and marshaled volunteer labor to create the first city bathing beach.
After motorists learned of the new amenities, Sandpoint became known as having the best bathing beach in the Inland Northwest, complete with a fine bath house. It evolved from a seasonal gathering place for the Kalispel, to a part of the Northern Pacific Railroad land grant, and it was eventually conveyed to the city of Sandpoint for the express use of a public park.
Periodic improvements took place over the next few years, but in 1939, a major renovation took place, thanks to financial assistance and labor through the Works Progress Administration. The entire beach area was dredged to fend off the impact of flooding. Submerged logs were removed, sand was bulldozed onto the beach to raise the land height, and houseboats were removed and demolished under guard of the sheriff. In addition to the bath house, a formal garden and arboretumwere designed, as well as a broad promenade.
The 1948 flood decimated the park and its improvements, and prompted the building of Cabinet Gorge and Albeni Dams. The Sand Creek outflow was rerouted for the safety of beachgoers, and more dredging for an improved boat marina provided some of the fill needed to raise the land area even higher.
After Shook’s impassioned efforts to create the first public area, credit the people of Sandpoint for providing much of the volunteer labor to make it what it is today. The Lions Club headed the main modern improvements, most notably the BBQ pavilion, and their Fourth of July events centered around the beach. And, thank goodness, the lifeguards continue their fine work. As for Vernon, he went on to a long career in social work, and was assigned by the United Nations as chief of the Displaced Persons Program in Rome following WWII. Even off the beach, he was still helping struggling people find their way safely home.