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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Washington Voices

Little rail car carries decades of local history

Stefanie Pettit

About 10 years after the large rail servicing facility and locomotive shops in Hillyard closed down, a small diner moved to the neighborhood – Knight’s Diner.

It was the early 1990s, and it represented quite a journey for the diner that began as a railroad car in 1906 – specifically as car No. 988, a 78-by-10-foot car built by the Pullman Car Co. of Pittsburgh. By the time it was turned into a diner in 1949 by Jack Knight, No. 988 already had quite a history.

With room for 80 passengers – and containing a ladies’ vanity, a men’s saloon (toilet) and a coal-fired hot water heater – the all-wood car saw rail service from Minot, N.D., to Portland, and then later on the Yellowstone Park line.

No. 988 was retired to the Northern Pacific yards at Yardley in the Spokane Valley. During World War II it was used as a classroom in support of the war effort.

At the same time, according to historic records, a man known as “Uncle Sam” lived at the Pedicord Hotel on West Riverside Avenue in Spokane. At 6-foot-5 and bearing strong resemblance to the character on posters across the nation, he traveled around the country to support the war bond effort.

Toward the latter part of the war, he asked President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for a surplus Pullman car as compensation for his promotional efforts, a request the president granted. “Uncle Sam” moved the car to a location near Washington Street north of Francis Avenue and used it as a summer residence.

One day in 1949, John (Jack) Knight drove by, was taken with the Pullman car and arranged to purchase it for $600. He refitted it into a diner and moved it to the southeast corner of Division and Jackson.

Knight, the former head waiter at the Davenport Hotel who was said to be the only person permitted to serve Mr. Davenport’s evening meal in the hotel restaurant, operated the diner for five years. Ownership changed hands seven times among six owners, the last being Vicki Green and her husband, Deral, who bought it in 1981 and have operated it since.

Vicki Green had run a lunch counter at the Thrifty Drug Store at NorthTown (before the mall became enclosed) and when she learned that the diner was for sale, she bought it. “I really like the close-in work at a diner,” she said.

The land under the diner was owned by its next-door neighbor, the General Store, which expanded in the early 1990s, requiring the diner to move. Green found the spot at 2909 N. Market St., “and so we brought the Pullman car back to a railroad neighborhood,” she said.

Knight’s, which is open for breakfast and lunch only (closed Mondays), retains most of its 1906 ambience, right down to the multipanel stained-glass archways above the 10 paired windows. And it’s there where customers – many have been regulars for decades – come for the Greens’ made-from-scratch buttermilk pancakes and fresh hash browns.

“We peel 100 pounds of potatoes a day and cool them overnight for the next day,” Vicki Green said. “We don’t use any of that frozen stuff.”

George Bick, a retired Washington Department of Corrections parole officer, has been eating at Knight’s since the mid-1970s.

“Oh, yes, if you want simple and good diner food in a close-in friendly environment, then this is the place,” he said.

Darryl Isotalo and his wife, Carol, both retired educators, drive in from their Spokane Valley home several times a week to eat and to visit with the Greens. “Sometimes it seems like frenetic chaos,” Isotalo said, “but the food always gets to us, and we strike up some nice conversations with people at the counter.”

Back in the 1980s, Bick was having “just that kind of small-talk conversation like you do with strangers at a diner” with a man sitting next to him, he said. When the man left, Vicki Green came over to Bick and told him he’d just had lunch with Ronny Cox, an actor in Spokane filming the movie “Vision Quest.”

Knight’s Diner is on the Spokane register of historic places. A sentence in the nomination paperwork for the historic designation outlines No. 988’s story:

“… A single 1906 structure brought generations of new residents to the Inland Northwest, then trained them for WWII and finally fed them and their children.”

That’s a lot of heritage for a little Pullman car.

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