Many Pacific Northwesterners are unaware of the fascinating history of the state of Washington, particularly on the far-less-populated eastern side of the state. From the production of plutonium during World War II in the Tri-Cities to the agricultural boom of the Palouse region and the Whitman Mission massacre in Walla Walla, a lot has happened in Washington’s Inland Northwest. Another of those historical landmarks that can be visited today is just an hour’s drive from the city of Spokane, and that is the development and operation of the long-retired Fort Spokane.
Before I dive into the specifics of our experience at the fort, here’s some background information on its history, as well as some geographical context.
Finding Fort Spokane
Fort Spokane is located at the confluence of the Spokane and Columbia rivers. Coming from Spokane as you approach the confluence, you drop down a precipitous and winding hill from the western reaches of the Palouse agricultural region, down into the river valley. As you make the descent, wheat fields are replaced by steep hillsides covered with the shrub-steppe more typically associated with the lower Columbia Basin, intermingled with stands of creaking ponderosa pine reaching up toward the expansive western skies above. At the bottom of the hill, before crossing the Spokane River, lies Fort Spokane in a meadow above the shores of the river.
The Columbia River
North of the fort, the Columbia River flows south across the Canadian border, from British Columbia into Washington. It cuts through some of the westernmost reaches of the Rocky Mountain range and the Colville National Forest.
The river continues on to the west from the fort and the confluence of the rivers, taking a winding trip through Central Washington, with Wenatchee marking its westernmost reach before doubling back to the southeast toward the Hanford Reach and the Tri-Cities. Eventually, it settles onto a more direct western path along the Washington-Oregon border, as it makes its way toward the Pacific Ocean. Along its path in Washington, the river passes through eleven dams that provide flood control, irrigation that has made the state an agricultural powerhouse, and more than half of the electricity consumed in the entire Pacific Northwest.
To the north and northeast of Fort Spokane lies the Spokane Indian Reservation, and to the northwest lies the Colville Indian Reservation. The two reservations were established in 1881 and 1872, respectively. South of the reservations was land designated for agricultural settlement by the U.S. Government.
Fort Spokane History
Fort Spokane, constructed in 1880, was built as a result of rapid American expansion into the area, the subsequent displacement of Native Americans, and the conflicts that resulted. The history of the fort is a rocky one, but important and fascinating nonetheless.
One of its functions was to serve as a break point between the Indian Reservations to the north and American settlement to the south. In this respect, the fort was successful in protecting reservation land from illegal settlement and further displacement. While this may have been a positive function given the displacement that had already occurred, the fort also featured an incredibly disturbing function, which was the Indian Boarding School.
Established in 1900, the school was one of almost 150 Indian boarding schools opened in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These boarding schools carried out a federal policy of coerced assimilation of Native American children. Children from the Colville and Spokane reservations were taken from their homes and forced to attend. Some as young as five were taken for up to nine months at a time. The overarching intent of the schools was to strip the children of their native culture so they would function in a way deemed appropriate by the federal government and the dominant European-American culture.
After seven years, under pressure from tribes and leaders in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fort Spokane’s Indian Boarding school closed. Day schools were opened on reservations so that children could stay at home and receive a more conventional classroom education. The final function of the fort was as a hospital during the tuberculosis outbreaks of the 1920’s. The hospital, and the fort as a whole, closed for good in 1929.
Visiting Fort Spokane
We visited the fort during Memorial Day weekend in 2020. At the entrance was a wooden archway with an open gate, all painted white, with the words “Fort Spokane, W.T. 1880” painted in blue across the top. The archway was back-dropped by an electric blue sky and a handful of soft white clouds.
As we drove in, to the left was a ridgeline heavily populated with ponderosa pine; which is now about as old as the fort. The old-growth timber from that hillside was the source of most of the lumber used to construct the fort, and after construction was finished, it was left barren. Over the past century, the forest has slowly reclaimed its rightful home along the face of the hill.
Exploring the Trails and Exhibits
Trails take off from the parking lot with infographics every fifty yards or so that show the history of the fort and the region. The trail first takes you to the guardhouse (another of the few remaining buildings which were unfortunately closed for public entry the day we were there, due to COVID-19 restrictions), and creates a loop, out across the meadow where all the buildings that made up the fort once stood.
The prairie grass that crept up to the well-manicured gravel trail was a light green that will soon turn beige and brown as summer slowly approaches, gently swaying in the mid-day sunshine. The valley opened up around us with wide-open skies and pine-dotted hills and ridges surrounding the river confluence.
If it weren’t for the infographics that marked the site of each former building, it would have been easy to miss their remnants, which often were nothing more than bits of broken stone foundation, or a slight square or rectangular depression in the ground. Some of the buildings that no longer stood included the following:
- Administration Building: Served as the headquarters of the fort and living quarters for commanding officers.
- Barracks: Served as living quarters for approximately 300 soldiers and 100 civilians who worked as employees.
- Assorted stables
For the most part, life at the fort was relatively quiet, and not a whole lot happened in terms of violent conflict. Soldiers participated in a heavy schedule of drills, begun in reaction to Indian victories at Little Big Horn and Big Hole in Montana. Soldiers marched and trained for battles that would never happen. Outside of drills, soldiers spent their time hunting, fishing, playing on the river, imbibing at the local saloon, and forming a baseball team known as the “Boys in Blue”.
While Fort Spokane lived a relatively short life (spanning from 1880-1929) it still made its mark on the region, and within the lives of those that served or were affected in some way or another by its functions, practices and policies. Maybe most important are the lessons learned as one of countless storylines from the Western expansion that defines much of the United States today.
A Worthy Detour
If the history doesn’t interest you, it is nonetheless a beautiful place to visit in northeast Washington, where several of the state’s multitude of unique ecosystems and landscapes come together, exemplified by the densely-forested mountains to the north, the rolling hills of the Palouse region to the southeast, the desert shrub-steppe to the south and Central Washington’s plains to the west.
So, the next time you head from Spokane toward the Cascades, or if you’re coming from the Puget Sound to the east, think about taking a detour and checking out an important piece of Pacific Northwest history.
Historic photos by Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area. Additional photos by Brent Atkinson.