II. Trading Nature: Economic Hinterlands of Seattle and Spokane

Commerce is the economic lifeblood of any city. It provides jobs for citizens and money for development. In the Northwest, as elsewhere, urban life stands upon the ability of cities to transform nature into commodities in order to provide and attract commerce and capital. Seattle and Spokane have sold themselves as places to do business, exploit resources, and organize labor in pursuit of profit. Both cities have tried to secure areas beyond their limits as hinterlands for raw materials and potential markets. They have sold themselves as points of departure for trips to national parks and other recreation destinations. And cities have worked against one another, hoping to capture the trade of their rivals. City and countryside, metropolis and hinterland connect through networks of trade, tourism, and transportation.

Seattle and Spokane are two Northwest examples of how cities organize nature through commerce. From their beginning, each city was connected to its surrounding resources. The North West Company established Fort Spokane in 1810 to collect furs from the Spokane, Nez Perce, Cayuse and other native groups for shipment to Montreal, then London. The Hudson’s Bay Company maintained near present-day Olympia at Fort Nisqually, and routinely traded with the native peoples who lived around Puget Sound. It was this bounty of resources—furs, fish, timber and farmland—that attracted Euro-American settlers first to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, then Puget Sound and the Spokane region. Early colonists in the latter two places quickly established industries to exploit local resources: timber and fishing in Seattle, timber and farming in Spokane. Developing nature became part of growth and progress by the middle of the nineteenth century. But development required capital and labor, two things lacking in early Washington territory. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, both cities relied on outside investment, distant markets, and migratory labor to fuel commerce. They also relied upon other cities and other regions to make their own growth and progress possible.

California was the major source during this period for capital, markets, and workers. Seattle, Spokane, and outlying areas were resource-rich hinterlands to a booming San Francisco. The discovery of gold in 1848 made California the economic engine of the Pacific slope. Sailing vessels plied the coast carrying timber, coal, and wheat to the Bay Area, and bringing workers and manufactured goods back to the Northwest. Each city had its own close connection to California. Before the arrival of the railroad, Spokane relied on the Columbia River and distant Portland for access to California markets while Seattle depended on direct shipping via Puget Sound for its trading livelihood.

The arrival of the railroad freed both cities from the maritime geography of nature and commerce in the Northwest. The extension of the Northern Pacific to Spokane in 1883 and the Great Northern to Seattle in 1893, created outlets for both cities besides California. Nature was what lured the railroad to the Northwest in the first place, thanks to generous federal government land grants that made railway companies, such as the Northern Pacific, some of the largest owners of timber and farmland in the region. Eager to develop their holdings, as well as the markets that lay upon their routes, the railroads helped to build the cities as feeder lines, branching out from the trunk lines, snaked into the surrounding forests, farms, and mountains, drawing more people and resources into the urban orbit. The railroads seemed to promise economic independence to Seattle and Spokane, but they also limited how each city could trade with the outside world.

Nowhere was the effect of the railroads more dramatic than in Spokane. From its arrival the Northern Pacific worked with local business interests to build feeder lines into the surrounding mountains and farmland. Henry Villard, then head of the Northern Pacific, realized the potential of tapping the rich lands surrounding Spokane and pushed for extending the road throughout the interior Pacific Northwest during the 1880s. Mineral discoveries in the Coeur d’Alene, Colville, and Kootenai districts north and east of Spokane attracted even more investors and workers. Farms sprouted in the Big Bend region to the west and the Palouse to the south at the turn of the century, thanks to the railroad. The creation of Glacier National Park in 1910 and the rise of tourism and outdoor recreation throughout the nation gave Spokane another hinterland as urban residents and distant visitors came to enjoy the Northwest outdoors. The Great Northern Railway was the most active promoter of the park, offering tourist packages that often included an overnight stay in Spokane. By the 1920s, a network of interconnected feeder lines, often owned by the Northern Pacific or the Great Northern, branched out from Spokane, interlacing with mines in the Idaho panhandle, farms along the Columbia or Snake Rivers, and resorts in the Rocky Mountains. Soon, Spokane referred to its vast tributary region as “the Inland Empire.”

In Seattle, the railroad’s effect was less dramatic but just as profound. The Northern Pacific slighted the city in 1883, choosing Tacoma as its terminus instead. A flurry of real estate speculation left the city with empty retail space and frustrated businesses. When James J. Hill proposed building his Great Northern Railway between St. Paul and the Pacific Northwest, Seattle lobbied to be the western terminus. Hill agreed and began to lay the groundwork to make Seattle his hub. By the time the Great Northern arrived in Seattle in 1893, Hill controlled a large section of the waterfront, built largely upon reclaimed tidelands. The tidelands were the ocean gateway for Hill’s railway. He and other Seattle leaders envisioned a trans-Pacific trade network of rails and steamships, playing upon an old theme in American commerce with China and East Asia. Seattle’s exports to Asia jumped dramatically, as did its shipments to the Midwest. Frederick Weyerhaeuser, a St. Paul neighbor of Hill, came west from the cutover timberlands of the old Northwest with the railroad to harvest trees on public lands in the Pacific Northwest in 1900. Unlike lumber milled earlier at the water’s edge for shipment by boat to San Francisco, Weyerhaeuser timber traveled east to yards in the Twin Cities or Chicago. Seattle had finally broken free of absolute dependency upon California, but like Spokane it was now dependent on Midwestern markets for its livelihood as well.

The railroad also enabled Seattle to take over the Alaska markets that had once belonged to San Francisco, but Seattle did not depend on the railway alone. As a maritime town, Seattle would eventually claim even more tributary territories than Spokane. The 1897 Klondike gold strike gave the city its justification for this expansive hinterland that eventually included Alaska, Canada’s Yukon Territory, and East Asia. Seattle made its fortune on mining the miners who passed through its ports to Alaska and Canada. Companies like Schwabacher Hardware and Filson’s Clothing outfitted prospectors, while Moran Shipyards built flat-bottomed steamers to navigate shallow Arctic rivers. Coupled with the burgeoning Asian market, Seattle soon looked to the entire northern Pacific as its hinterland. The 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, held in Seattle, celebrated such ambitions. It proclaimed Seattle as an imperial city built on the wealth of nature and the effort of enterprising residents. Following the fair, Seattle business interests continued lobbying for Alaskan home rule, expanded extractive industry, and emigration to boost the territory’s population. By helping Alaska to help itself, Seattle benefited its own economic interests.

By the beginning of the 1900s, both cities had matured into regional centers for commerce, trade, and tourism. Spokane grew more independent from Portland’s markets while Seattle outdistanced Tacoma, then Portland, in terms of population and economic power by the early 1900s. Both cities had captured or created hinterlands of their own, exploiting them to the advantage of urban growth and prosperity. Yet relying on nature for economic sustenance was an uncertain affair. When the timber market took a nosedive after World War I, both cities suffered; and when mines ran out or the fisheries grew thin, the local economic effects could be profound.

Having hinterlands did not always mean that nature provided, however. There were other environmental costs, too. Irrigated agriculture in the Inland Empire drew down rivers and imperiled salmon runs as a result. Timber cutting left whole mountainsides susceptible to erosion, choking rivers with debris and posing another threat to migratory salmon. Mining rearranged whole river systems in order to use water to extract valuable ore, leaving behind poisonous tailings and denuded hillsides in its wake.

Forging hinterlands also could bring unwanted changes from those who felt trapped in the urban orbit. Farmers throughout rural Washington, like their compatriots across the United States, banded together beneath the banner of Populism at the turn of the twentieth century to fight against exorbitant railroad shipping rates, expensive agricultural tariffs, and high interest on farm loans. Alaskans welcomed Seattle’s help in their quest for statehood, but often resented how Seattle businesses seemed to profit first.

Urban environmental history, then, is more than about the city. It is also about the connections between the metropolis and the places that change through trade, commerce, and industry. The documents for this section chart how each city created and captured hinterlands to promote growth in the years before World War II. Students should analyze how Seattle used Alaska to boost its fortune, and how Spokane used Idaho mines and eastern Washington farms to fill its civic coffers. Most of these documents come from boosters—groups and individuals, affiliated with business or city government, who tried to attract investment and settlers to their locales. Boosters consciously created particular images of their city, its industries, and its natural resources, but these images, as with any historical document, only tell a partial story of the past.

Spokane: Documents and Questions

Booster pamphlets, Chamber of Commerce reports, and tourist guides are all documents written to entice investors and settlers. The following six documents from Spokane illustrate the changing ways that urban boosters used images of nature to sell their city and its proclaimed hinterland. Consider the following questions as you analyze these documents:


1. Spokane Falls. John F. Carrère, Spokane Falls, Washington Territory, and its Tributary Country, Comprising All of Eastern Washington and the Idaho Panhandle (Spokane: City Council and Board of Trade, 1889).

2. Spokane Transportation. John R. Reavis, First Annual Report of the Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce of Spokane for the Year 1891 (Spokane: W.D. Knight, 1892).

3. Spokane County. Rev. Jonathan Edwards, An Illustrated History of Spokane County (Spokane [?]: W. H. Lever, 1900).

4. Spokane Country Irrigation. Spokane Chamber of Commerce, Tourist’s Guide to Spokane and Environs (Spokane: Chamber of Commerce, c. 1920?).

5. Farming in the Inland Empire. Spokane Chamber of Commerce, A Farm Home For You in the Inland Empire (Spokane: Chamber of Commerce, c. 1930?).

6. National Parks. Spokane Chamber of Commerce, Spokane: In the Land of National Parks (Spokane: Chamber of Commerce, Publicity Tourist Bureau, c. 1935?).

Seattle: Documents and Questions

Beginning with the arrival of the railroad and the Klondike gold rush, Seattle political and business leaders developed Alaska as a hinterland for their city. (For more information on Seattle’s relationship with Alaska, see the Klondike curriculum packet developed by Kathryn Morse, available through this site.) These documents illustrate how some Seattleites before World War II imagined how Alaska’s natural abundance could boost Seattle’s fortunes. They also show how Seattle tied itself to Alaska and East Asia through transportation, politics, and commerce. Consider the following questions as you analyze these documents:


7. Industries and Products of King County. Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Statistical and Descriptive Report of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce to the Governor of Washington Territory (Seattle: Hanford, 1884).

8. Building Seattle. George H. Emerson, The Building of a Modern City (Seattle: Metropolitan Building Company, 1907) [from an address given to the stockholders on 14 October 1907], Pacific Northwest Collections, University of Washington Libraries.

9. AYPE Post Card. Statue of Liberty postcard from the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Postcard Collection, Pacific Northwest Collections, University of Washington Libraries, c. 1909.

10. Official AYPE Program. Official Daily Program of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, 9 July 1909, Pacific Northwest Collections, University of Washington Libraries.

11. Editorial cartoon. Alaska/Yukon Magazine, (July 1909): 266.

12. Alaska Resources. E. B. Newman, Manager, The Alaska and Northwest Mining Journal, to Sen. M. C. Poindexter, 14 January 1916, Miles C. Poindexter Papers, Acc. 3828, Ser. III, 142/7, University of Washington Libraries.

13. Alaska Resources. J. L. McPherson, Manager, Seattle Chamber of Commerce: Alaska Bureau, to Sen. M. C. Poindexter, 17 May 1916, Miles C. Poindexter Papers, Acc. 3828, Ser. III, 142/5, University of Washington Libraries.

14. "Alaska: Our Frontier Wonderland" (promotional literature, c. 1918), Miles C. Poindexter Papers, Acc. 3828, Ser. III, 142/2, University of Washington Libraries.

15. Smith Tower Directory. Directory (Seattle: L. C. Smith Building, 1920), Pacific Northwest Collections, University of Washington Libraries.

16. Industrial Conditions in Alaska. "Statement of the Present Commercial and Industrial Conditions in the Territory of Alaska," Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Alaska Department, 31 October 1925, Charles Darwin Garfield Papers, Acc. 241, 9/14, University of Washington Libraries.

17. Alaska Department, 1906. "Annual Report, Alaska Department, 1926," 14 December 1926, Charles Darwin Garfield Papers, Acc. 241, 9/14, University of Washington Libraries.

18. "Seattle, Ten Years Hence." R. H. Thomson, "Seattle, Ten Years Hence" [speech, c. 1928], 1, 3-4, 6-7. R. H. Thomson Papers, Accession 89, Part 1, Box 13, Folder 5, University of Washington Libraries.

19. Purposes and Activities of the Alaska Department. "Memorandum, Purposes and Activities of the Alaska Department," [c. 1930], Charles Darwin Garfield Papers, Acc. 241, 9/5, University of Washington Libraries.

20. Alaska Trade. A. A. Dwyer, Advertising Department, The Alaska Weekly, to C. D. Garfield, 6 January 1931, Charles Darwin Garfield Papers, Acc. 241, 9/5, University of Washington Libraries.

21. Alaska Promotional Literature. "Alaska Vacationland," March 1938. Alaska Steamship Company Papers, Acc. #1585, Box 63, University of Washington Libraries.

22. Future of Seattle. Seattle Strides Forward in Seven League Boots (Seattle: Chamber of Commerce, 1945), Charles Darwin Garfield Papers, Acc. 241, 8/3, University of Washington Libraries.

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Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest