When Tom McCall first looked out across the snow-covered expanse of frozen Payette Lake during the late 1880s, he mistook it for a giant meadow. He and his family decided to settle there, said good-bye to the west-bound wagon train they were a part of, and for the price of a team and a wagon bought squatter’s rights to the first cabin in an area that would one day bear Tom’s name.
The mining and timber industries drove the town of McCall’s growth for many decades, until the last sawmill finally closed in 1977. In its early years, the town was an unruly place with its whorehouses, dance halls, and casinos (a bit of its wild streak remained even into the early 1980s, when firearms were finally outlawed in the local bars). The town of McCall hadn’t been around very long before people also began to take notice of the area as a getaway destination. Tourists who came to enjoy Payette Lake’s beauty could travel along its length in a sailboat built by Anneas “Jews Harp Jack” Wyatte; later, a steamboat ferried tourists and those working in the area’s logging and mining districts (the area’s beauty didn’t escape the eye of Hollywood either, for in 1938 McCall and Payette Lake were selected as the setting for the MGM film Northwest Passage, starring Spencer Tracy). In 1914, the Union Pacific Railroad provided even greater access to McCall with train service to the town on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. With the influx of people and growing activity, the town was renamed “Lakeport”—until residents demanded it be changed back to “McCall.” As the community grew, a group of local volunteers, including former Olympic ski jumper Cory Engen, created McCall’s first winter carnival in 1924, complete with ice sculptures and dog sled races. Today, McCall’s Winter Carnival is still a cherished community event, held toward the beginning of February.
McCall's reputation as a destination resort has continued to grow. Today, retirees, outdoor enthusiasts, and those simply seeking a quieter life come to the town of McCall and Payette Lake looking for similar things that visitors have sought over the years.