Spokane -- Thumbnail History

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 9/04/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7462
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Spokane is the largest city in Eastern Washington and the commercial hub for an interstate area known formerly as the "Inland Empire" and now as the "Inland Northwest." After settlement in the 1870s, it quickly became the county seat of Spokane County and the regional center for mining, agriculture, timber, transportation, education, and medical services. Urban development has spread far beyond the 2005 population of 200,000 residing within the present city limits in a county of almost 430,000. Spokane, like many cities, has undergone periods of boom, bust, stagnation, and recovery. For well over 100 years, it has provided a welcome urban oasis in the less populated stretch of plains and mountains between the Mississippi River and Seattle.

The Spokanes

Human occupancy of the site began centuries earlier. A river, particularly its spectacular series of falls, was the reason for both native habitation and later white settlement. Eventually called the Spokane River, this tributary of the Columbia teemed with salmon that sustained the region's indigenous people, the Spokanes. During salmon runs, other tribes joined the Spokanes at the falls for fishing, trade, games, celebration, and socializing. Although there are varying theories, the most commonly agreed upon meaning of the name "Spokane" is "Children of the Sun." 

As white settlement increased, the Spokanes were swept into the broader Indian-white conflicts of the region. In 1881, the Spokane Reservation was established northwest of the present city, and from 1908, dams on the Spokane River ended tribe's salmon-based way of life.

Europeans Arrive

Fur traders and missionaries were the first people of European descent to traverse the broader area of which Spokane would eventually become the hub. In 1807, David Thompson (1770-1857), fur trader and cartographer with the Canadian North West Company, crossed the Continental Divide and began exploring the watershed of the upper Columbia, including the Spokane River region. Missionaries Elkanah Walker and Cushing Eells (1810-1893) were in the region from 1838-1848. From then on, whites visiting the area were struck not only with the grandeur of the falls but with their potential economic importance.

In 1871, James J. Downing and Seth R. Scranton built a sawmill at the falls on the south bank of the river. In 1873 James N. Glover (1837-1921) and a partner, Jasper N. Matheney, arrived from Oregon seeking land, possibly to establish a town, and were impressed with the potential of the falls site. Without revealing their ultimate intentions, they succeeded in purchasing Downing's mill and the 160 acres that he held as a squatter under terms of the 1841 Preemtion Act. Glover, who became known as the "Father of Spokane," next acquired Scranton's claim. In 1877 he bought out his partner Matheney and persuaded a German-born miller, Frederick Post, to build a gristmill at the falls. Glover soon expanded the existing sawmill and built a general store. 

Spokane Grows into a Town

With the benefits of a store, lumber, and flour, more families began to settle on the south side of the river. Churches, schools, banks, hotels, saloons and newspapers soon followed. Before long, Post pursued his original intention of establishing a mill farther up the river at what later became Post Falls, Idaho. The Rev. S. G. Havermale, who had arrived in 1875, replaced Post as the miller at Spokan Falls. (During the early years, spelling of the city varied between Spokan and Spokane, and "Falls" was dropped in 1891.)

Among the enterprising settlers of the 1870s were Anthony M. Cannon (1839-1895) and John J. Browne (1843-1912), who bought half interest in Glover's property, including his store. Cannon became the first banker in Spokane Falls, and Browne set up a law practice. Along with Glover, they were active in real estate development of the newly platted area and became wealthy civic leaders. As more settlers arrived, the need for hotels became clear, and in 1877 the Western House was built, followed the next year by the larger California House. In 1879, Francis H. Cook established the first newspaper, the Spokan Times. The year 1879 also saw the creation of Spokane County, carved out of Stevens County, with Spokane named temporary county seat. A subsequent rivalry with nearby Cheney, including theft of Spokane County records, was eventually resolved in Spokane's favor. Architect Willis Ritchie completed a French chateau-style county courthouse in 1895.

The Prosperous 1880s

The 1880s brought growth and prosperity. In 1881, with a population of about 1,000, Spokane was incorporated. The virgin forests in the Northwest were an incentive to railroad development, and in 1883 the Northern Pacific was completed, assuring the city's future. Mineral discoveries in the Coeur d'Alene area of northern Idaho and the northeast corner of Washington started a boom, first in gold, then in silver, lead, and zinc. For decades, these mines funneled wealth into Spokane. In addition, the fertile wheat-producing Palouse hills to the south, irrigated farms in the Spokane Valley, railroads, and the timber industry made Spokane the undisputed economic center of the Inland Empire. 

Enduring institutions, such as Gonzaga University and Sacred Heart Hospital, were founded. A street railway system was established, bridges built, and platting of the north shore of the river was begun. By 1886, Spokane was ahead of San Francisco and Portland in acquiring streetlights.

By the 1880s, Spokane was becoming a major center for agricultural and industrial fairs and conventions. The Washington-Idaho Fair, begun in 1887, continued as the Spokane Interstate Fair, discontinued during the Depression, but revived in 1952. The National Apple Show was held annually at Spokane from 1908 to 1916. Well into the twentieth century, conventions of national irrigation and agriculture organizations, as well as congresses for the mining and timber industries, regularly convened in Spokane.

Burning and Rebuilding

The 1880s ended with a devastating fire that started on August 4, 1889, destroying much of the city center. A tent city temporarily housed downtown businesses, which carried on as usual. Fortunately, many of the buildings were insured and were quickly replaced with handsome, durable structures of brick or stone. Post-fire Spokane bore the stamp of Kirtland K. Cutter (1860-1939) and other distinguished architects and was soon regarded as the finest city between Minneapolis and Seattle. 

Perhaps as a show of confidence, in the fall of 1890, Spokane held the Northwest Industrial Exposition, the first industrial fair in the state. The newly operational Washington Water Power Company provided electricity for the imposing new exposition building. The building burned down shortly thereafter, but the influence of the exposition endured. 

Spokane's 1890s

Then the Panic of 1893 brought unemployment for many and loss of fortunes of such early leaders as Glover, Browne, and Cannon. A Dutch mortgage company, the Northwestern and Pacific Hypotheekbank, which had financed construction of many of the post-fire buildings, foreclosed and, for a considerable time, much valuable Spokane real estate was owned by the Dutch.

In the post-Panic recovery, a new generation of wealthy leaders emerged, mostly mining or railroad men. Among them were Amasa B. Campbell, Patrick (Patsy) Clark, August Paulsen, Levi Hutton (1860-1928), D. C. (Daniel Chase) Corbin (1832-1918), Jay P. Graves (1859-1948), John H. Finch, Robert E. Strahorn, and F. Lewis Clark. Over the years, they increased Spokane's inventory of Kirtland Cutter-designed mansions. Some of the newspapers published during the 1880s were consolidated under William H. Cowles, founding a family newspaper dynasty whose Spokesman-Review continues to the present. Fort George Wright, garrisoned in 1899, brought a military presence to the city until its closure in 1957. 

All Roads Lead to Spokane

In 1900 Spokane had a population of almost 40,000. Soon the city experienced the transition from the horse-drawn to the motorized era. Street railways were electrified. An interurban railway system linked Spokane with surrounding towns, and feeder railroads connected with transcontinental lines. The year 1905 saw the founding of McGoldrick Lumber, for years Spokane's largest employer. The Northern Pacific and later the Great Northern railroads promoted settlement by means of brochures promising an agricultural and economic utopia in Spokane and the Inland Empire. Then, with the advent of the automobile and improved roads, the city truly began living up to its promotional slogan: "All roads lead to Spokane." 

By 1909, Spokane was said to have 26 millionaires, and upscale residential neighborhoods were developing in Browne's Addition, west of the center, and on the South Hill, picturesque basalt-strewn heights overlooking downtown. Wealthy landowners, realizing that municipal parks adjacent to their "additions" would increase value of the lots they were selling, donated land to the city for that purpose. The nationally famous Olmsted Brothers firm of landscape architects was brought in to suggest designs for parks, residential streets, private gardens, and preservation of the scenic river area. The most influential local promoter of city parks was Aubrey Lee White (1868-1948), first and longtime president of the park board. Spokane women's clubs were also vital in promoting parks as well as libraries and the arts.

Working and Voting

The enormous immigration boom between 1900 and 1910 helped increase Spokane's population from almost 40,000 to more than 100,000. The working class increasingly settled on the north side of the river. Ethnic enclaves developed, such as the largely Finnish "Peaceful Valley" west of the city center along the south bank of the river. Italians, Germans, Chinese, and others had similar centers of settlement and cultural identity. 

Seasonal workers resided in downtown workingmen's hotels or in flophouses between jobs in the mines or lumber camps. Labor troubles, which had reached a violent pitch in the Coeur d'Alene mines in the 1890s, continued. Spokane, already a major union stronghold, became one of several recruitment centers of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies). In January 1909, demonstrations of a "free speech movement" led to mass arrests. A fiery speech and subsequent arrest of a young woman labor organizer, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, had repercussions far beyond Spokane.

Washington state women received the vote in 1910. Spokane's best-known suffrage advocate was the colorful and outspoken May Arkwright Hutton (1860-1915), wife of Levi Hutton and partner in his Hercules Mine and other enterprises. Although not always accepted by Spokane's society matrons, she was influential on state and national levels and eventually became a local heroine.

Charm and Fun

Enhancing Spokane's appeal as a convention city were its hotels, especially the charming "Arts and Crafts" style Spokane Hotel, built after the fire. Early in the century, business leaders seeking to increase Spokane's importance as a convention destination, promoted the idea of a larger hotel. In Louis Davenport (1869-1961), they found the right man to launch and then manage such a project, and his spectacular Davenport Hotel, designed by Kirtland Cutter, opened in 1914. With its atmosphere of luxury and hospitality, it was long regarded as the finest hotel west of the Mississippi. During the 1950s and 1960s it suffered neglect and was closed in 1985. After several threats of demolition, it was bought in 2000 and restored to its former grandeur.

The city's self-promotion during the teens was best exemplified by the Spokane Advertising Club's "Miss Spokane" competition. Not a typical beauty contest, it was rather a quest for a charming, bright, and articulate young woman to act as hostess and representative for the city. The first and most celebrated, chosen in 1912, was Marguerite Motie, who, amazingly, served in the position until 1939. 

In the years leading up to World War I, Spokane was learning to have fun. In 1895, Washington Water Power had acquired Natatorium Park, already a destination amusement park, in a bend of the Spokane River at the end of the west-bound street railway. First the swimming pool (hence the name), then a proliferation of entertainment and rides attracted hordes of people, thus increasing ridership on Washington Water Power lines. Nat Park closed in 1968, but its classic carousel was relocated to Riverfront Park in downtown Spokane. 

Furthermore, electric interurban trains made it easy to get to Liberty Lake east of Spokane and Lake Coeur d'Alene across the Idaho border. Then as cars made these and other lakes more accessible, Spokanites built vacation cottages, and "going to the lake" became the standard summer activity. 


Aviation had been important to the Spokane story almost from the beginning of flight, and during the 1920s the city became a center for private, commercial, and military aviation. In 1924 the Washington National Guard was formed under local hero Major John Fancher. On September 12, 1927, soon after his trans-Atlantic flight, Charles Lindbergh caused a sensation by visiting Spokane in his Spirit of St. Louis. Later that month Spokane hosted the National Air Races and Spokane Air Derby, with races from New York and San Francisco converging on the city.

During the 1920s, the Mamer Air Transport Company pioneered a commercial and mail route between Seattle, Spokane, and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Early commercial aviation was based at Felts Field east of the city. Present Spokane International Airport to the west serves major national and international carriers. The threat of World War II led to the establishment of an air base in Spokane, first at Geiger Field, then Fairchild AFB, which continues today.

A Twentieth-century American City

The experiences of Spokane during World War I, Prohibition, the Roaring Twenties and the Depression were mostly like those of other American cities. Spokane mobilized Red Cross and other home front efforts. The flu epidemic of 1918 resulted in more than 1,000 deaths. During Prohibition, local moonshiners did a brisk trade, bootleg liquor flowed across the Canadian border, and law enforcement was often corrupt. An agricultural depression that began during the 1920s resulted in the foreclosure of many farms. The Spokane Stock Exchange, formed in 1897 to trade mining stocks, suffered in the 1929 crash, but recovered to function until 1991. 

During the Depression, banks and businesses failed, Spokane's unemployment rate was one in four, and soup lines were long. However, such relief programs as the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps provided temporary employment and permanent infrastructural improvements. The biggest New Deal project, Grand Coulee Dam, soon crucial to the war effort, provided rural electrification to Eastern Washington and low electric rates that facilitated postwar industry in Spokane.

War Years

During World War II, Spokane was home to the Velox Naval Supply Depot, the massive Galena Army Air Corps supply and repair depot (later Fairchild AFB), Geiger Field, Fort George Wright, and the Baxter Army Hospital. In addition, two federally owned aluminum plants at suburban Mead and Trentwood proved crucial to the war effort. Some 15,000 Spokane residents served in the armed forces and many were employed in war-related industries.

The veterans returned, many to attend local and nearby colleges, such as Gonzaga, Whitworth, Eastern and Washington State, under the GI Bill. They bought the postwar crackerbox houses in newly platted developments, and raised children in, as popular lore proclaimed, "a good place to raise a family." Postwar Spokane coasted in modest prosperity and entrenched conservative values. Its several dozen leading families, intertwined through business, marriage, social life, and civic involvement, continued to run the city. Blue-collar workers received a boost when Henry J. Kaiser took over the Mead and Trentwood aluminum plants in 1946, expanding the peacetime use of aluminum and Spokane's base of manufacturing jobs.

Decline and Renewal

Although relatively unscathed by the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, Spokane underwent other changes. Urban sprawl began to develop, particularly with the completion of Interstate 90 in 1967. With the proliferation of postwar suburban shopping malls, the downtown core declined. Some historic buildings were razed to make room for characterless office blocks and parking lots. Fortunately, a lack of development capital during the period saved others from the wrecking ball. The river area, long a polluted eyesore, crisscrossed by railroad trestles and lined by unsightly warehouses and parking lots, remained neglected. 

Spokane's business and civic leaders, realizing it was time to halt the slide of the city and to rehabilitate the river, formed a group called Spokane Unlimited. Under King Cole, its first paid director, an audacious plan for restoring the river and surrounding blighted area began to take shape: Expo '74, a world's fair with an environmental theme. Through arduous fund raising and complex negotiations with the railroads and other property owners, the city acquired the land. The river was cleared of its crisscross of trestles, and buildings on much of the south bank were razed. 

In their place emerged the permanent Riverfront Park, opera house, convention center, and Imax Theater, as well as temporary pavilions of many nations and organizations. The opera house hosted major performers, and the convention center provided a venue for important environmental symposiums. The polluted waters of the river were at least temporarily cleaned up. Overcoming incredible obstacles, Expo '74, which opened on May 4 and ran until November 4, was a huge success, attended by more than five million people, leaving an improved city. 


The energy and cooperation that produced Expo '74 were not sustained during the next two decades. City government was unfocused and contentious, and the public-private relationships that made the fair possible withered. The nationwide slump of the 1980s resulted locally in high unemployment and a stagnant real estate market. A relative lack of skilled workers was exacerbated by a brain drain of many of the city's best-educated young people.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, major downtown department stores, such as the legendary Crescent, could not compete with suburban shopping malls, and closed. In the 1990s, supposedly secure family-wage industries, such as Kaiser Aluminum, changed ownership, drastically reducing their workforces and pensions. 

Reinventing Spokane

In an attempt to revitalize the entire Spokane economy, city leaders reinvented themselves with Momentum, a new organization replacing Spokane Unlimited. Although voters opposed to tax increases defeated some of its proposals, Momentum's efforts eventually led to a new sports arena and the beginnings of a cooperative higher education center.

Since the late 1990s, Spokane has been regaining optimism. It continues to shine in the medical field. New libraries have been built, the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture expanded, and the art deco Fox Theater is being restored as a home for Spokane's increasingly acclaimed symphony orchestra. The new arena attracts traveling shows and major sports events. Bloomsday, an annual footrace founded in 1977, attracts about 50,000 participants each spring. Downtown living is becoming an option as architects and preservationists adapt classic Spokane buildings as residential space and develop former railroad land into a riverside mixed-use "urban village."

The most dramatic and contentious recent development has been River Park Square, a public-private venture creating a downtown mall and parking garage aimed at returning vitality to the city center. Opened in 1999, it resulted in years of litigation, settled in 2005, between its major private backer, the Cowles family, and its public funder, the City of Spokane. A consortium of regional universities is expanding its Spokane campus, educational programs, and technical support to the city. The new convention center under construction should give Spokane a competitive edge. Dwindling manufacturing jobs are being replaced by service and technical opportunities. Although problems remain in the areas of tax base, infrastructure, and public services, comparatively low wages and pockets of poverty, as well as aspects of city government, the future for Spokane looks encouraging. The city's designation by the National Civic League as an All-American City for 2004, the first time since the Expo year of 1974, indicates that cautious local optimism is justified.


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