Liberty Lake -- Thumbnail History

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 6/10/2019
  • Essay 20794
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The city of Liberty Lake, Spokane County, is 16 miles east of downtown Spokane and about a mile west of the Washington-Idaho border. Fur traders and missionaries began arriving in the early 1800s, but it was passage of the Homestead Act of 1862 that sparked the region's growth. The lake was originally known as Lake Grier; the name was changed to Liberty Lake to honor Etienne Laliberté (later known as Stephen Liberty), a French-Canadian who settled on its western shores in 1871. The pristine lake, a favorite gathering spot for nearby communities, became more popular in 1903 when the Spokane and Inland Empire Railroad began an electrified interurban rail line that transported residents from Spokane. The railroad invested further in 1909 when it built the lake's most famous resort, Liberty Lake Park, and promoted it as Spokane's "Inland Seashore." As the automobile became more ubiquitous, train travel decreased, and the trains to Liberty Lake stopped running in 1926. Throughout most of the twentieth century, visitors enjoyed Liberty Lake for its dance pavilions, boating and fishing, and Fourth of July festivities. The City of Liberty Lake was incorporated on August 31, 2001. The lake itself lies just outside the city limits.

Horse Races on the Plains

In the early 1800s, fur traders began arriving in the Spokane River Valley. The first recorded trader was David Thompson, in about 1808. Others followed, including Ross Cox, who told stories about rousing horse races held each year on the plains. The races were part of a summer celebration hosted by Andrew Seltice (ca. 1810-1902), chief of the Coeur d'Alene tribe.

Writing in The Splash, Ellen Martin Bernardo described the annual event: "Every summer on July 1, Chief Seltice invited 500 Indians to gather on the shores of Liberty Lake for a feed. They had horse, foot and canoe races and athletic competitions. Prizes were awarded to the winners. Three large steers were prepared to feed everyone. They also served bread along with camas, vegetables, fruit, dried huckleberries and thornberries to eat ... Many spent the night to listen to Tecomtee's beautiful lyric tenor voice echo across the lake as he sang the Prophecy Songs of Circling Raven" ("Honest and Generous ... ").

The lake also was popular with early pioneers who sought out dances, hayrides, picnics, and other communal activities for breaks from their dangerous, demanding, and at times lonely existence. The Homestead Act of 1862, which guaranteed 160 acres, or one-quarter-square mile, of property to settlers if they farmed the land and lived on it for five years, helped spur additional growth.

Stephen Liberty: Trapper and Adventurer

Liberty Lake was originally named Lake Grier by Colonel George Wright in 1858 to honor one of his officers, Major William N. Grier, who had fought during the Battle of the Four Lakes waged against the Spokane, Coeur d'Alene, and Palouse Indians. But the kindness shown by a French Canadian, Etienne Eduard Laliberté (later known as Stephen "Steve" Liberty), to Chief Seltice and the Coeur d'Alenes was honored decades later when the lake was renamed in Liberty's honor.

Laliberté was born in 1842 in St. Francois-du-Lac, Quebec, Canada, to Joseph and Emilie Laliberté, and educated at a seminary in Quebec, where he learned English, French, and a working knowledge of the law. When he was 20, Laliberté left Canada for the United States, moving first to Massachusetts and then to Minnesota, where he became a fur trader.

In 1866, Laliberté set off west. He tried his hand at gold mining in Montana and ended up in Idaho, where he took over a contract to carry the mail. In 1868, he married 16-year-old Christine Barnabé (also spelled Barnaby), and in 1871 the couple moved to the western shore of Lake Grier, where they planted 25 acres of fruit trees and raised livestock. They had 10 children, seven of whom survived to adulthood. Laliberte became a naturalized U.S. citizen and changed his name to Stephen Liberty, the name he appears by in the 1879 Spokane Prairie Census.

Chief Seltice was a neighbor, and over time the men became friends. Using his gift for languages -- by this point, Liberty had learned several Native American languages -- he wrote letters for the chief to clarify treaties and establish a reservation for the Coeur d'Alene tribe. In 1887, Liberty, Chief Seltice, Seltice's brother-in-law Peter Wildshoe, and several others traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) in an effort to resolve boundary issues affecting the reservation. The treaty was not ratified, and Liberty ended up traveling several more times to Washington, D.C., on the tribe's behalf.

Liberty died of pneumonia at Sacred Heart Hospital in Spokane on January 18, 1911. To acknowledge his contributions to the region, as well as his friendship with Chief Seltice and his interventions on behalf of the Coeur d'Alene tribe, the lake was named in his honor. In 2011, 100 years after his death, a monument to Liberty was placed at the north end of the lake, recognizing him as a friend and advocate of the Coeur d'Alenes. The marker was similar to one installed at Liberty's graveside at Spokane's Fairmount Memorial Park.

Liberty's descendants still lived in the area. "Jackie Moore ... is Liberty's great-granddaughter and was at the unveiling [of the monument] with her granddaughter, Ashley Moore, 7. She said she remembers her father telling stories about Liberty as a child" (Leinberger).

Spokane's "Inland Seashore"

By the early 1900s, Liberty Lake, with its 4.4 miles of shoreline, had become a vacation destination for residents of Spokane and nearby communities. Resort hotels, roadhouses, boat-rental companies, and dance halls sprouted up around the lake. Lakeside development was helped considerably when the Spokane and Inland Empire Railroad began running electric trains from Spokane to Liberty Lake in 1903.

The trip took 45 minutes one way and cost 75 cents round-trip. A horse-drawn stage would meet the disembarking passengers at the stationhouse and transport them to the shore for an additional 25 cents. In 1907, a spur line was added to take people closer to the lake. Intrigued by the lake's potential, the railroad company created Liberty Lake Park in 1909 on the northwest side of the lake, which became famous for its wooden dance pavilion.

There were plenty of activities to occupy a visitor's time at Liberty Lake. "Visitors could rent boats from the Liberty Lake Boat Company for joy rides, enjoy the live band music and dancing at the Pavillion, stay at the hotel or one of the many resorts, rent swimming suits at the Hurtig Bath House, fish, picnic, savor the dining options, or just relax. As in the days of Tecomtee, the music from the Pavillion could be heard throughout the area" ("Liberty Lake’s Cultural ... ").

Liberty Lake's heyday lasted from 1910 to 1915. More trains were added to meet demand. By 1913, a five-car train ran every half-hour on Sundays and holidays. Some of the largest crowds showed up for the annual Fourth of July celebration. In 1924, some 14,000 people attended Independence Day festivities, with 9,000 arriving by train.

Dancing the Night Away

Among the most popular attractions at Liberty Lake were the dance pavilions. People would come and dance the night away, whether it was doing the foxtrot, two-step, or tango. The first Liberty Lake dance hall, built by Charles Traeger in 1902, was part of the Zephyr roadhouse, named for the cooling breezes that came off the lake.

"He spared no expense ... his plantation style home was covered in wall-to-wall carpeting, steam heat was installed in all the rooms and Kerosene lighting. The Zephyr was known for its gambling and liquor sales as well as other unmentionable activities. There was a great dance hall located near the Lodge's waterfront" ("History -- Zephyr Lodge"). 

When Traeger married in 1908, his wife insisted that he turn the roadhouse into a more respectable business. He acquiesced and the Zephyr Hotel was born. The Zephyr continued as a hotel until 1946, when the building was purchased by the Disciples of Christ church for $20,000. In 2016, the property was bought by a Spokane family that intended to renovate and reopen it as the new Zephyr Lodge.

The MacKenzie Hotel, located on the western side of the lake, added a dance hall in 1903. The hotel owners offered summer dance cruises, as well. On the southwest end of the lake was the Stonehouse Park and Hotel, which included a dance pavilion. "Dutch Groshoff, longtime Spokane and Liberty Lake band leader, described it as a place 'where Spokane's social elite could come and kick up their heels, but it would not be reported in the Sunday Society column'" ("Dancers Let Loose ... "). Groshoff was so well known that a road sign near the lake simply said: Dance with Dutch.

Liberty Lake's Crown Jewel

The crown jewel of the dance pavilions was the one at Liberty Lake Park. Built in 1909 on a pier that extended 200 feet into the water, "management boasted that the smooth maple floor could accommodate 628 couples dancing" ("Dancers Let Loose ... "). Rumor had it that the dance floor had the perfect spring to it. Most of the major bands from the area played there, including the Phil Sheridan Orchestra, Mann Brothers' Music, and, of course, Dutch Groshoff and his Orchestra.

The dance pavilion at Liberty Lake Park, under various owners, operated from 1909 to 1962, when the structure was dismantled after being destroyed by a fire. In its later years, the long covered walkway leading to the dance floor was lined with pinball machines and fun-house mirrors.  

In 1995, the city built a 14.2-acre park called Pavillion Park at Liberty Lake, which, despite its name, is not lakeside. The park land, benches, and landscaping were donated by several of the city's founding families. An amphitheater and picnic shelter were created in an architectural style reminiscent of the dance pavilions from decades earlier, and the park has become a popular place for picnics, concerts, and Fourth of July celebrations.

Silver City Gets Its Start

By the 1920s, mass production of the automobile made it easier for working-class citizens to own a car. The use of the smaller rail lines dramatically decreased, and in 1926, the trains to Liberty Lake quit running, and the railroad sold Liberty Lake Park.   

The new owners named the resort Silver City and re-opened it with more carnival-like attractions that included a Ferris wheel, spinning rides, and a wooden carousel created by the Herschell-Spillman Company of Buffalo, New York, one of the most famous American carousel manufacturers of the era. The Silver City carousel had a menagerie of wooden animals of every size and shape. "Hand-carved wooden tigers, horses, frogs, cats, and dogs circled the elaborately crafted carousel built by artists and engineers of the Herschell-Spillman Company in 1913. The carousel remained at the Park until 1961 and today it is in the Henry Ford Museum at Dearborn, Michigan" ("Liberty Lake’s Cultural ... ").

The lake continued to be popular. "By 1951, there were six resorts operating on Liberty Lake and four public beaches ... The Liberty Lake Golf Course, the first of the three golf courses in Liberty Lake, was constructed .. in 1959" ("Liberty Lake's Cultural ... "). By the 1960s, though, the lake had begun to change. Septic tanks and algae caused by too much phosphorus in the water had polluted the once-pristine lake. Starting in 1972, federal funds available under the Clean Water Act enabled the state and county to launch water-quality studies and build better wastewater treatment plants and sewers. Stricter standards for industries that were discharging pollutants were introduced, helping the lake's water quality and wildlife rebound, but changes continued. In the 1970s, the former Liberty Lake Park was converted into a housing development, and in 1991, the last resort closed at Sandy Beach.

Rocky Hill and Holiday Hills

The city-owned Rocky Hill Park is built on the former Rocky Hill Farm in the eastern quadrant of the city. Named for a large rocky knoll that cut through the middle of the property, the farm was owned in 1905 by Samuel Grier and the N.P.R.Y. Company. Ownership passed in 1912 to E. C. Snodgrass, and in the 1930s it changed hands again, this time to Anna P. James.

In the early 1940s, the farm was purchased by Louis Domrese for $9,000. In 1948, Domrese added a 1,290-square-foot rectangular barn to house his milking cows and Hereford cattle, and the following year he rebuilt the farmhouse. He built a new well house but kept the original one, dating from the early 1900s, to use for storage. Domrese's son Lyle "recalled that his father stored oats, wheat, and alfalfa in the barn before taking them to the mill. ... There was also another barn on the property and an outhouse that was demolished" ("Rocky Hill Farm").

In the mid-1950s, Domrese sold the 310-acre property for $20,000 to George Kennett, an accountant, whose family subdivided and sold it in 1982. Liberty Meadows purchased the parcel that contained the old house and barn, and in 2000 sold it to the Greenstone Corporation, whose owner, Jim Frank, donated 17 acres to the city for a public park that opened in 2010.  

The old farmhouse, barn, and original well house -- the oldest known structures within the city limits -- were incorporated into the park's layout. "The Rocky Hill Farmstead evokes a sense of history, tradition, and closeness to the land and people it served ... Surrounded by new subdivisions, the Rocky Hill Farmstead is one of the last existing links to the past and is a significant community landmark" ("Rocky Hill Farm").

In the 1970s, Carlson Hill, north of the lake, was developed into a ski-and-snowmobile recreation area and renamed Holiday Hills, sometimes recorded as Holiday Hill. Anchored by a ski lodge and restaurant, Holiday Hills also featured an RV park, campground, equestrian activities, ice skating, motocross racing, and youth camps. Financial difficulties forced the resort to close within a decade, though, and all that remained at Holiday Hills were the pole barn, track, and old lodge fireplace. The ski lodge burned down in the 1980s.

Liberty Lake Celebrates Incorporation

In November 2000, Liberty Lake's 3,000 residents voted overwhelmingly to incorporate. The big day arrived on August 31, 2001. Although neither Governor Gary Locke (b. 1950) nor U.S. Representative George Nethercutt (b. 1944) attended the festivities, both sent U.S. flags that had flown over either the capitol building in Olympia or in Washington, D.C. There were speeches, concerts, and two cakes, each sporting a different city logo. Residents were asked to vote for their favorite. The winning logo evoked the region's past: a park pavilion with the lake framed by fir trees and a rising sun in the background.

In the 2010 census, Liberty Lake had 7,591 residents. As of 2018, the population had grown to 10,380, making it one of the fastest growing communities in Eastern Washington.


Ellen Martin Bernardo, "Honest and Generous, Chief Seltice Carved Local Legacy," The Splash, June 6, 2012 (; Ellen Martin Bernardo, "Stephen Liberty: Pioneer, Adventurer, Friend," The Splash, December 5, 2012 (; Ross Schneidmiller, "Dancers Let Loose at Lake Venues," The Splash, March 26, 2014 (; Alison Boggs, "Picture A Park: Pavilion Park is a Dream ...," The Spokesman-Review, February 2, 1995 (; Lisa Leinberger, "New Marker Imparts History of Area Pioneer," Ibid., November 17, 2011; Lisa Leinberger, "Liberty Lake Park a Hidden Treasure," Ibid., June 30, 2012; Lorie Hutson, "Liberty Lake Starts the City Life," The Spokesman-Review, August 31, 2001, p. B-1; Tracy Ellig, "Liberty Lake Fetes Status as New City," Ibid., September 2, 2001, p. B-2; "Liberty Lake's Cultural & Historical Heritage," Liberty Lake website accessed May 9, 2019 (; "Rocky Hill Farm Property History," Liberty Lake website accessed May 10, 2019 (; Julie Titone, "Clean Water Act's Successes Imperiled," The Spokesman-Review, May 21, 1995 (

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