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Then and Now: Northern Pacific Railway

Many things attracted newcomers to the tiny settlement of Spokane in the 1870s. There was plentiful land, water and timber. But the railroad fueled most of the optimism.

The first transcontinental was completed in 1869 with the driving of a golden spike at Promontory, Utah. But the Northern Pacific was engaged in a brash, all-out push to complete a new route across the upper states and through Spokane. Financing was secured by the 40 million acres of land along the route, which the railroad was granted by the federal government.

The NP line from Seattle arrived in Spokane in 1881. Those first rails were laid between First and Second avenues and fronted by Railroad Avenue, where freight and people were in constant motion.

President Ulysses S. Grant drove the NP’s golden spike at Gold Creek, Mont., on Sept. 8, 1883. Spokane readied a festive welcome as the president and trainloads of dignitaries continued west to Seattle. Carriages were prepared for visitors; speeches and entertainment acts were planned.

But instead of arriving at 8 a.m., the trains finally trundled into Spokane at 7 p.m. NP President Henry Villard made a quick apology and left. Grant stayed for a half-hour to greet the crowd, then embarked for Seattle.

Despite the disappointing celebration, the railroad spurred business in Spokane, bringing entrepreneurs and labor. Within a matter of days, however, Spokane was flooded with prospectors after news accounts of miners discovering gold in the Coeur d’Alene Mountains and in Stevens and Pend Oreille counties.

After putting Spokane on the map, the NP popularized the baked potato. Dining car superintendent Hazen Titus first served giant Yakima Valley bakers, once thought to be inedible because they were too big to boil, with butter on the North Coast Limited, the line’s premier passenger train, in 1909.

Passengers raved and the train became known as The Route of the Great Big Baked Potato.

– Jesse Tinsley


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Then and Now: Comstock Park

James M. Comstock, born in 1838 in Wisconsin, arrived in Spokane in time to witness the great fire of 1889 and start Spokane Dry Goods with Robert Paterson. It became the Crescent, Spokane’s premier department store for a century. He also worked in real estate and owned other businesses. He served a term as Spokane mayor, starting in 1899. James Comstock died in 1918.