V. The River City: Planning and Design along the Spokane River

While Seattle regraded hills, dug canals, and straightened rivers, Spokane grew up around its namesake. From the earliest days of Euro-American settlement, Spokanites saw the Spokane River as a symbol. The original name for the city, Spokane Falls, emphasized the importance of the river to civic identity. Originally a site for industry, the Spokane River later became a place for parks. Yet even this new emphasis on preserving the “scenic” river reflects a change in attitude that scenic nature could turn profits as lucrative as industrialized nature.

Initially, the river mattered because it provided energy for industry and commerce. James Glover, the so-called “father of Spokane,” saw the importance of the river when he remembered his first visit in 1873. In an oral interview several decades later, Glover recalled that the river “lay just as nature had made it, with nothing to mar its virgin glory. I was determined that I would possess it.” Glover’s attitudes reflected mid-nineteenth century values toward natural resources, especially water, where the first claimants claimed superior and unalienable rights to ownership and development. Glover’s “owning-it-all” mentality was typical of many settlers in the nineteenth-century West, but his prediction that controlling the river would yield power proved accurate. Later Spokane residents used the river to power sawmills, remove industrial waste, and generate electricity. Havermale Island, located in the middle of the river, adjacent to the city’s downtown business district, became a railroad yard, housing engines and cars from the Great Northern, Northern Pacific, and other railways. River and rail became intertwined. Trains brought silver ore from Idaho, wheat from the Palouse, or timber from the Okanogan Valley into Spokane, where mills used power from the river to transform them into commodities like flour, lumber, and ingots for sale across the nation.

Not everyone saw the river in strictly industrial terms, however. By the turn of the century, Spokane residents worried about the loss of open space and scenery within an industrial, congested city. In 1908, John C. Olmsted of the Olmsted Brothers visited Spokane and identified the river as a prime park site. Olmsted also submitted a report calling for more parks, boulevards and playgrounds in Spokane. Such improvements, they argued, needed to happen quickly before available and inexpensive land disappeared. Aubrey L. White, Spokane’s first park board president, followed the Olmsted’s recommendations enthusiastically. He led the planting of 80,000 trees along Spokane streets, persuaded voters to approve a one-million dollar bond issue in 1910, and encouraged real estate developers such as Jay Graves to donate land to the city. The riverfront, though, was not set aside for parks because it remained too valuable to industry and real estate developers.

Making parks did not free the river from industrial development or the control of Spokane’s business community. What changed was how Spokane business saw the river and its effect on their economic livelihood. Before and during World War II, the railroads increased their operations on Havermale Island. Simultaneously, as more migrants poured into Spokane, enjoying high employment rates and low housing costs, businesses and shoppers moved to the expanding suburbs. Newcomers settled in outlying towns like Airway Heights and took their business away from Spokane’s Central Business District. Downtown businesses quickly learned that the railroad and industry repelled these new suburbanites, who preferred shopping in quieter, less-crowded, less blighted suburban shopping malls. Highways replaced rails as the preferred avenues for shipping while serving as escape routes for residents leaving for the suburbs. The switching yards and roundhouses, ringed by a phalanx of warehouses and terminals, began to slide into decay along with its once vital retail core. As in postwar Seattle, suburban growth became an enemy to manage instead of a friend to embrace. Downtown firms began to blame the railroad and the suburbs for the problems of the central business district.

There was little that Spokane could do to stop suburban growth. Indeed, as throughout most of its history, Spokane had embraced growth. In 1940, the mostly rural Spokane Valley had a population of 10,000; by 1960, the population had jumped to 45,000 and again in 1970 to 60,000—making the area nearly a city in its own right. Suburbanization created a whole new set of environmental problems for city and county officials to manage. The sudden growth left the suburbs without adequate sewer and water systems. The rocky valley soil made sewage disposal easy, but it also allowed sewage to mix with the city’s underground aquifer, an important drinking water supply. The Spokane County Commission, formed to oversee rural problems, was unable to handle the situation.

As in Seattle, regional solutions seemed to be the only remedy. Spokane voters changed their city government from rule by commission to rule by city manager, hoping for more effective ways to manage sprawl while promoting urban renewal. The city also began to work with county officials to plan for improved water quality, sewerage lines, and zoning ordinances. But as in Seattle, Spokane area voters rejected transit initiatives, relying on the new regime of the car and freeway.

Nevertheless, urban redevelopment and environmental planning did find some support among Spokanites who hoped that the river could now power urban renewal. In 1959, Spokane business and downtown property owners founded Spokane Unlimited, a group committed to reviving the city’s retail core. As early as 1961, Spokane Unlimited director, King Cole, suggested turning Havermale Island into a park or cultural center. Eventually, Cole and his allies latched onto an even grander ambition: bringing a world’s fair to Spokane. As with Seattle’s 1909 fair, Spokane leaders would use the exposition to redesign their city. Cole suggested the theme of ecology, playing to popular concerns, and set about acquiring Havermale Island from the railroads. The negotiations, which lasted most of the 1960s, led to an agreement between the city and the four railroads that used the island as a switchyard. With the lands in hand, Spokane Unlimited gave birth to the Spokane Exposition Association, which then turned to private investors, state legislators, and Congress to provide the funds for the world’s fair.

The theme of Spokane’s fair, Expo’74, “Man and the Environment,” demonstrated how Spokanites had rediscovered their river. Fair backers proclaimed that this was the first environmental world exposition, and that Spokane’s plan would be at the forefront of ecological sensitivity. By the early 1970s, environmentalism had become a powerful national and regional political movement, but it was more than lobbying and sloganeering. According to many postwar historians, environmentalism had become a way of life for many Americans, especially urban and suburban Americans, who increasingly defined their relationship to nature through consumer culture. Buying environmentally friendly products, practicing recycling or composting, spending money on outdoor gear and vacations in national parks, and pasting green-minded bumper stickers on cars became markers of this new environmental consciousness. Northwesterners in particular cultivated this idea of an ecologically sensitive lifestyle native to the region, a notion reinforced by Ernest Callenbach’s cult classic novel, Ecotopia, published in 1972, which told of a future where northern California and the Pacific Northwest seceded from the United States to found an independent state based upon environmental sustainability. When the doors to Expo’74 opened in the summer of 1974, visitors were already predisposed to see Spokane’s fair as yet another celebration of how the Northwest led the nation in its efforts to protect the environment.

While the environmental merits of Expo’74 are questionable, the fair did succeed in bringing the river back into the heart of the city. It also provided Spokane with new space for an opera house and civic center while attracting shoppers and retailers to the central business district. Riding the crest of the successful fair, Riverfront Park opened nearby in 1976, attracting swarms of people back to the city. Today, a refurbished island stands in the middle of a reclaimed space filled with museums, parks, and other civic facilities. Expo’74 did not stop urban sprawl or solve Spokane’s persistent environmental problems, but it did help to revive a dying downtown.

The following primary sources, from pioneer reminiscences to planning reports, trace the development of Spokane’s urban planning, focusing on its park system. This section concludes by focusing on Expo’74. Consider the following questions when analyzing these documents:

57. Palouse Country. James N. Glover, Reminiscences of James N. Glover (Fairfield, Wash.: Ye Galleon Press, 1985), 9-20.

58. Spokane Parks. "Report, Olmsted Brothers, to A. L. White, Board of Park Commissioners, Spokane," in Board of Park Commissioners, Spokane – Annual Report, 1891-1913 (Spokane: Board of Park Commissioners, 1914), 71-75, 88-97.

59. Spokane Business District. Spokane City Plan Commission, Land Use, City Plan Series I, Report No. 4 (Spokane: City Plan Commission, 1954), 33-36.

60. Riverfront Development Program. Spokane City Plan Commission, Parks and Open Spaces Plan, City Plan Series I, Report No. 14 (Spokane: City Plan Commission, 1965), 73-80.

61. Expo'74 Chronology. Charles Henley, "Chronology of Events Leading up to Expo’74," Expo’74 Papers, Box 3, Eastern Washington State Historical Society.

62. Improving Spokane's River Area. L. J. Pospisil, "Suggested Improvements in Downtown Spokane’s River Area," 23 July 1952, Spokane Chamber of Commerce Papers, Box N, Eastern Washington State Historical Society.

63. Meeting of Spokane Property Owners. "Minutes, Downtown Property Owners," 13 August 1959, Spokane Chamber of Commerce Papers, Box M, Eastern Washington State Historical Society.

64. Meeting of Spokane Property Owners. "Minutes of the Meeting of the Downtown Property Owners," 16 April 1959, Spokane Chamber of Commerce Papers, Box M, Eastern Washington State Historical Society.

65. Downtown Spokane Property Owners. List of Downtown Property Owners, c. 1959, Spokane Chamber of Commerce Papers, Box M, Eastern Washington State Historical Society.

66. Downtown Development Committee. "Notes from Letter of L. B. Cornish," [J. C. Penney Co. representative, Downtown Property Owners], Spokane Chamber of Commerce Papers, Box M, Eastern Washington State Historical Society.

67. Membership Roster, Spokane Unlimited, c. 1963, King Cole Papers, Box IV, Eastern Washington State Historical Society.

68. Prospectus for 1973 Centennial and Exposition. King Cole, "Prospectus for 1973 Centennial and Exposition," 29 March 1970, Luke Williams, Jr. Papers, Box 42, Eastern Washington State Historical Society.

69. Spokane Ecology Exposition. Economic Research Associates, "Plan and Feasibility of Proposed Spokane Ecology Exposition," 1970, King Cole Papers, Box I, Eastern Washington State Historical Society.

70. Planning Expo'74. A. Jerry Keyser, Executive Vice President, Metrecon Division, Larry, Smith, and Company, Inc. to King Cole, 25 May 1971, King Cole Papers, Box I, Eastern Washington State Historical Society.

71. Environmental Impact of Expo'74. Environmental Impact Statement (Spokane: Spokane World Exposition, March 1972), 1-7.

72. Expo '74. Dawn Bowers, Expo’74: World’s Fair Spokane (Spokane: Expo’74 Corporation, 1974), 1-2.

73. Environment May Get Lost. Milton R. Moskowitz, "Expo’74: Spokane – The Environment May Get Lost," Cry California 9:3 (Summer 1974): 28-32.

74. King Cole [interview with Sean Elwood], 9 June 1975, Expo’74 Transcripts, Eastern Washington State Historical Society.

75. Tom Adkison [interview with Sean Elwood], 8 April 1975, Expo’74 Transcripts, Eastern Washington State Historical Society.

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