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The Great (unfinished) Gorge Park

General Plan of the Park System for Spokane, Wash. published in December 1913. (Spokane Public Library)
General Plan of the Park System for Spokane, Wash. published in December 1913. (Spokane Public Library)

Spokane’s first decades as an official city coincided with the City Beautiful movement, which saw urban design as both cause and cure to social ills, and promoted grand, monumental cities as the solution to the harm caused by rundown, overcrowded tenements common in major cities.

One theme of the semi-utopian movement was the central place open parks should have in a city, a notion on display at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The White City, the fair’s temporary city of the future, had a landscape of wide green expanses and lagoons designed by the landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted.

This green vision for cities came to Spokane more than 10 years later when Olmsted’s son, John Charles Olmsted, came to town. After numerous visits during 1907 and 1908, and with a $1,000 payment, Olmsted and an associate, James Frederick Dawson, produced a report for Spokane, the General Plan of the Park System.

Though well over 100 years old, the plan has helped guide the city’s park system since its creation, with one glaring exception. The Great Gorge Park was one of four new large parks envisioned in the plan, and covered the banks of the river, stretching from the falls to where Natatorium Park once sat 4 miles downstream.

The report declared the gorge as “a tremendous feature of the landscape and one which is rarer in a large city than river, lake, bay or mountain.” The report didn’t mention a park along the lines of Riverfront Park, but it did say, with some snark, that the area had “already been partially ‘improved,’ as one might ironically say, but it is questionable whether any considerable proportion of the community is proud of most of those improvements.” Nearly 70 years would pass before Expo ’74, when the central park would become the pride of the city.

The Great Gorge Park remains the great unfinished aspect of the plan, but not for want of trying. An almost generational exercise in ambition, various groups over the years have said they would complete the gorge park, including today’s city leaders.

In 1964, a Spokesman-Review article reported the city’s planning commission and park board agreed to look into how to make the park a reality, skeptically noting that a “solid step was taken toward what may someday be the actual development of the park.”

As interest grew, ideas came. One involved dividing the riverbank into Disney-like sections. One would take on “an Indian motif, another a Swedish or English-type garden.”

In 1966, the idea became suddenly dire, and a headline read: “Bald River Bank is City Eyesore. Improving Area West of Monroe Bridge Seen Urgent.”

Some land was purchased, but the idea fizzled out until 2004, when a new concept, the Great Spokane River Gorge Master Plan, was drafted. Still, progress plodded.

Most recently, the city has envisioned a gorge loop trail, a 3-mile long multiuse trail that circles the river from Riverfront Park, through Peaceful Valley and Kendall Yards. Some of the trail will be built upon stormwater and wastewater pipes, an inventive use of infrastructure – but definitely not part of the Olmsteds’ original vision.

For more on the series

Visit the Spokane That Never Was


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