Everybody knows that salmon once surged through the Spokane River.
But not everyone knows that it was, literally, one of the king rivers of the Northwest:
The Spokane River spawned the biggest of the big salmon, summer chinooks (kings) that were commonly 50 to 80 pounds.
The Spokane River was one of the most productive salmon streams in the entire Columbia system.
The summer fishing camps at Spokane Falls were famous among many tribes, even tribes from far away.
The total number of salmon running up the Spokane probably approached a million annually, of which about 300,000 were harvested by the Spokane tribe and other tribes.
Spokane’s early hotels did a thriving business among Eastern fishermen. The salmon were Spokane’s first major tourist attraction.
And then they were gone.
After hundreds of thousands of years of salmon runs, it took less than a century to kill off the runs entirely. Actually, it took less than two days - the day that Long Lake Dam blocked the upper three-quarters of the Spokane in 1915, and the day that the Grand Coulee Dam blocked the Columbia and the rest of the Spokane, in 1939. Both dams went up without fish ladders.
Today, it’s hard to even visualize how alive the river used to be with fish.
In 1839, The Rev. Elkanah Walker, a missionary, wrote the following about a Spokane Indians fishing camp at Little Falls on the Spokane: “It is not uncommon for them to take 1,000 in a day. It is an interesting sight to see the salmon pass a rapid. The number was so great that there were hundreds constantly out of the water.”
The famous British botanist David Douglas wrote this in 1826: “The natives constructed a barrier across the Little Spokane (where it enters the Spokane). … After the traps filled with salmon, the Indians would spear them. 1,700 salmon were taken this day, now two o’clock; how many more may still be in the snare, I do not know.”
And these two fishing camps, at Little Falls and at the mouth of the Little Spokane, weren’t even the biggest of the three main fishing sites on the Spokane River. The premier camp was the big one just below the Spokane Falls, smack in the middle of what is now the city of Spokane.
Few, if any, salmon could get above the falls; most of these enormous “hogs” spawned right there.
“Large schools of salmon swam around in circles, between the falls and Bowl and Pitcher,” said Dr. Allan Scholz, a fisheries biology professor at Eastern Washington University. “At the confluence of Latah Creek, there were shoals of salmon that just sat there.”
It was as important as any fishing site on the Columbia itself, including the famous fishing spots at Celilo Falls near The Dalles and Kettle Falls, according to Scholz.
Debbie Finley, a historian, member of the Colville Confederated Tribes and granddaughter of a Spokane Indian elder, said that anywhere between 200 and 5,000 Indians gathered on the Spokane every year, some of them coming from hundreds of miles away.
“My original people are from the Arrow Lakes in Canada, and we came down in birch-bark canoes, for thousands and thousands of years,” said Finley.
In fact, when Lewis and Clark came down the Clearwater in 1805, they wondered where all the Nez Perce were. They were told: They’re up on the Spokane River, fishing.
A salmon chief from the resident Spokane tribe would oversee the fishing and then oversee the distribution of the catch equally among all the diverse bands.
“Every single person received equally, no matter their age,” said Finley.
According to Scholz, the Spokane Indians depended more heavily on salmon for sustenance than almost any other tribe in the entire Columbia system. An Indian agent in 1866 estimated that salmon made up five-eighths of their total diet.
Thousands of enormous chinooks would be spread out to be sun-dried, wind-dried or smoked. The preserved fish lasted through the winter and were traded to other tribes for buffalo hides, shells and obsidian.
And when the fishing was done, the games would begin. On the plain where West Riverside Avenue stretches today, the Indians established a horse-racing course.
The salmon camps persisted even after the city of Spokane Falls was established in 1881. The salmon camps lasted until the salmon no longer came in 1915.
The white settlers, too, took advantage of the river’s richness. Around the turn of the century, The Spokesman-Review was full of stories of 50-pounders being taken by fishermen.
“At one time, Spokane was internationally known for its fishing,” said Scholz, upon whose research most of this article is based. “Some of the big hotels were built in part to bring people here for these kind of fishing experiences.”
Not only was the river famous for its chinook salmon run, but it also had two steelhead runs, a small coho run, and, above the falls, a huge population of cutthroat trout.
When Lt. N. Abercrombie of the U.S. Army went fishing on Havermale Island (Riverfront Park) in 1877, he wrote: “Caught 400 (cutthroat) trout, weighing two to five pounds apiece. As fast as we dropped in a hook baited with a grasshopper, we would catch a big trout. In fact, the greatest part of the work was catching the grasshopper.”
There’s a sound biological explanation for all of this abundance. The Spokane River just plain had more fish-food than most streams, mainly insects.
“The invertebrate numbers are astoundingly high, even now,” said Scholz.
The Spokane aquifer deserves the credit for this. Cool underground water gushes into the Spokane River at a number of spots, keeping the stream cool in the summer and unfrozen in the winter. These are ideal conditions for developing a “really large invertebrate population,” said Scholz.
Even with those advantages, the Spokane salmon could not survive what happened between about 1870 and 1939. The first blow came with the development of commercial salmon canneries on the lower Columbia. Those canneries went after the biggest chinooks, which happened to be the Spokane River strain. By the late 1880s, the Spokane runs had noticeably shrunk, said Scholz.
Then came two much more serious blows. Little Falls Dam, right near one of the main salmon camps, was completed in 1911. It had only a rudimentary fish ladder; there was some dispute over whether fish could negotiate it at all.
By 1915, it was a moot point. Long Lake Dam was built that year, four miles above Little Falls Dam, without any fish ladder at all.
“It was a sad day for the pioneers who had grown to depend on the salmon as one of their staple foods,” wrote D.L. McDonald, a settler on the Spokane River, quoted in “The Spokane River: Its Miles and Its History” by John Fahey and Bob Dellwo. “But for the Indians, it was a catastrophe.”
Salmon were restricted to the lower 28 miles of the river below Little Falls. Then in 1939, the Grand Coulee Dam blocked off the Columbia, which sealed the salmon off from the entire Spokane River.
“Of those really large strains that came into this area, it’s unlikely that there are any (genetic) remnants left,” said Scholz.
Today the Spokane River is mostly a slow-water river. Instead of salmon, it contains carp, bass, bluegills, northern pike, yellow perch and “lots of suckers,” said Scholz.
The free-flowing sections - from Riverfront State Park upstream to Post Falls - still contain good populations of trout, feeding on those prolific insects.
But those 50-plus pound chinooks are visible only to those who use their imagination.
“I’m a little wistful that I wasn’t here to see it,” said Scholz. “And from the standpoint of the environment, I’m just aghast. We’ve gone from a river system that was very productive to one that is totally regulated. But the biggest thing is the loss of the Indian culture.”
It’s an ache that remains acute. In 1972, Chief Alex Sherwood of the Spokane tribe stood on a restaurant deck, looking out over the falls, and looked back in time. In “The Spokane River: Its Miles and Its History,” co-author Bob Dellwo quoted the chief’s words that day:
“Sometimes even now I find a lonely spot where the river still runs wild. I find myself talking to it. I might ask, ‘River, do you remember how it used to be - the game, the fish, the pure water, the roar of the falls, boats, canoes, fishing platforms? You fed and took care of our people then. For thousands of years we walked your banks and used your waters. You would always answer when our chiefs called to you with their prayer to the river spirit.’ Sometimes I stand and shout, ‘RIVER, DO YOU REMEMBER US?”’
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos