Imagine standing next to Spokane Falls when the only intrusions on the natural landscape were a half-dozen cabins, a small sawmill and a handful of white settlers.
That’s exactly what James Glover did on the morning of May 12, 1873.
“I gave myself completely over to admiration and wonder at the beautiful, clear stream that was pouring into the kettle and over the falls,” he later wrote. “I sat there, unconscious of anything but the river, gazing and wondering and admiring.”
Glover’s experience turned out to be life-changing, not just for him but also for the falls.
And for both, the change was good and bad.
History, wrote H.G. Wells, is “a race between education and catastrophe.”
Question: Did Wells ever visit Spokane?
He could easily have been describing the relationship between Spokane Falls and those of us who have settled on its banks.
In fact, he might have been writing a book blurb for J. William T. Youngs’ “The Fair and the Falls: Spokane’s Expo ‘74, Transforming an American Environment.”
Few books worth reading can be reduced to a simple phrase. But if Youngs’ 626-page tome could be, Wells’ words would suffice. “The Fair and the Falls” is about how knowledge - in this case a rediscovered sensitivity to the wonders of nature - can stave off catastrophe.
It’s also about how such lessons must be learned, then relearned by each succeeding generation. That’s true even today as Spokane struggles with an estimated $36 million proposal to build a controversial new bridge on Lincoln Street - a bridge that, opponents say, will obscure the view of the lower falls.
As for the river, well, “The river is always just there,” Youngs says. “You forget it, yet it comes back.”
It was there thousands of years ago when the first Indians pulled fish from it. It drew Glover, later known as the father of Spokane, to the area. And it persuaded him to stay.
The rest is irony. Because as Youngs points out, use of the natural resource that attracted people to Spokane became, over time, the very symbol of mankind’s attempt to dominate nature.
A writer for the Spokane Falls Morning Review observed in 1887: Spokane looked forward to “the day when the monotonous hum of machinery, propelled by water, will be the music that denotes the industrial prosperity and the substantial permanency of the city.”
The wish was granted, but at a price. By 1912, according to Youngs, “The ravine had been filled with rubble, the clear view of the falls was blocked by bridges and mills, and the bunchgrass beside the river had given way to streets and buildings.”
During the depression of the 1890s, Glover lost his fortune; a man of reduced means, he died in 1921. Meanwhile, the growing city that he founded had outlived, and ultimately abandoned, its original name: Spokane Falls.
But then came the resurgence.
It began in the years following World War II. When shoppers started taking their business to outlying shopping centers, NorthTown Mall for one, Spokane’s downtown merchants grew concerned. A few decided to do something about it.
The solution their paid consultant proposed in 1961 was blunt: Rebuild the downtown.
“A city’s vitality depends upon whether its heart continues to function efficiently,” the consultant’s report said. And, it added, “The heart of a city is its downtown.”
The report included several recommendations, many simple in concept. But in any atmosphere, redesigning a city’s inner core would be a daunting project. In conservative-minded Spokane, it seemed like a particularly foolish venture.
How that venture proceeded, and how a rejuvenated Spokane Falls became the site of Expo ‘74 is the tale that Youngs tells in his doorstop-size book.
The making of that book is a story of struggle in itself. Nearly six years in the making, the book was first suggested as a project by two prominent Spokane businessmen - Neal Fosseen and Paul Sandifur Jr. According to Youngs, the two approached Mark Drummond, outgoing president of Eastern Washington University, to see if the EWU Press would take on the project.
In the end, backing for the book (some $40,000 in all) came from community funds raised by the likes of Fosseen, Sandifur and the EWU Foundation. The university provided office space.
The task of writing the book fell to Youngs, a 56-year-old tenured professor of history at EWU. The author of four previous books, he was intrigued by the idea.
“For years I’ve been interested in writing good history for lay people,” Youngs says. “I’m interested in the serious stuff, but there are good stories out there, and I want to tell them.”
And not just the approved stories either. Instead of being a chamber of commerce-type publicity tract, Youngs’ well-written book portrays every aspect of the Spokane story that he could uncover. In the 4-1/2 years it took to research and write “The Fair and the Falls” (it took another year to edit), Youngs and his various teams of student historians talked to people from both ends of the economic spectrum.
On one hand, there are the powers-that-be - Fosseen, vice president with Old National Bank and Spokane mayor; King Cole, Expo president and chief promoter; Rep. Tom Foley; officials of Washington Water Power, the various railroad companies and Cowles Publishing, and many others.
But just as present is the common man’s Spokane: Native Americans, residents of Skid Road and Shanty Town, Jimmy Marks and his family of Gypsies, Rik Smith and the Yippies, People’s Park, Bob Glatzer and the Folklife Festival, and many of the 5,187,826 people who attended Expo ‘74.
“I think it’s to the credit of the business folk who backed the book, the bankers and so on who were a lot of the same folks who backed the fair, that I never felt the slightest constraints about what I did,” Young said. “I could, and really did, say anything that I wanted to.”
In fact, Youngs’ biggest problem was in figuring out how much to leave in. He and 18 assistants talked to 179 different people in all, several more than once (totaling 250 interviews). In addition, Youngs’ crew sifted through some 450 boxes of Expo ‘74 materials that had been stored at the Cheney Cowles Museum.
Differentiating between silk and sows’ ears was a stiff challenge. Coordinating such a project, Youngs says, was like putting together a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle.
In this case, however, Youngs had only a fuzzy idea of what the completed puzzle would look like, and, he says, “there were about 12,000 more pieces out there that you had to look at.”
The work kept Youngs, who lives in Bellevue, Wash., with his attorney wife, continually on the road. He taught at Eastern Monday through Thursday, worked evenings until midnight and beyond on the book, and went home on weekends to grade papers, prepare for his next week’s classes and work on the book some more.
During the summers, he worked full time at home and came east regularly to monitor the progress of his student assistants. Youngs is generous in praising the efforts of all who helped him.
“Much as I like the glory of having written the book,” he says, “some of the feel-good aspects about the project are the way the community came up with the money, the university came up with the office space and helped with the fund-raising and the students just answered the call.”
Youngs’ hope is that those who are most affected, the residents of this city by the falls, recognize that the struggle to maintain that natural beauty is ongoing. If he could change anything about the book, he would have finished it in time for people to recognize the newest threats.
“In some ways the river has been lost again,” he says. “When you see them putting up new bridges with very little discussion about the aesthetic element, I feel like we’ve lost a lot of the edge that we gained 25 years ago.”
Typical of a man who teaches a class titled History of American Wilderness, Youngs is apt to quote from the works of naturalist John Muir to make his point.
“Muir used to say that he wanted through his writings to get people out and looking at Yosemite, looking at the redwoods and appreciating them,” he says. “And one thing I hope with this book is that people will look at the falls with new eyes. And appreciate them.
“That river,” Youngs says, “that’s our Yosemite.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Reading J. William T. Youngs, author of “The Fair and the Falls,” will read from his book at 7 p.m. tonight in room 1A of the downtown branch of Spokane Public Library, 906 W. Main.
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