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Pettet may have met Donner Party

Runners fight to the top of Pettet Drive – Doomsday Hill – during the 2008 Bloomsday race in Spokane.  (File)
Runners fight to the top of Pettet Drive – Doomsday Hill – during the 2008 Bloomsday race in Spokane. (File)

The tens of thousands of participants in Bloomsday, Spokane’s annual 7.5-mile springtime race, pretty much dread the same thing – that long uphill grind along Pettet Drive, known as Doomsday Hill, which comes about two-thirds of the way through the race on the city’s North Side.

And while the runners might not be thinking of this at the time, it might be interesting to know who is this Pettet fellow whose three-quarter-mile-long hill causes such pain, and why does it bear his name?

William Pettet was one of the group of pioneers who helped develop Spokane, and like many of them, he arrived anticipating that the coming growth of the region might be profitable for a man of vision. But unlike many of them, he was quite a bit older when he got here – 65 years old, in fact. And as it so often turns out, a small mention of an event from the early part of his interesting life may be the most intriguing thing that lingers in the imagination (more on that shortly).

Born to a wealthy family in England in 1818, he came to America at 18 and opened a drug store with two physicians in Mobile, Ala. When he was 21, he founded a commission house in New York City and then began his westward migration, serving as city clerk and then as the appointed sheriff of San Francisco. He returned to New York and Europe for some years before finally arriving in Spokane in 1883.

He purchased from William Maxwell, Spokane’s first commercial photographer, a homestead on 43 acres overlooking the Spokane River on what is now Spokane’s North Side. Maxwell had constructed a log house on the property at 1735 North West Point Road in 1872. This house, which has since been remodeled around the original structure, is the oldest existing house of record in Spokane, according to local historian Tony Bamonte in his book “Manito Park: A Reflection of Spokane’s Past.” West Point Road intersects with Pettet Drive, the route down to the river and up which Bloomsday runners endure on their way to the finish line.

In his 1912 book “Spokane and the Inland Empire,” N.W. Durham chronicles Pettet’s history in Spokane, including his real estate investments, among which was the block on which the county courthouse stands, and his other business activities, especially the partnership that brought permanent arc lights to the city’s streets and was responsible for the founding of The Washington Water Power Co. He was considered one of the wealthiest people in Spokane.

In the spring of 1889, three months before the great fire that consumed the downtown area, Pettet was hit hard by typhoid fever, from which he never fully recovered. He did travel back to England for a three-year visit and was preparing to return to Spokane when he was taken ill in London. He died there at age 86 in 1904.

But it was during his first journey to the West Coast that perhaps the most historically curious event transpired. It was November 1846 and, according to Durham, “when near Truckee lake they were overtaken by a snowstorm at which time Mr. Pettet joined a party of six and started for the Sacramento valley, leaving behind their wagons and about 60 people who, refusing to proceed, camped by the lake. Mr. Pettet and his companions reached Sutter’s Fort in safety but those who remained all perished save four and these were insane when they finally secured assistance.”

In his book, Bamonte notes that this description and time frame parallels that of the Donner Party, that group of westward travelers whose decision to take a shortcut and whose delayed departure led to them being trapped by snow during the winter of 1846-’47 and about whom many stories have been told, mostly because of the cannibalism which is said to have occurred.

According to Bamonte, “…there is inconclusive evidence that Pettet was a member of this [the Donner] group. He is not included on the frequently published Donner party lists, but it was not unusual for people to have joined or departed from a wagon train along the way with no definitive record. In addition, though certainly the most well-known case, the Donner Party was not the only group to have met with such a tragic fate in the struggle to reach the old Oregon Country.”

The evidence may be inconclusive, but the imagination soars. Did William Pettet interact with the Donner group? Was he for a time indeed part of the group? What prompted him to set out – and hence survive – when the others didn’t? Answers to those questions are lost in history.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by e-mail at Previous columns are available at