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Then and Now: Umatilla Hotel

The Umatilla Hotel, on the southeast corner of Main Avenue and Bernard Street, survived the 1889 fire, which stopped at Washington Street, but couldn’t avoid another 55 years later.

Henry French was barely out of his teens when he came to Spokane from Arkansas in 1881. He developed a handful of downtown buildings, opened the city’s first candy store and started a stagecoach service to the Idaho mining district. One of his buildings was the Umatilla, a three-story, 36-room wooden residence hotel.

The place wasn’t fancy and appeared somewhat shabby compared to the new brick and stone buildings sprouting from the ashes of the great fire. It was a place where transients and railroad employees could stay cheaply on layovers.

For decades, the ground floor was occupied by side-by-side bars. To the left of the hotel entrance was the Porter and Waiters Club, a black-owned establishment welcoming African-Americans. The title mentions the two professions which black workers could hold aboard Pullman cars. Per Pullman company policy, all conductors were white.

To the right of the front door was the Eldorado Club, a not-too-highbrow establishment for white Spokanites in search of a drink.

Many cities along the country’s major rail routes had a Porters and Waiters Club, where blacks were welcomed and whites were told, usually politely, to move along. Rules, both written and unwritten, kept African-Americans out of most restaurants and entertainment venues in Spokane during the first half of the 20th century. Window signs usually read “No Colored Patronage Solicited.”

The Porters and Waiters bar was run by bartender Alger “Algie” Ball. Ball was arrested several times through the 1930s and early 1940s for having gambling in his bars.

Historian Jerrelene Williamson, author of “African Americans in Spokane,” remembers that after the Umatilla, the bar moved to a big house at 528 E. Second Ave. and also offered rooms for rent.

Fire tore through the upper two floors of the rickety Umatilla in November of 1945. Fortunately, all the tenants got out alive. The remaining structure was torn down in 1947.