Try to envision Spokane without that Clocktower, jutting grandly out of the former Expo ’74 landscape that we now call Riverfront Park.
Sure, maybe our beloved brick landmark isn’t quite on a par with Seattle’s Space Needle.
But Spokane has never had the pretense of those prisoners of taste to the west of us. I’ll settle for Spokane humility any old day.
Hard to believe that the Clocktower was ground zero for a contentious civic feud that was waged in the days leading up to Spokane’s first (and quite possibly last) World’s Fair.
On one side was Save Our Stations.
Made up of preservationist-minded community members, the SOS crowd sought to rescue the two train stations that occupied sizable chunks of real estate on the future Expo grounds.
The aged depots were the Great Northern, which included the Clocktower, and the Union Pacific. Both depots were gifted to the city by the railroads as part of the Expo makeover deal.
On the other side of the struggle were the progressives: Expo movers and shakers and pretty much the city’s leadership from the mayor on down.
To them, well … this July 1972 newspaper excerpt quoting then-Councilman Del E. Jones does a fine job of summing up the anti-depot sentiment: The stations, huffed Jones, “ ‘have served their purposes,’ are ‘an eyesore’ and should be removed: ‘I say let’s get rid of them.’ ”
Like most everyone in Spokane, I had completely forgotten about this tempest in a rail yard.
Until, that is, I received an email telling me about a former advertising executive who led the SOS in its ultimately doomed fight against the wrecking ball: Jerry Quinn.
With the 40th anniversary of Expo looming, it seemed like an ideal time to meet this character and hear what he had to say.
You’ve heard that time heals all wounds? Quinn might have missed the message. Forty years and change later, the demolished depots are still a shot to the heart.
“I tried. I lost. Oh, well,” the 74-year-old said with a sigh.
Quinn makes a point of saying that his side was never against Expo ’74.
Expo, he agrees, was the catalyst that put this town on the world stage.
And not only that. Our environmental exposition with souvenir ashtrays transformed the downtown riverfront into one gem of a tourist destination.
Quinn’s point – and it’s a good one – is that as grand as Riverfront Park may be, it could have been better, still, by saving at least the vast Great Northern depot.
I agree. The cavernous brick depot, with its marble floors and oak trim, could have become an all-purpose, year-round venue for weddings, concerts and special events.
“I was never anti-Expo,” he repeated. “I was for making Expo better.”
Though the stations may have had no industrial value, he added, in a parklike setting they would’ve been magnificent.
Of course, we are talking about the summer of 1972 when all this SOS stuff started hitting the fan.
Preserving historic edifices wasn’t very high on the list of social causes back then.
Need I remind you that it wasn’t so long ago when some of our so-called leaders talked favorably about tearing down The Davenport Hotel and Lewis and Clark High School?
Quinn is an engaging guy, a New Jersey transplant who migrated here in 1967 with Alice, his wife.
“I fell in love with Spokane,” he said.
So how does an outsider from the East Coast wind up leading a civic crusade like SOS?
The answer can be found in one short word: trains.
Quinn is off the rails about trains. At one point, Quinn’s model train obsession consisted of 600 locomotives and 3,000 cars.
He was certainly in his element when I met him Tuesday.
Quinn was tending court inside Evergreen Railroad Modelers, a model train lovers’ delight located in a Greenacres strip mall.
The entire room is devoted to the hobby.
There are realistic HO-scale layouts of intricate towns, wooded mountains, rocky cliffs and 800 feet of track to run those tiny trains on.
Quinn directed the Inland Empire chapter of the National Railway Historical Society back in the day. He said his concern for the depots began when he saw that they weren’t included on the first Expo plan.
His investigation took him to City Hall, where he said he was told by a city official that the depots had to go because of their worn-out boilers that were too expensive to replace.
Quinn soon discovered the boiler excuse was bogus.
Those depots, he said, were heated by the Washington Water Power steam plant.
“I was infuriated that a city official would lie to a citizen.”
Oh, Jerry. You poor, naive soul.
Within months, the SOS was making headlines.
They took their case to City Council. They staged a peaceful march through the streets of Spokane.
Quinn said leading the SOS got him mocked by business leaders. He even received anonymous calls at home from people who told him to get out of town.
Things came to a head when the SOS gathered enough signatures on petitions to put the fate of the two stations in the hands of the voters. Who derailed them with too many “no” votes.
In the end, however, the city didn’t toss the entire baby out with the bathwater. An earlier plan to keep the Clocktower was made good and, thankfully, it still stands tall today.
For Quinn, it sometimes has been a bitter lemon to suck on.
“It’s like showing people where George Washington’s home once was and saying, ‘but there’s the chimney,’ ” he said.
But the SOS man is enough of a realist to see the value of this icon in the park. He even smiles when some of his pals refer to it as Quinn Tower.
“It makes me feel good that it was saved,” said the railroad man.