GoSpokaneMagazine

The Spokane River

The Roll It Played in Spokane's History

With a population of 209 thousand Spokane Washington is the second largest city in Washington. It is also the metropolitan hub for the inland northwest. Spokane is located on the banks of the Spokane River and this is no accident. The energy and resources provided by the Spokane River were major factors that contributed to Spokane's rapid growth in the early days.

With its abundance of natural resources and opportunity, the inland northwest attracted its first European settlers in the early 1800s. The region saw a major population increase in the later part of the 19th century. Small communities were popping up all over the area to provide the goods and services that this growing population required. Many of these communities became the towns that are still here today.

With the establishment of Fort Spokane, the mining boom in the Silver Valley, the growing timber industry, and the railroads starting to come into the area, the growth potential was here. It was just a question of which community was going to rise to the occasion. In 1880, that community was Cheney when it became the first county seat.

Early Spokane

Spokane Falls in the 1870s

In 1873 James Glover discovered the area and saw great potential. Glover and a business partner bought 160 acres of land and a small saw mill on the river by a group of falls. Spokan Falls was incorporated in 1881, adding an "e" to become Spokane Falls in 1883, and ultimately becoming Spokane in 1891. Early on it was just another one of the many small communities in the area.

Spokane Falls grew very fast in its early years. The river and the falls were some primary resources that attributed to its rapid growth. The power from the river was used for saw mills, flour mills, cable cars and eventually to generate electricity. In 1886 Spokane Falls became the county seat when it took the title from Cheney by popular vote.

The Railroads

Spokane got its first big break in 1881 with the Northern Pacific Railroad coming into town. In 1886, D.C. Corbin made arrangements with the railroad to run a line from Silver Valley to Spokane Falls. D.C. Corbin was a mining and railroad magnet that helped bring growth and prosperity to Spokane.

In 1892 The Great Northern Railroad came to Spokane. Founder of The Great Northern, James Hill built a large railroad yard northeast of town and named it Hillyard. The railroad yard closed in 1982 but the historic Hillyard community is still there. Great Northern Railroad also built a grand depot downtown on Havermale Island in 1914. This depot was demolished in 1973 in preparation for the 1974 World s Fair but the clock tower that was attached to the depot was spared and has become a city icon.

The Milwaukee Road, Northern Pacific, Union Pacific, SP&S and Spokane International were other railroads that came to Spokane in the early years.

Crossing The Spokane River

Monroe Street Bridge made of steal in 1890.

When Spokane was initially incorporated there was no practical way across the river. Ferry services would come and go from time to time but due to the rapid current in the area this was just not a dependable way to get across. The nearest bridges at the time were near the state line going upriver and near Nine Mile Falls down river. The north side of the river started to be homesteaded in the early 1880s and a reliable river crossing was needed.

The first bridge river crossing at this point was completed in 1882 and employed the use of 3 wooden bridges. The first bridge crossed from the south banks to Havermale Island. Havermale Island is separated from the south side with the channel of water that goes in front of the INB and the carousel. This was one of three major channels at the time. The second bridge made the span from Havermale to what is now Canada Island, near where the blue steel bridge is today. And the final span was from Canada Island to the north shore.

The next river crossing was 2 years later with a wooden bridge at Division Street fallowed by a steel bridge at Post Street. With the completion of the wooden Monroe Street Bridge in 1889, there were 4 routs across the river. The Monroe Street Bridge burnt down the fallowing year in 1890 and was replaced with a steal bridge. The concrete bridge we see today was constructed in 1912 to replace the steel bridge and is actually the third bridge to cross at this point.

Strength Through Adversity

Spokane was one of three cities in Washington State that had huge fire in the summer of 1889 that destroyed their downtowns. The other two were Seattle and Ellensburg. Like the other two cities, most of the buildings in Spokane were made primarily of wood and burnt very quickly.

The city of Spokane had a fire department and a water system that had been designed for an event like this. The heart of this system was a pump station located on Canada Island. The pump station failed and they had no water. Firefighters used dynamite blast buildings in an attempt to control the spread of the fire.

Ultimately the fire destroyed more than 30 city blocks and one firefighter lost his life trying to control the fire.

The people of Spokane were determined to rebuild. They worked together to clean up the rubble and set up a tent city for stores and businesses. When they rebuilt, they built with brick and stone to help prevent this from happening again. Many of the buildings built in the wake of the fire are still standing today.

Harnessing The River's Power

Washington Water Power was founded in 1889 and began producing electricity in 1990 with its Monroe street power station. The Monroe Street Power station generates 15 megawatts of power and is still in use today.

In addition to supplying electricity for local homes and businesses, Washington Water Power provided power for electric trolley cars. There were several different trolley companies in the beginning. The city grew rapidly and so did the trolley lines. By 1903 Washington Water Power bought up all the smaller lines and there were only two trolley companies in Spokane; WWP and Spokane Traction Company.

Washington Water Power is known as Avista today and owns a total of six hydroelectric power plants on the Spokane River including the original 15 megawatt Monroe Street Power Station. In 1906 the Post Falls Power Station was built producing another 15 megawatts. The 9 Mile Falls Dam was built in 1908 generating 26 megawatts. Little Falls fallowed it in 1910 generating 32 megawatts. Long Lake Dam was built in 1915 generating 82 megawatts. The Upper Spokane falls Power Station on Havermale Island that generates 10 megawatts was built in 1920. This is the square salmon colored building in Riverfront Park.

All six of these power plants are in operation today and generate a total of 180 megawatts of power. This provides enough electricity for about a half million people.

written by:


Huntington Park and the lower Spokane Falls