Spokane policing pioneer honored
As part of an ongoing historical remembrance project, each May the Fairmount Memorial Association commemorates Law Enforcement Week by erecting a monument to honor a law enforcement officer from Spokane’s past. This is done with the help of the Spokane Police Department History Book Committee and Spokane Law Enforcement Museum, its partners in the project.
This year’s honoree, William H. Lewis, was a man whose impact on law enforcement and the Spokane Police Department was especially significant. The monument to this pioneer in law enforcement is located at Greenwood Memorial Terrace, where Lewis was laid to rest in July 1944.
Lewis’ remarkable public life began with a huge historical event, which he came upon by chance. As a stagecoach driver in Montana, Wyoming and the Black Hills, Lewis wrote in his memoirs that at age 21, he was the first civilian to come upon Gen. Custer’s battlefield just after the fateful Little Bighorn battle in 1876. As he took in all that lay before him, he picked up from the ground a flute made from the barrel of a Springfield rifle. That flute now resides in the Spokane Law Enforcement Museum, said Sue Walker, museum director.
After working as a policeman in Montana, Lewis moved with his wife and children to Spokane Falls in 1887 and again took up law enforcement work. One day he wore his old Helena Police Department uniform while on patrol. It had such a positive effect that Spokane Police Chief Joel Warren ordered everyone to wear one – and so began the tradition of uniformed police officers in the city.
In 1897 Lewis became Spokane’s first police photographer and established the department’s identification unit. He added fingerprint records to the photo files, and his rogues’ gallery became the biggest in the state and one of the most complete in the nation. In his book “Life Behind the Badge: The Spokane Police Department’s Founding Years, 1881-1903,” historian Tony Bamonte wrote that law enforcement officers came from all across the country to view the system and learn from Lewis.
Lewis and a city electrician designed the department’s first automated police signal, and their call boxes were installed on 24 street corners in the downtown area in 1909. He was named the department’s first detective and later the first inspector, a rank equivalent to deputy chief, Walker said. He was also the first patrol driver, according to a 1937 article in The Spokesman-Review.
In 1903 Lewis was the prime mover in forming the Spokane Police Beneficial Association, an organization to provide for the families of officers injured in the line of duty, funded by monthly dues and fundraising activities. Later he was instrumental in creating a retirement system for the department.
In addition, he often acted as chief of security at the Spokane Interstate Fair and served on dignitary details such as for presidential visits and security for the national tour of the Liberty Bell in 1915. He retired from the department in 1918 at age 62 after 27 years of service to Spokane. And of all that he saw and did during his years, he wrote that the most difficult time was during the rebuilding of the city after the Great Fire of 1889.
Walker said Lewis was known to be a strong family man who did have another passion – bowling, for which he was also scored a trailblazer. He is credited with being the first person to roll a bowling ball in 1889 during the dedication of the first bowling alley in the city. In retirement, he was president of the Dutch Club, a bowling team whose 12 charter members were of Dutch heritage.
Well into retirement in the 1930s, as a Spokane pioneer, Lewis was named chief of police for a day by then-Chief Ira Martin. He died at age 88 in 1944, still living in his home at 1623 W. Sharp Avenue, the same home where he brought his young family so many years earlier.
Members of the Lewis family worked with the Fairmount remembrance project to honor their ancestor with the special monument. Walker noted that at the dedication, which was held May 13, an antique police car was present and a museum representative was dressed in an old uniform typical of the one worn by Lewis.
“It is our pleasure to honor individuals like William Lewis who gave so much to our community,” she said.
Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.