As social revolutions go, this one was a whopper.
The automobile revolution began nearly 100 years ago, and it profoundly changed America and the Inland Northwest. In the space of one generation, maybe two, the automobile had cleared the road of all challengers.
Here’s a quick guide to the revolution, Inland Northwest version:
F.O. Berg, the Spokane tent manufacturer, was the first person to own an automobile in Spokane, and maybe even the first to own one west of the Mississippi. He bought his in 1899.
Spokane’s most famous early motorist was the formidable Agnes McDonald, who “was noted for parking with impunity wherever she wished,” according to Laura Arksey of the Cheney Cowles Museum. One of McDonald’s electric cars is now enshrined in the museum.
By 1913, there were enough automobile owners to fill up the 48-page “Spokane Automobile Guide and Directory,” which listed every automobile owner in Spokane, plus their car model and license number.
Mud was the biggest problem for early motorists - the Inland Northwest had no paved roads at the advent of the automobile.
The automobile changed rural life every bit as profoundly as urban life. Farm families could spend every Saturday in town if they wanted.
Thanks to Spokane civic leader Frank Guilbert, Spokane became a leader in the national Good Roads movement and the Automobile Association movement (which we now know as Triple A). In 1913, Collier’s Magazine said that Guilbert’s Inland Automobile Association was the most progressive automobile association in the country.
Early motorists couldn’t really count on being able to get over the Cascades to Seattle. Detours all the way to Portland were common.
By the 1930s, Spokane’s streetcars and interurban railroads were dead, killed by the auto.
Most of these points will be covered by Arksey, the special collections librarian at the Cheney Cowles Museum, in a lecture she will give on Wednesday entitled “From Horseless Carriage to Flivver: The Car Comes to the Inland Northwest.” Much of this article is based on her research.
F.O. Berg probably had no idea what he was starting when he bought that first steam-driven car in 1899. But he must have recognized sooner than anyone else that the automobile was the coming thing. Berg was not just the first Spokane man to buy a car; he was also the second Spokane man to buy a car.
In fact, a 1909 Spokane Chronicle article credited him with being the “first owner of an automobile west of the Mississippi.” There’s no way to confirm this claim. But since the motorcar fad didn’t take hold among New York’s upper crust until 1899, the claim is at least plausible.
Cars were still a novelty for the rich, but then along came Henry Ford’s Model T in 1908. Immediately, the car became a product of mass consumption. The Spokane Chronicle estimated that in June 1909 there were 500 motorcars (or flivvers) in Spokane.
Cars, however, need roads, and those were still sadly lacking. All of Spokane County had just 60 miles of “improved” roads in 1912, and “improved” meant only: gravel.
Unimproved meant muddy ruts.
“Seventy miles in only three hours and a half is probably the record auto run from Chewelah to Spokane,” crowed the Spokane Chronicle in 1909. “This fast time was made by H.J. Banta of the Northwest Auto Supply Co. while returning home with a party of friends after a fishing trip. Banta states that in some places the roads were almost impassable, but without this handicap, the time would have been considerably better.”
So Guilbert (“an incredible civic leader,” said Arksey) took it upon himself to start the Spokane County Good Roads Association and the Inland Automobile Association. Not only did these organizations lobby for paved roads, but they also erected road signs and worked out the basic motoring rules, which eventually became law.
And Guilbert himself wasn’t above measuring and documenting faulty pavement work and then using his data and photographs to take a road contractor to court.
The result was that Spokane was “just plain the progressive city of the region” when it came to cars and roads in the 1910s and 1920s, said Arksey.
Autos and paved roads also had a huge impact on the lives of rural families in the region. A farm couple could come into the county seat for the dance every Saturday night if they wanted to.
“It relieved rural isolation,” said Arksey. “It was social as well as economic.”
But the economic factor was huge, because a motor truck and a good road allowed farmers to get their crops to market any time of year, instead of just during the few non-muddy months of summer.
“In fact, one of the main goals of the Good Roads movement was to connect all of the county seats and also to connect small towns with railheads,” said Arksey.
The auto also made possible a new form of tourism. Guilbert saw the vast potential for motor vacations and helped organize what he called Pathfinder Tours.
A group of cars would embark on a highly publicized motor trip from, for instance, Spokane to Seattle (1912), or Chicago to Tacoma (1916). The latter trip took 33 days, and Guilbert made certain the route went through Spokane.
Soon, Spokane had a municipal campground, strictly for car-trippers, at High Bridge Park. Travelers would typically carry poles and an awning and use the car as one side of their “tent.” Water and bathrooms were provided in a common building.
Even the Davenport Hotel, built for luxury rail travelers, began to cater to the motoring crowd by about 1921. A Davenport billboard on one of the roads into town said, “Come just as you are!”
Davenport or not, long-distance motor trips could be an adventure. Here’s an account of a 1918 car trip from Okanogan to Seattle, describing the ascent of Blewett Pass:
“We had a fine time climbing up the mountains. Once, the men in all the cars had to get out a push a fine Ford up the hill. There were about six cars in a string going up. Every now and then, we had to get out and fill the radiator with water, and then start the climb again. When we reached the summit, we all piled out and wrote our names and addresses in a book in a little cabin by the roadside.”
Not everyone was so lucky. Arksey said two women who tried to get over the Cascades to Olympia in the spring of 1918 had to detour all the way to The Dalles and Portland because Snoqualmie was all mud. Even then, they had to dig the car out of the mud three times between Wenatchee and Goldendale.
At The Dalles they were able to take the Columbia Gorge Highway, which was a marvel of its time. Theodore Roosevelt said, “You have in the Columbia River Highway the most remarkable engineering in the U.S., which for scenic grandeur is not equaled anywhere.”
But most bridges and ferries were still a fright, as described by Wilmer Siegert, a Spokane teenager who made a car trip from Spokane to Hillsboro, Ore., in 1921. Here’s how he describes Central Ferry on the Snake River:
“The ferry was a plank-covered barge, with a light wooden fence on the sides and a slim sapling pole laid across the ends as a barrier. It could carry three or four autos.”
By the 1930s, the revolution was complete. Trolley ridership in Spokane dropped 33 percent between 1922 and 1933. In 1930, The Spokesman-Review estimated that there was one passenger car for every 4.8 people in the Inland Northwest.
The last trolley made its final clang in 1936, and the streets have belonged to the automobile ever since.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.