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Then and Now: Removing rails leads to rebirth

Mon., Nov. 11, 2013

One of the biggest changes to downtown Spokane’s waterfront was the removal of the rails. In the 1960s, city boosters began to dream of a world’s fair around the falls. And one of the biggest roadblocks was the tangle of steel rails that snaked across Havermale Island and along the riverbank. The railroads had carried passengers and freight through town for almost a century, but organizer King Cole and Spokane Unlimited Inc. saw the dingy rail yards and aged depots as a visual blight on the scenic waterway. They needed the railroads to consolidate their yard operations outside the downtown core and combine the traffic onto tracks four blocks to the south, then donate their land to the city. There was no money to buy the land. Four railroads stood in the way: the Great Northern, the Northern Pacific, the Union Pacific and the Milwaukee Road. The GN merged with the NP to become Burlington Northern in 1970 and agreed to consolidate, but organizers needed to speed up their timeline. The UP and Milwaukee Road were more stubborn. They had multiple lanes of elevated tracks beside the Union Depot on Trent Boulevard, now Spokane Falls Boulevard. Pressure came from organizers, the city, business interests and shippers who used the rails. Historian William Youngs told the story in his book “The Fair and the Falls,” revealing that the railroads capitulated after many sensitive negotiations involving complex land deals and contracts. The city even gave the 13th green at Indian Canyon Golf Course to the Northern Pacific so the track, curving northwest from the Latah Creek bridge, could pass overhead. Between 1971 and 1973, tracks were torn up, depots and trestles torn down and the waterfront remade. An Associated Press story from April 1974 said “Expo ’74 is stubbornly succeeding. Its organizers think the fair and the city have something to offer the nation and world. If nothing else, it has rekindled the spirit of Spokane.”   – Jesse Tinsley

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