The name Spokane comes from the Native American word “Spokan” (Sun People). The area around Spokane Falls has been occupied for thousands of years and was a favorite place to fish for salmon each summer. The first white settlers came to this area around 1810—very early in Washington’s history—when David Thompson built Spokan House, the first trading post in the state along the Spokan River. (The “e” in Spokane was added later.)
The War of 1812 and turbulent times that followed led to abandonment of the post in 1826, and white settlers didn’t return until 1838, when Elkanah Walker and Cushing Eels established a Protestant mission that lasted until 1847. Though Spokane County was created in 1859, including all of the land between the Columbia River and Rocky Mountains north of the Snake River, the first permanent settlers didn’t arrive at “Spokane Falls” until 1872. The first real settler was James N. Glover, the “Father of Spokane” and a strong proponent of the region’s benefits.
By 1880, Spokane’s population had grown to only 350, and the town competed hotly with neighboring Cheney for the county seat. Vote counters announced Spokane as the winner, but Cheney residents suspected the officials of lying about the results, so they came at night, kidnapped the election official and his records, and proclaimed Cheney the winner of the vote. Spokane’s population grew dramatically by the next election—partly due to the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railway—and in 1886 the city had the votes it needed to win back the county seat.
Spokane experienced a tremendous boom following the discovery of fabulously rich silver, lead, and zinc deposits in the nearby Coeur d’Alene area: it grew from a population of 350 in 1880 to almost 20,000 by 1890. The Northern Pacific was the Northwest’s first railroad, but its monopoly drove transportation prices sky-high; though eastern Washington was the cheapest place to grow wheat, the farmers paid the highest prices getting it to market. The city of Spokane was so determined to get a second railroad, they gave the land, free of charge, to the Great Northern Railroad Co. to be sure it would pass through town—and to loosen the Northern Pacific’s grip on farmers.
As in Seattle and Ellensburg—and most cities in the pioneer West—a devastating fire ripped through Spokane. In the summer of 1889, the fire put an end to the all-wood construction that had previously been so popular in these forested regions, leaving 32 blocks in ruins. Henceforth, all downtown areas were rebuilt in brick. Though farming was a large part of the Spokane economy, the mining discoveries throughout the Northwest also sparked the city’s economic growth. Several of Spokane’s grand old homes belonged to those who made their fortunes from these mines.
The event that put Spokane on the map for most of the country was Expo ’74, the city’s World’s Fair. The theme for the fair, “Celebrating Man’s Fresh, New Environment,” was a real problem for the developers, since the location chosen was Havermale Island in the middle of the polluted Spokane River, in a dirty, run-down section of town. Washington and Idaho combined their efforts to clean up the river, while grass and trees were planted and buildings torn down to prepare for the fair. The result was a world-class Expo that won international attention and served to gear up the country for the bicentennial celebration. Spokane is the smallest city ever to host a World’s Fair.
© Ericka Chickowski from Moon Washington, 8th edition