Cheney -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 8/05/2007
  • Essay 8248
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Cheney was first settled in 1878 under the name Willow Springs, soon to be changed to the less poetic designation of Section 13. That was the survey name given to a green, spring-filled oasis in Eastern Washington that was designated to become a future depot stop along the Northern Pacific Railroad. The town was finally re-named Cheney after Benjamin P. Cheney (1815-1895), an influential director of the Northern Pacific line. By 1880, so many settlers and land speculators had arrived in anticipation of the railroad that the town was able to wrest away the county seat from the more-established village of Spokane Falls (soon to lose the word "Falls"), 16 miles to the east. However, Cheney seized the prize only after some citizens sneaked into Spokane Falls in the dead of night and made off with the county records. Cheney retained the county seat only until 1886 when another vote was held and Spokane won. In 1889, Cheney was awarded one of the state normal schools (a college for training teachers). The State Normal School at Cheney evolved into Eastern Washington University, which today remains the center of the city's cultural and economic life. Cheney is also an important agriculture center, on the edge of some of the state's most important wheat-growing areas.  Today, the city is also a bedroom community for nearby Spokane. By 2007, its population was just over 10,000.

A Village of Copious Springs

Cheney was actually the fifth in a string of names for this newly founded village. It was first called Willow Springs, then Depot Springs, both referring to the copious springs that bubbled up near what is now the city's downtown. Then it was called Section 13 because of its railroad survey designation. It briefly took the name Billings, after the president of the Northern Pacific.

On September 25, 1880, the residents officially announced that they had settled, once and for all, on Cheney. They wanted to honor and gain favor with one of the Northern Pacific's most influential directors, Benjamin P. Cheney. They believed that the city was fated to become the region's railroad hub, which would inevitably make it the area's metropolis.

For centuries before this, nomadic Indian tribes had taken advantage of the spring water and shade, but white settlers were slow to discover this area of Eastern Washington. The region had been the scene of hostilities between whites and Indians since at least 1858, when Army troops under Colonel George Wright (1803-1865) defeated warriors of the Yakama, Spokane, Palouse, and Coeur d'Alene tribes in the Battle of Four Lakes, about four miles from present-day Cheney. The area remained dangerous for settlers into the 1870s. During an 1878 Nez Perce uprising, the few settlers in the area retreated to a hastily built fort on a hill a mile northeast of town.

Section 13

Yet the fortunes of this spot were about to turn, all because of the lines drawn on a survey map. The surveyors of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which was slowly inching its way across the continent, had designated Section 13 as a key stop. A group of railroad men and land speculators from nearby Colfax, as well as astute locals, saw an opportunity in the place people called Willow Springs. They established a town site and began to buy up lots in anticipation of the arrival of the railroad. For a several years, Cheney resembled a boom town, with tents and hastily constructed frame buildings lining the streets

The new citizens of Cheney, in that first flush of optimism, even managed to wrest the title of the Spokane County seat away from the more established town of Spokane Falls. Yet it did so by methods that became the stuff of local legend.

Lobbying with Liquid

It all began in 1879, when J. N. Glover (1837-1921), Spokane's founding father, rode to Olympia to lobby the territorial legislators to create a new county, Spokane County, in growing Eastern Washington.

"[The legislators] discussed it with Glover in Doane's old oyster house over pan roasts," writes historian E. E. Perry. "They had liquid refreshments, after that they had cigars. These things cost money in pioneer days. Glover knows. He paid for them" (Perry).

Cheney vs. Spokane Falls

Glover got his money's worth because by the time he came home, Spokane County had been created. The county seat was to be chosen by popular vote, but Glover and most Spokane Falls residents were confident in the outcome. Spokane Falls probably had about 1,000 residents, which made it the biggest town around. Yet Spokane's boosters didn't take into account the fact that Cheney was in the midst of an instant population boom and also had the support of the small settlements nearby.

The election was held in November 1880, but the results were inconclusive. On the first count, it appeared that Cheney had won by 14 votes. Yet the Spokane Falls faction alleged a number of irregularities, including questionable math, and a recount showed Spokane winning by two or three votes. Angry Cheney partisans filed suit with the territorial court. The judge, perhaps aware that some of the irate men in the courtroom "carried hardware in their clothes" (Perry), ordered a recount.

Spokane Falls was in no hurry to carry out the recount. Spokane was in possession of the county records and also had a small frame, building which it grandly called a county courthouse. The Spokane townspeople probably figured the county seat was theirs until somebody snatched it away.

A group of Cheney men did exactly that in the wee hours of March 21, 1881. A good portion of Spokane Falls was dancing away at the wedding of Dick Wright to a Miss Piper. The Cheney men, including a judge and deputy sheriff, walked into the office of county auditor, who was up late tabulating the recount. They immediately took custody of the auditor and the county books, did their own quick recount, declared Cheney the winner, and bundled books and auditor off to three waiting wagons. Spokane Falls' sole night watchman heard a commotion somewhere in the gloomy ponderosa woods and fired off a couple of shots. Yet he neither saw nor heard anything further, so he concluded nothing was amiss.

Something Amiss

At dawn, Spokane Falls residents discovered that something was indeed amiss. The auditor and county records were missing and so was, essentially, the county seat. A Spokane man raced off to Cheney and found the Cheney men, with guns drawn, standing over the county's books. According to Perry, the Cheney men guarded the records with six-shooters for six weeks until they were confident that the county seat was truly theirs. Almost all of the county officials dutifully moved out to Cheney. A court decision soon upheld what Spokane called "The Grand Steal."

"The Cheney people felt no sense of guilt for what they had done," writes historian Cecil Dryden. "... They had no recourse but to employ [this] stratagem for what was legally theirs" (Dryden).

The county seat dispute simmered for another five years. In 1886, Spokane succeeded in getting the county seat question on the ballot again. This time, Spokane, which had far outpaced Cheney in population, won in a landslide. Spokane has been the county seat ever since.

The Northern Pacific arrived in Cheney in 1881 and the town was incorporated in 1882. The town thrived as predicted for a few years, yet the boom was short-lived. A fire devastated the town in 1883 and again in 1889. By this time, it had become clear that Spokane, with its abundant water power, was destined to be the region's metropolis.

Consolation Prize

In 1889, Cheney acquired a prize that proved to be even more valuable than the county seat: the State Normal School at Cheney, which evolved into today's Eastern Washington University. The origins of the school date back to 1882, when Benjamin P. Cheney, in gratitude for the town's name, gave the town $10,000 to start the Benjamin P. Cheney Academy. The Northern Pacific threw in eight acres of land. A building and grounds were established, but the school failed to thrive. In 1889, when the legislature of the new state of Washington sought locations for three state normal schools -- essentially, teachers' colleges, named after the French "ecole normale" on which they were modeled -- the legislature chose Cheney as the Eastern Washington location.

Cheney won the school partly because the academy building and grounds were ready to use and partly, some believed, as a consolation prize for losing the county seat. If so, it was an excellent consolation prize. After opening on October 13, 1890 with 16 students, the school grew steadily, evolving into the Eastern Washington College of Education in 1937, Eastern Washington State College in 1961 and Eastern Washington University in 1977. It now has an enrollment of more than 10,000 students.

Roller-Skating Fever

In the 1880s, the town boasted another, surprising institution, the region's first roller-skating rink, housed in a downtown warehouse. People from the entire region rode the Northern Pacific train into Cheney to try out this novel sport.

"The young folks used to go down there from the Falls on the train in the evening and return the next day," wrote an unnamed pioneer in a reminiscence in the Spokane Spokesman-Review. "Miss Sadie Bishop was the champion lady skater of that time and won considerable acclaim in that line. The rink was a fad, you might say a craze, for little, big, old and young had the fever ... There was such a demand for skates that many people paid a week ahead of time for them to be reserved" (Spokesman-Review).

Beautiful and Healthful

By 1900, Cheney's illusions of being a metropolis had faded and it seemed content with its lot as a pleasant small town. It boasted a creamery and a cheese factory.

"Cheney is one of the most beautiful and healthful towns in the state," wrote Rev. Jonathan Edwards in 1900 in his Illustrated History of Spokane County. "It is clean, lighted by electricity, well-supplied with good water, both for domestic purposes and lawns. It has two enterprising newspapers, five churches and a complete public school system."

Eastern Washington University

By the turn of the century the State Normal School had 160 students and its graduates were teaching in public schools all over the state. Most students were industrious and studious, but that didn't stop them from engaging in some hair-raising hijinks on Halloween.

In 1907, a freshman named James Fulton described stealing "washing machines, rocking chairs, buggies and gates" and getting to bed at 1 a.m. When he woke up the next morning, he saw that the other freshmen had been up to even more outlandish Halloween tricks.

"A large derrick to raise telegraph poles was backed in the door of a[downtown] store," Fulton wrote in a letter reprinted seven decades later by Spokesman-Review columnist Dorothy Powers. "A big dray was in front of a pool dump; a large cupboard was in front of the confectionary store, with a real estate sign tacked up on it. And upon the store, astride the roof, was a top buggy. ... I tell you, there were things a-doing in this old town!" (Powers)

Wheat and Dairy Farming

By 1930, Cheney's population was about 2,000, including the students at the Normal School (compared to 115,000 for its old rival, Spokane). A 1930 story in the Spokane Chronicle noted that "while the growth of Cheney has not been rapid, its progress has been substantial."

"The hub of an agricultural region devoted primarily to wheat farming and dairying, the city is the shopping center for a large district," said the Chronicle. "Two industrial plants, the F. M. Martin Grain & Milling Co. and the Cheney Weeder Co., have been in operation for many years and have made Cheney products widely known."

In the 1960s and 1970s, Cheney experienced a population boom because of the growth of the college and also because it was increasingly serving as a bedroom community for Spokane. Cheney was close enough for an easy commute, yet far enough away to retain a distinct small-town character. The population went over the 10,000 mark by 2007.

Agriculture, particularly wheat, barley, and peas, continues to play a part in the city's economy. However, Eastern Washington University is easily the city's largest employer.

History Today

Cheney's dreams of being a regional transportation hub may have vanished, yet locomotives still rumble frequently through downtown. For the thousands of EWU students crowding Cheney's cafes, dorms, and libraries, the train whistle is a reminder of Cheney’s long-ago roots.

Visitors to Cheney can relive the city's history by strolling through the Central Cheney Historic Disctrict, established in 2001, which encompasses the earliest neighborhoods. The houses in the district range from the working class to the well-to-do, reflecting Cheney's egalitarian beginnings. The district also includes the early brick blocks in the central business district. The nearby Eastern Washington University Historic District (also known as the Washington State Normal School at Cheney Historic District) was established in 1992 and includes the university's oldest and most significant buildings.

Sources: E. E. Perry, "How Cheney Captured the County Seat" in N. W. Durham, History of the City of Spokane and Spokane County (Spokane, Chicago, and Philadelphia: J. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1912), 395-398; Rev. Jonathan Edwards, An Illustrated History of Spokane County (W. H. Lever Publishing Co., 1900); George W. Fuller, The Inland Empire of the Pacific Northwest: A History (Spokane-Denver: H. G. Linderman, 1928); Cecil Dryden, Light for an Empire: The Story of Eastern Washington State College (Cheney: Eastern Washington State College, 1965); "Background of Cheney is Homes and Schools," Spokane Daily Chronicle, October 10, 1930; Dorothy Powers, "78 years ago, Halloween was wild night in Cheney," Spokesman-Review, October 24, 1985;  "The Story of Cheney from Pioneers to Present Day,"  City of Cheney website,(

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