On Armistice Day in 1930, a crowd estimated at 40,000 packed a square at the intersection of Monroe Street and Main Avenue downtown to watch the unveiling of Spokane’s 12-foot bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln.
Because Lincoln had used the telegraph to command Union troops, organizers arranged to have President Herbert Hoover, in Washington, D.C., trigger the unveiling by pressing a golden telegraph key.
At 1:05 p.m. on Nov. 11, 1930, the signal went out from the White House over Western Union Telegraph wire, tripping a mechanism that released a large Richfield Oil Company balloon brought to Spokane from Los Angeles by the company for the event. The balloon lifted two American flags, unveiling the statue.
A band of 150 students from Lewis and Clark and North Central high schools played. Airplanes dropped colored streamers. The crowd sprawled out in four directions along intersecting streets. People spilled onto the south end of the Monroe Street Bridge.
The idea for the statue came from the city’s numerous patriotic groups, including the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Washington and Alaska, a group formed after the Civil War to advocate for Union veterans, and its affiliate, the Daughters of the Grand Army of the Republic.
During the unveiling, the president of the Lincoln Memorial Association told the crowd that the statue reveals “the dignity, the strength, the power and the kindly sympathy” of Lincoln.
At the time, the statue was said to be the only known monument depicting Lincoln as commander in chief of the Union forces. An Army coat rests over his right shoulder; his stovepipe beaver hat in his left hand.
Seattle sculptor Alonzo Victor Lewis was commissioned in 1923 to create the bronze statue for $25,000, and brought his command of historic detail to the project.
Reported to be a descendant of Meriwether Lewis, Alonzo Victor Lewis was a colorful figure.
The University of Washington art professor raised a fuss in Seattle when he created a “doughboy” bronze as a World War I memorial in Seattle. It depicted an Army soldier carrying one or two German helmets around his pack and showing what some thought was a crazed look in the soldier’s eyes. The German helmets were mysteriously removed.
His other sculptures include a Lincoln statue in Tacoma and a “sourdough” miner in Sitka, Alaska. In 1939, the Washington Legislature declared him the state’s sculptor laureate.
Statue organizers in Spokane initially hoped to unveil the monument in June 1923 during an encampment of the Grand Army veterans in Spokane that year. The statue was intended to honor those who fought in the Civil War.
Money was slow to come in, and organizers turned to schoolchildren, who contributed pennies and nickels in a fund drive that old-timers in Spokane recalled for many years afterward.
Lewis spent two years carving the piece from 4 tons of clay. The model sat in his studio for several years while Spokane organizers sought to raise the balance of the $25,000 commission.
One news report said Lewis could have sold the sculpture, and that other cities wanted it, but he remained committed to his deal with Spokane, where he is said to have lived for a time before moving to Seattle.
Once the money was raised in 1930, the clay model was shipped to New York, where it was cast in bronze and returned to Spokane by rail.
In 1930, racial discrimination held its grip over the nation. Lincoln was revered more for saving the Union than he was for freeing the slaves, and the statue – a half block from Lincoln Street – had been a focal point for Veterans Day events.
Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, a group of mostly young residents marched from East Spokane to the Lincoln statue carrying signs decrying racism.