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Early Spokane Railroads

The Inland Northwest is an area of abundance. The seemingly endless fertile farm land, forests full of timber and rich mineral deposits are just a few of the attributes that attracted European settlers to the area.

Spokane Falls and the Spokane River provided the energy needed to fully exploit those resources. The very first settlers to homestead the location, built a sawmill that utilized the power from the river to process lumber.

Other settlers would use the rivers energy to mill wheat into flour. The river's energy was even used to pump its own water into pipes that supplied running water throughout the downtown area. Ultimately the river was used to generate electricity to power the city, something that it is still used for today.

The river may be the thing that initially attracted the settlers to Spokane but the arrival of the railroad is what made the town boom. The population of Spokane was 350 when the first railroad came to town. Twenty years and three major railroads later the population was 20,000.

Northern Pacific Railway Engine

Northern Pacific Railway

The Northern Pacific Railroad was the first railroad to reach Spokane June, 30 1881. The U.S. Congress awarded the railroad a huge land grant of nearly 40 million acres in 1864 to fund the construction of the northern transcontinental rail route.

Construction began in 1870. They started near Duluth Minnesota and built rail line to the west and at the same time, built rail line from Portland Oregon, north to Puget Sound and then west over the Cascades. By June 30, 1981, the Northern Pacific Railway had reached Spokane from the west.

The Northern Pacific Railway Depot in Spokane Washington

The line from the east met the line from the west on the 8th of September 1883 when President Ulysses S. Grant drove the final golden spike in western Montana. At that time the railroad had about 6800 miles of track across Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Additionally, they had track up to Winnipeg and Manitoba Canada.

The Northern Pacific Railway played a major role in the rapid growth of Spokane Washington. It shipped the timber, minerals, wheat, cattle and other farm products to market, that the area produced. It also brought Spokane the consumer goods that the growing city needed. Transporting passengers across the northern territory, the railroad also brought many of the Europeans that ultimately settled in Spokane.

The Northern Pacific Railway tracks are the same elevated train tracks that you see running south of 1st Ave today. The Amtrak, Greyhound Station on 1st is the old Northern Pacific Depot.

Coeur d'Alene Railway and Navigation Company

home of D. C. Corbin

Local mining and railroad mogul Daniel C Corbin founded the Coeur d'Alene Railway and Navigation Company in 1886. This was a small narrow gauge railroad that ran from Coeur d'Alene, up the Coeur d'Alene River to the Silver Valley.

Kellogg and Wallace Idaho were booming after discovering the rich mineral deposits in the Silver Valley. Being the first rail service in the valley was a distinct advantage.

Spokane International Railroad

Spokane International Railway map

In 1887 Daniel Corbin also built the Spokane International Railway that ran between Spokane and Kingsgate, British Columbia. This is where it connected up with the Canadian Pacific Railway.

This small rail line was critical to the Canadian Pacific Railway because it made them competitive with the Northern Pacific for shipping to the Puget Sound.

Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company

During this period it was commonplace for small railway companies to start up and a short time later be absorbed by a larger company. One such company that was buying smaller railroad companies to the south of Spokane was the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company.

The Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company came to Spokane around 1888 connecting Spokane to Portland, Pasco and Walla Walla.

Union Pacific Railroad

A year later, in 1889 Union Pacific took control of Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company and ultimately bought them outright. This was the same year as the great fire of Spokane that destroyed most of downtown Spokane.

While the Northern Pacific Railway had its main east west line routed right through Spokane, the Union Pacific had a branch line coming up from the south terminating in Spokane. Their main transcontinental line that had been completed some 20 years earlier was well to the south.

Union Pacific was going through a period of expansion into the Northwest by acquiring smaller railroads and building branch lines. With its wealth of minerals, timber and agricultural products, the Inland Northwest was not far out of their sights.

Silver Valley

Providing rail service to the Silver Valley in the early days of the silver boom was also something that the railroads were competing for. Northern Pacific Railway bought The Coeur d'Alene Railroad and Navigation Company which owned narrow gauge rail service to the Silver Valley. Union Pacific built a standard gauge line right beside the narrow gauge line.

map of the Great Northern Railway

Great Northern Railway

In 1892 the Great Northern Railway came to Spokane Washington. This railroad was founded by railroad mogul James Hill just three years earlier in 1889 by merging together a handful of smaller lines. By 1893 the Great Northern Railway had made its way all the way to Seattle making it a transcontinental railroad.

Spokane became the home of a large railroad yard of the Great Northern. The large yard in the northeast part of Spokane was named after the founder James Hill and the area of town became known as Hillyard. Most of the people who settled in Hillyard worked for the Great Northern and many were Asian Immigrants.

The Great Northern Railways most recognizable contribution to the city of Spokane is the iconic Clock Tower in the middle of Riverfront Park. For more than 60 years the clock tower was part of the Great Northern Railway depot located in downtown Spokane. When they cleared out the rail yards and other industrial relics to make way for the 1974 World's Fair, they demolished the depot but spared the Clock Tower.

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view of downtown Spokane Washington in the early 1900's