It’s a scene much less exciting than Indiana Jones running from a giant boulder: two real-life archaeologists watching an excavator claw into the ground.
Their fedoras are pulled tight to block the sun, and they occasionally unbuckle their trowels to sift through the large mounds of dirt. They’re looking for remnants of businesses, communities and traces of Native American tribes from more than a century ago that occupied what is now Riverfront Park.
“We had a Chinatown, a Spokane Chinatown,” said archaeologist James Harrison of the Spokane Tribe of Indians Preservation Program, which was contracted through the city for the work. “How many people even know about that?”
Last Monday, Harrison, along with archaeologist Ashley Morton and a team of workers, started surveying areas of Riverfront Park ahead of park renovation that officially began July 15. For the next couple of weeks, they’ll finish up their assessment, and construction will move along behind them. The roughly $78,000 cost for the archaeological dig was funded by the voter-approved $64 million Riverfront Park makeover.
Morton, who works at the Fort Walla Walla Museum, began researching and assessing the land in October. Through her research, she found pockets of businesses and houses that occupied the 100-acre area long before it became a popular destination for Spokane residents and tourists.
“At its most booming period there were over 1,000 people and 40 businesses,” Morton said. “It was a heck of a place to be.”
Before westward travelers arrived in the Inland Northwest, the Spokane Tribe lived along the river, eating the fish and drinking the water it provided. In the 1870s, white settlers arrived and formed the town of Spokane Falls.
The land became an important economic and residential hub, housing many of the laborers who worked on the railroads connecting Spokane to the East and West coasts. The Union Pacific Depot sat near where the Looff Carrousel is now, and passengers on the Great Northern Railway would arrive and depart at a train station anchored by the now-iconic Clocktower.
Many of the workers who built the railways and who lived in that area were Japanese and Chinese immigrants. At one point there were more than 70 cabins on Havermale Island – and even a red light district in a different area of the park.
“And then dramatically, in about three or four years, the population reduced,” Morton said. The area became more industrial, and by 1920 fewer than 100 people remained. The area was leveled for the 1974 World’s Fair, becoming Riverfront Park as it’s known today.
Morton is working with the City-County Historic Preservation Office on a detailed timeline of the park from 1880 to 1960, and a website should be ready in a few weeks. The materials their team finds will end up in a museum or historical exhibit in Spokane, though a specific location has not yet been chosen.
In the meantime, Morton and Harrison will continue sifting through piles of dirt, looking for artifacts. On Wednesday, the pair found a few household items, such as bottles, ceramics and horseshoes.
And on Monday, they identified a piece of slag – a byproduct from smelting metal – belonging to a man named Peter Sondgerath, who owned a blacksmith shop in 1891 at 122 W. Front Ave. – now West Spokane Falls Boulevard.
The area near where he worked later housed several other businesses – including what they believe could have been a brothel. It’s items like Somdegerath’s slag that get their blood going for the possibilities still hiding underground.
“I just get really excited about personal artifacts because of the interaction to daily life,” Morton said.
“There were a thousand people living here,” Harrison added. “This work could bring another level of interest to people who use Riverfront Park.”