Tree expert Ed Lester and professional gardener Sally Sullivan got together on a crisp autumn morning recently to compare notes about the history of the John A. Finch Arboretum – a 65-acre botanical treasure at 3404 W. Woodland Blvd.
What became clear in their discussion at the Woodland Center at the arboretum – named for mining magnate and amateur botanist John A. Finch, from whose estate the $250,000 gift came in 1947 to finance development of the arboretum – was that there is some considerable credit due also to Daniel Dwight for locating this outdoor nature classroom at the site.
The short story of this milelong strip of land is pretty well known. Wandering uphill just west of downtown Spokane along spring-fed Garden Springs Creek between Interstate 90 and Sunset Boulevard, it was first identified in the 1908 Olmsted Brothers landscape and urban planning development study as worthy of development into a park (called in their report Queen Anne Park). The land came under city management, more land was donated, significant financial gifts came forth and an arboretum was born. Today it is home to more than 2,000 labeled trees and shrubs representing more than 600 species and is a four-season delight to nature lovers, who cross-country ski there in the winter, walk along paths enjoying new blooms in the spring, picnic in the summers and take in the wonderful colors in the fall – all the while learning more about what lives and grows there.
Just last Saturday families gathered for the annual Fall Leaf Festival in which children got to jump into huge piles of leaves and partake in craft and conservation activities and other enjoyments. People can drive along the street-tree exhibit and view three dozen varieties of deciduous trees as they consider what kind of tree they might want to plant at their own homes. Paths to walk. Trees to climb. All free and open to the public, operated by the Spokane Park Department. And the Woodland Center, a converted school house from the World War II era, is available for events, including weddings.
Lester, a retired orthopedic surgeon whose passion for area trees has led him to a second career as an author on the subject (“Champion and Historic Trees of the Inland Northwest”), and Sullivan, who retired earlier this year after 18 years as a gardener at Finch Arboretum, acknowledged the role that pioneer businessman and real estate developer Dwight played early on in the development.
Dwight came to Spokane in the 1880s from his native Boston and made his home in Browne’s Addition. In 1900 he built a summer cottage just up the hill from there along Garden Springs Creek at the eastern end of what is now the arboretum, on land that was first the domain of the Spokane Tribe of Indians and later cultivated by Chinese gardeners who supplied Spokane residents with produce. Along with his little getaway home, Dwight put in a small nursery, Lester said. He planted many trees of different varieties, about a dozen of which are still standing – and are the arboretum’s oldest historic trees. Perhaps the most famous of those surviving trees is an extremely rare Hungarian linden, no doubt the largest of its species in the state, Lester said.
When the Olmsted report came out, Dwight agreed with the findings and turned his approximately 35 acres over to the city in 1910 for what was thought would become Garden Springs Park. Unfortunately, Lester said, the land was not routinely tended, so brush overgrew Dwight’s nursery and many of the trees were choked out.
Still another fortuitous planting was done in the area by Mae Jinotti in 1946 while living in one of the 1,200 temporary homes constructed at the site when the federal government leased land there for housing associated with the WWII effort at Geiger Field. She planted a white willow in the field just outside the Woodland Center, which now measures some 45-by-50-feet. A favorite climbing tree for children, Lester believes it to be the largest white willow in the state.
When the federal lease expired in 1947, plans moved forward to develop the arboretum. Sullivan said that the first plantings in 1949 were mostly from seedlings from the Manito greenhouses and represented typical trees of the Pacific Northwest. However, a talk given locally by Boston horticulturalist Donald Wyman in 1949 convinced planners to include a variety of trees native to northern temperate zones around the world.
What followed for the next 10 years, Lester said, were plantings of trees from assorted places, many from Asia. He drew attention to two dawn redwoods, the oldest such trees outside China. Thought to be extinct, when a living specimen was discovered in a remote area of China, a small shipment of seedlings was sent to America in 1950, three of which came to Finch, and two survive today. The weeping beech on the property is the oldest of its cultivar in the state. There are also a 30-foot tall needle juniper, perhaps the tallest of its variety in the nation, and a pinyon pine from Mexico, which has edible pine nuts. Sullivan points out the white ash, taken as a cutting from a tree on George Washington’s Mount Vernon property. And so many more, including shrubs and flowering trees – all of which have stories of their own.
In reading or hearing the history of this special botanical park, there are so many names of Spokane pioneers who have a hand somewhere in its origin – including Aubrey L. White, Joel E. Ferris and John Duncan.
However, John Finch, who in partnership with Amasa Campbell formed several mining companies, most notably the Hecla Silver Mine, certainly deserves naming rights, Lester and Sullivan agree. Although Finch died in 1915, the gift from his estate made possible launching plans for the modern arboretum. But not to leave anyone out, Lester said it should be noted as well that William Corey, the last living executor of the Finch estate, made a gift of his own which allowed for the purchase of adjacent land (now called Corey Glen) along the west end of the creek, bringing the total size to today’s 65 acres.
“I would like to make clear that Finch Arboretum isn’t just a park,” Lester said “It’s a botanical showpiece and a wonderful treasure, a living legacy for Spokane.”