The region that encompasses modern day Spokane Washington has been inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous tribes who thrived in the area due to the plentiful salmon runs in the Spokane River and ample opportunity for foraging in the forest. The salmon runs were so abundant that the tribes in the area would trade their extra Coho and Chinook Salmon with the Great Plains tribes for Bison meat. Predominantly, the Spokan Tribe inhabited the area, but the Colville and Flathead tribes had a presence here as well. The Spokan spoke a form of the Salish language and are often categorized as a Salishan tribe.
The first settlers of European descent arrived in 1810, with the British-Canadian North West Company. They established a fur trading post named Spokane House at the meeting point of the Spokane River and the Little Spokane River. This area was desirable for fur hunting as the rivers were slow and winding. English cartographer David Thompson happened to be on an expedition for the North West Company to map the greater Spokane and northwestern territory. Thompson hired Jacque Finlay, a free hunter, to build a trading post and to carry out the hunting and fur trading. Jacque Finlay was likely the first person of European descent to explore the greater region of the inland northwest and to encounter its indigenous tribes. The Spokane House was located approximately 9 miles northwest of current day downtown Spokane, and an interpretive center now resides in its place with information about and models of the original settlement.
The next people to establish a presence and build in the area were James Downing & Seth Scranton, who built a sawmill close to Spokane Falls in 1871. The founding father of Spokane, James Nettle Glover, came to the settlement with intentions of establishing a town in the area. He saw the potential of the river and falls to generate mills and attract settlers to the area. So, he bought out Downing & Scranton in 1873, and convinced Frederick Post to build a Gristmill at the falls, in order to grind grain. In that same year, the area became known as Spokan Falls. A general store was established by Downing in 1878 and with easier access to supplies, Spokan Falls became attractive to additional settlers.
1879 The Spokan Times
By 1879, Spokane county had been established and Francis Cook started the first newspaper named the Spokan Times. Things were really taking off in the area as more and more people moved in. One of the biggest shifts came when the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived in Spokane in 1881. With it came easier shipping and access to the greater area. Just two years after its arrival, the railroad was linked trans continentally making Spokane a connection hub to both the east and west coasts.
It wasn’t necessarily a coincidence that the transcontinental railroad was linked in the same year that gold was discovered in the Coeur d’Alene mining district. In fact, many minerals were discovered that year including silver and zinc. Spokane’s earliest wealthy citizens made their fortunes by owning and operating mines in this district. Spokane was now the gateway to the Pacific Northwest and had firmly established the inland northwest as an area in its own right. Passengers and minerals alike were transported in and out daily.
In addition to lumber, grain and gold, Spokane was an early producer of electricity, thanks to the power of the falls. In fact, Spokane had electric streetlights by 1886, beating both Portland and San Francisco to the technology. With so much rallying around Spokane, buildings were cropping up quickly and the population reached roughly 9,000 citizens. Unfortunately, these buildings were mostly two-story wooden structures, which set the stage for the most devastating event in Spokane’s history
The Great Fire of 1889 occurred on August 4th, fueled by an exceptionally hot and dry summer. It tragically destroyed 32 blocks of downtown, which was more or less the entire downtown area. Many business owners lost everything they had, and the city itself was leveled, sparing outlying neighborhoods. In order to continue business operations, numerous tents were set up across downtown and this temporary tent-city lasted for about one year. From the ashes of the Great Fire rose a greater downtown, with solid buildings made of brick and terra cotta. This major building boom shaped downtown Spokane today, as roughly 50% of the buildings in modern downtown were built during this time.
The growth of the railroad system in Spokane eventually necessitated an area dedicated to manufacturing and repairing trains. Hillyard was established in 1892 by James J. Hill, built around the Great Northern Railroad. The yard itself was established as a separate town but never incorporated, in order to avoid municipal taxes. The area housed railroad workers and their families. After the death of Hill in 1916, there was less pressure to remain isolated from Spokane and in 1924 Spokane Annexed Hillyard. The neighborhood was struck a major blow when the Great Northern Railroad ceased operations there and, in some ways, has never recovered.
The Panic of 1893 struck many cities across the nation and Spokane was no exception. A Dutch Mortgage company had financed the building boom that occurred after the Great Fire, and they declared bankruptcy. Key stakeholders in Spokane real estate were wiped of their fortunes, including founding father James Glover and John Browne of Browne’s Addition. A significant portion of the buildings downtown were Dutch owned for a time as a result.
Despite these setbacks, Spokane’s population continued to rise and in 1895 the Spokane County Courthouse was completed. Architect Willis Ritchie designed the courthouse in French Renaissance style, modeled after two 16th century chateaus. The courthouse was stately and striking, lending a sense of beauty to the downtown skyline. It has weathered the years well, and with a few renovations, it looks much the same as it did when it was initially constructed.
The outlying neighborhoods of Spokane became more populous with the arrival of the streetcar in the 1890s. The streetcar made it feasible for citizens to live further out and commute into downtown. By 1900, Spokane’s population had swelled to 100,000 making it the most populous city west of Minneapolis. It also boasted the most waterpower west of Niagara Falls thanks to Spokane Falls.
In 1907, Spokane created its park system and employed the Olmstead Brothers firm to design city parks and neighborhoods as well. The Olmstead Brothers were very well known, their father Frederick Law Olmstead had a hand in designing Central Park in New York, and they learned many design theories and practices from him. One theory the brothers worked with was respecting the genius of the place. This means that every location has its own unique terrain, character and beauty, and that landscape design should adhere to this rather than try to change it. This is wonderfully apparent even today in examples of their work like Manito Park and Rockwood neighborhood.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Spokane continued to see expansion and was thriving. However, the mines which played such a huge role in building Spokane began to run dry by the 1920’s. Timber production also became prohibitive due to the shipping costs out of Spokane. It was cheaper to ship From Minneapolis to Seattle then Spokane, rather than straight to Spokane. This was despite the goods running through Spokane first on their way to Seattle. Production of wheat and dairy persisted but by the time of the Great Depression, Spokane began to see stagnation and suffered from a loss of industry.
During the 1930’s, there were a few economic boosts to the area in the form of the work that came with the Civilian Conservation Corps under Roosevelt’s New Deal and the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam. This brought in a new wave of workers and energy to the city. In the early days of World War II, a new military air base was constructed in Spokane, bringing soldiers and their families to the area. At the time it was named the Spokane Army Air Depot and was firmly established in 1942. The base is currently known as Fairchild Air Force Base, having been named after a World War I aviator, General Muir S. Fairchild.
After World War II and well into the 1960’s, Spokane saw a slow decline. Its citizens moved further out into the suburbs, a new mall opened in North Spokane and downtown Spokane became less and less frequented. Sears responded to this trend by shutting down it’s downtown location and relocating to the Northtown Mall. Merchants struggled in downtown, construction of new buildings slowed and generally, times were tough. In fact, part of the reason that Spokane has so many historic buildings is due to this period. Constructing new buildings simply wasn’t economically feasible.
However, a group of concerned citizens rallied to find a way to revitalize Spokane, and they were incredibly successful. The group was named Spokane Unlimited and their leader, King Cole, came up with the idea of hosting the ‘74 Expo. Spokane would be the smallest city to ever host the Expo and much fundraising and negotiation went into making this happen. The Riverfront area needed a total transformation from a railroad depot into a vibrant city park. The Skyride over the falls was installed and Spokane was able to successfully accommodate the 5 million visitors that the expo of ‘74 brought in. Riverfront Park was officially established in 1978 and the downtown was much improved.
With the success of the outdoor Riverfront Park came the idea for a riverside trail in 1979. Originally, Spokane Parks wanted to connect the trail from Spokane to Coeur d’Alene, making it 60 miles long. Over the next few decades the idea would become a reality, but with some compromises. The trail wound up extending from Nine Mile Falls to the Idaho Washington border, at 37 miles total. It was named after Spokane’s Centennial celebration and has been a wonderful resource to the community through to the present day.
In recent decades, Spokane has seen a revitalization of its older neighborhoods like Browne’s Addition and the South Perry District. New businesses and restaurants are thriving, and major renovations of historic buildings have taken place. The Steam Plant in downtown saw a 1.5-million-dollar renovation in 2017 and has successfully preserved its historic aspects while incorporating modern facilities. Other businesses and property owners have taken inspiration and Spokane is seeing a revitalization and ingress of newcomers who appreciate the unique history and beauty of our Lilac City.