The History of Spokane

Prehistory - 1810

The Spokane Falls and its surroundings were a gathering place and focus for settlement for the area's indigenous people due to the fertile hunting grounds and abundance of salmon in the Spokane River. For unrecorded millennia, the Spokane tribe lived in the area around the Spokane River and led a seasonal way of life that consisted of fishing, hunting, and gathering. Initially, the settlers hunted predominantly bison and antelope, but after the game migrated out of the region, the native people became dependent on gathering roots, berries, and fish. By the 13th century, the Spokane had developed permanent winter villages typically situated on rivers, especially along rapids and other places where fish were plentiful. The Spokane Falls were the tribe's center of trade and fishing. The Spokane consisted of three bands that lived along the Spokane River. The Spokane people shared their culture and Salishan language with several other tribes, including the Coeur d' Alenes, Kalispels, Pend Oreilles, Flatheads, Kootenays, and Colvilles among others. Early in the 19th century, white fur trappers from the east came into the northern Columbia Plateau forests. They were friendly with the native people they encountered. They often lived with them, took on their customs, and intermarriage was not uncommon. In 1810, the Spokane commenced major trading with white men when the North West Company's Spokane House was established on their lands.

1810 - 1890

American Settlement

Joint American-British occupation of Oregon Country, in effect since the Treaty of 1818, ended with the signing of the Oregon Treaty in 1846. The first American settlers, squatters J.J. Downing, with his wife, step-daughter, and S.R. Scranton, built a cabin and established a claim at Spokane Falls in 1871. Downing and Scranton were the subjects of arrest warrants held by the U.S. Marshal in Montana alleging livestock theft. Downing claimed 160 acres on the south bank and Scranton filed on 160 acres on the north bank. Together they built the first commercial building in Spokane Falls, a small sawmill on a claim located near the south bank of the Spokane Falls. James N. Glover and Jasper Matheney, Oregonians passing through the region in 1873 recognized the value of the Spokane River and its falls. They realized the investment potential and bought the claims of 160 acres and the sawmill from Downing and Scranton for $2,000 each. Glover and Matheney knew that the Northern Pacific Railroad Company had received a government charter to build a main line across this northern route. Glover invited settlers from Oregon to join him, though without much success. By 1875, Matheney became doubtful that the Northern Pacific Railroad come to Spokane and sold his stake in the venture to Glover. In 1877 soldiers that were fighting a war against the Nez Perce Indians spent the winter in Spokane. They built Fort Coeur d’Alene, and Glover sold food and goods to the soldiers. The presence of soldiers encouraged families to move to Spokane, expanding its population. Glover built a store and lived with his wife in a building on the southeast corner of what is now Spokane Falls Boulevard and Howard Street. Glover became the founder and "Father of Spokane" and one of its first mayors as well.

Camp Spokane

On October 21, 1880, Camp Spokane was established by U.S. Army troops under Lt. Col. Henry Clay Merriam at a location 56 miles (90 km) northwest of Spokane at the junction of the Columbia and Spokane Rivers. The camp location was strategic, having the intended goals of protecting construction of the Northern Pacific Railway and securing a place for U.S. settlement. Settlers among the Spokane and Colville Indians in Eastern Washington were afraid that war might break out. Camp Spokane served to separate the Indians from the settlers, being located between the Colville and Spokane reservations—protecting the growing non-Indian communities of Spokane Falls (later Spokane) and Cheney. While stationed, Merriam's troops erected some temporary buildings at the post, which they initially called Camp Spokane, but in 1881 one of the four infantry companies was still living in tents. Then early in 1882, President Arthur formally set aside a military reservation at the site, which was renamed Fort Spokane.

Northern Pacific Railway

By 1881, the Northern Pacific Railway was completed, bringing major European settlement to the area. The city of Spokan Falls (without an "e"; the "e" was added in 1883 and "Falls" was dropped in 1891) was officially incorporated as a city of 350 residents on November 29, 1881. The small population increased rapidly, streets were built, and the small settlement became a city. The city's population grew from 4,130 to 8,891 between 1881 and 1885. Spokane won the county seat from Cheney in 1886 elections. The city's population ballooned to 19,000 in 1890 and 40,000 in 1900 with the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railway. The railroad lured settlers from as far away as Finland, Germany, and England and as close as Minnesota and the Dakotas. By 1910, the population hit 104,000; prior to the building of the Northern Pacific, Walla Walla had been the commercial center of the Inland Northwest; however, with the arrival of the railroad in Spokane, that quickly changed.

The Great Fire

On August 4, 1889, a fire that began shortly after 6:00 p.m. destroyed the city's downtown commercial district. The most credible story of its origin is that it started at Wolfe's lunchroom and lodgings opposite the Northern Pacific Depot on Railroad Avenue. Due to technical problems with a pump station, there was no water pressure in the city when the fire started. Firefighters began dynamiting buildings in an attempt to deprive the fire of fuel, but the flames jumped the spaces and soon created their own firestorm. When volunteer firefighters attempted to quench the flames, they found their hoses were unusable. Eventually winds died down and the fire exhausted of its own accord. In the fires' aftermath, 32 blocks of Spokane's downtown were destroyed and one person was killed.

Dutch Investment

The initial rebuilding of Spokane after The Great Fire of 1889 was financed to a large extent by Dutch bankers. Real Estate development by European investors was a major source of capital for the rebuilding of Spokane. In 1883, Herman A. Van Valkenburg, a Dutch businessman, came to Spokane to appraise railroad investments, and in 1885, formed the Northwestern and Pacific Mortgage Company. The company was reorganized in The Netherlands as the Northwestern and Pacific Hypotheekbank on June 4, 1889.
The company rebuilt the buildings in downtown with granite and brick to replace wooden buildings that had been destroyed. By 1893, Dutch investors held one-fourth of real estate in Spokane, and continued to provide a significant contribution to Spokane's growth through the middle of the 20th century. Following the depression of 1893, many of these Dutch bankers sold their ventures to new local investors.

The Spokane House

The Inland Northwest was first explored by Canadian explorer-geographer David Thompson, working as head of the North West Company's Columbia Department. Crossing what is now the U.S.-Canadian border from British Columbia, Thompson wanted to expand the North West Company further south in search of furs, primarily beaver. After establishing the Kullyspell House and Saleesh House trading posts in what is now Idaho and Montana, Thompson wanted to expand further west. In 1810, Thompson dispatched Jacques Raphael "Jaco" Finlay and Finan McDonald to the Spokane River to build a trade house that would exchange with the Spokane and Colville Indians in present day Eastern Washington.
In a yellow pine flat in the "V" where the Little Spokane meets the Spokane (roughly a mile below Nine Mile Falls—about nine miles downstream from today's downtown Spokane), Finlay and McDonald built a new fur trading post, which is the first long-term European settlement in Washington state. This particular area was chosen because of the areas' large beaver population and potential for trade with the Native Americans located nearby. The fur post represented the first European business venture in either Washington or Oregon, predating the American built Fort Astoria by one year. This trading post known as the Spokane House, or simply "Spokane", was in operation from 1810 to 1826. The Spokane House, operated by the British North West Company and, later, the Hudson's Bay Company, was the center of the fur trade between the Rockies and the Cascades for 16 years. When the Hudson's Bay Company absorbed the North West Company in 1821, operations at Spokane House eventually shifted to Fort Colville; afterward the company still remained active near Spokane.

1890–Present

The Great Northern Railway

While the damage caused by the fire was a devastating blow, Spokane continued to grow; the fire set the stage for a dramatic building boom. After The Great Fire of 1889 and the rebuilding of the downtown, the city was reincorporated under the present name of "Spokane" in 1891. Just three years after the fire, in 1892, James J. Hill's Great Northern Railway had arrived in the newly created township of Hillyard (annexed by Spokane in 1924)—the chosen site for Hill's rail yards, machine shops, and roundhouse because of the area's flat ground. The addition of Hill's railroad resulted in another small population boom. The railroads in Spokane made it a transportation hub for the Inland Northwest region. Spokane became an important rail and shipping center because of its location between the Rocky Mountains and the Cascade Range and between mining and farming areas.
During this period, railroad companies charged what many believed were unfair shipping rates on goods going into Spokane. These rates were much higher than rates to coastal cities such as Seattle and Portland; so much so that merchants in Minneapolis could ship goods first to Seattle and then back to Spokane for less than to ship directly to Spokane, even though the rail line ran through Spokane on the way to the coast. This had a significant impact on the local economy, with many merchants simply choosing not to do business in Spokane. In 1892, the Interstate Commerce Commission agreed with the city after it filed a complaint about these practices, but that decision was struck down by a federal court. In 1906, Spokane sued under the newly passed Hepburn Act, and won on July 24, 1911.

Spokane As A Commercial Center

With the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad and the later additions to the city's railroad infrastructure, Spokane became the commercial center of the Inland Northwest. After the arrival of the Northern Pacific, the Union Pacific, Great Northern, and Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific railroads, Spokane became one of the most important rail centers in the western United States, being the site of four transcontinental railroads.
In 1883, gold and silver were discovered in the Inland Northwest. Mining emerged as a major stimulus to Spokane and the city served as a popular outfitting and jumping off point for miners. The discovery of gold, silver, and lead in the Coeur d'Alene region (which generally encompasses present day Stevens, Ferry, and Pend Oreille counties and northern Idaho) in the 1880s precipitated a rush of prospectors into the region. As a regional shipping center, the city furnished supplies to the miners who passed through on their way to mine in the Coeur d’Alene region. By the mid-1890s, high mining operations were underway in the region. Just after the turn of the century mining declined and agriculture and logging replaced mining as the primary influence in the economic development of Spokane. Today, the Spokane area is still considered one of the most productive and reformed mining districts in North America. After mining, the city became noted for processing and distributing dairy and orchard products and for producing products milled from timber. The Spokane area is a major center for the timber and agriculture in the Inland Northwest region. By the early twentieth century Spokane was primarily a commercial center rather than an industrial center.

Free Speech Fight

In 1909, a free speech fight was conducted in Spokane by the "Wobblies", or working class members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). At the time, "job sharks" charged a fee for signing up workers in the logging camps and employment agencies were known to cheat itinerant workers, with bribes sometimes paid to periodically fire entire work crews, generating repetitive fees. In 1908, the IWW launched a campaign with the slogan "Don't Buy Jobs." The agencies countered by pressuring the city council to pass an ordinance against street speaking, or soapboxing, a common method of recruitment for the union. When religious organizations obtained an exemption from the ordinance, the IWW initiated a free speech fight. In one day 150 men were arrested and crowded into Spokane jails. More IWW members from all over the West soon arrived to participate in what was becoming a publicity venture. Within a few weeks the jails were overflowing. Among those jailed was feminist labor leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who published an account of her experiences in a Spokane jail. The Western Federation of Miners called a boycott of all goods from Spokane to support the struggle, and taxpayers began to protest the cost of feeding the men. The city council repealed the ordinance.

Growth And Decline

Spokane continued to grow rapidly through the early 20th century. By 1900, the population had reached 36,848, and by 1910 had more than tripled, to 104,402. The expansion and growth of Spokane abruptly stopped in the 1910s and was followed by a period of population decline. This growth pattern continued until 1917, when the population reached 150,323. Spokane's slowing economy largely contributed to this decline. Control of regional mines and resources became increasingly dominated by national corporations rather than locals, diverting capital outside of Spokane and decreasing growth and investment opportunities in the city. Over the next three years, the city suffered a massive loss in population. The 1920 census reported only 104,437 people, nearly one-third less than in 1917, and a mere 35 more than the census in 1910. The 1920s and 1930s saw similar but less drastic slow growth.

1974 World's Fair

Spokane hosted the first environmentally themed World's Fair in Expo '74, becoming the then-smallest city to ever host a World's Fair. This event transformed Spokane's downtown, removing a century of railroad industry that built the city and reinventing the urban core. The Spokane clock tower was once part of a Great Northern Railway depot that once occupied the site. Upon close inspection, it can be seen where bricks were added on and where the roof used to be. The clock tower is one of the biggest in the Northwest, with each of its clock faces measuring 9 feet (2.7 m) across.
Many of the structures built for the World's Fair are still standing and in use. The United States Pavilion sits next to an IMAX theater, and the Washington State Pavilion became the INB Performing Arts Center. The Expo site itself, located on Havermale Island, became the 100-acre (0.40 km2) Riverfront Park, containing, among other features, the U.S. Pavilion, the turn-of-the-20th-century Looff Carousel, and the Great Northern Railway clock tower, the last remnant of the vast rail depot that was demolished for Expo '74. The U.S. Pavilion and the clock tower are prominently featured in the park's logo.