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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Landmarks: Early masons put region’s rocks to use

Jan. 11, 2017 Updated Wed., Jan. 11, 2017 at 4:11 p.m.

The cobblestone fireplace was built at Audubon Park by the Spokane Park Board in 1936 with funds donated by five North Side Camp Fire Girl troops. It was repaired in 1999. (Stefanie Pettit / The Spokesman-Review)
The cobblestone fireplace was built at Audubon Park by the Spokane Park Board in 1936 with funds donated by five North Side Camp Fire Girl troops. It was repaired in 1999. (Stefanie Pettit / The Spokesman-Review)
Stefanie Pettit

Anyone who has ever pushed a shovel into the ground in Spokane County knows that there are rocks in and protruding from the soil here – some of them big ones, boulders and even huge outcroppings. And since the earliest days of settlement of the area, these native stones have been used to build shelters, walls, monuments, homes and other structures.

A recent survey funded by a grant secured by the City/County Historic Landmarks Commission and City/County Historic Preservation Office has yielded a report providing an overview of the variety of stones used in construction in the area, also giving historic context and a discussion of masonry techniques.

“It’s surprising, but when you set about looking for stone structures, you see them everywhere,” said Stephen B. Emerson, director of Archisto Enterprises, who conducted the survey of rock structures in the county. Emerson has 30-plus years of experience working in the area and is the recently retired program director at Archaeological and Historical Services, located at Eastern Washington University. This provided him with pretty good knowledge of what was here, he said, adding “plus I drove around looking for more.”

Stones were used for many construction purposes, Emerson said, most notably in churches, city parks, projects of Great Depression-era work relief organizations such as the Civil Conservation Corps, homes and agriculture/irrigation.

The native rock structures were largely built with basalt, cobblestone and granite. Granite, an igneous rock, is the oldest found in the area, Emerson said, followed by basalt, which resulted from lava flows millions of years ago. Much later glacial activity ground rock into small rounded fragments called cobbles, which are common throughout the area.

Granite, largely emanating from near the Little Spokane River, Airway Heights and the Dishman Hills area, was more commonly used for grand buildings such as the Westminster Church on Spokane’s lower South Side. Basalt was often collected from talus slopes where erosion and the freeze/thaw cycles had broken and deposited rock. Some good examples of basalt structures include the rock walls along Aubrey White Parkway and the Riverside Memorial Park caretaker’s house. In the early days of the region, Emerson said, cobblestones were often gathered by clearing a field or just taking them from the banks of the many miles of irrigation canals excavated in Spokane Valley and elsewhere.

One excellent example of a cobblestone structure detailed in the study is the 12-foot-tall Girl Scout Fireplace, consisting of a tall chimney stack and horseshoe-shaped base flanking a round-arched firebox, located on an elevation at the upper end of Audubon Park on Spokane’s North Side. Five North Side Camp Fire Girls troops raised funds for the structure, which was built by the Spokane Park Board in 1936. A stone plaque 3 feet above the firebox commemorates its installation. One of the hallmarks of such structures, Emerson said, is the use of uniform stones, usually about the size of a softball.

Emerson also discusses the art of masonry employed in the structures studied. “Stonemasons don’t get famous like architects do,” he said. “There’s no Kirtland Cutter among stonemasons.” He noted in particular the unnamed masons who constructed many CCC works of the 1930s as well as those whose names are known, mostly of them immigrants from countries such as Italy, who worked in the Spokane Valley area and Moran Prairie.

The earlier masons often hid the mortar used to hold the rocks in place, Emerson said. This concave masonry method recesses mortar between stones, as with the Audubon Park fireplace. “There is great artistry in what they did,” he said.

He notes, too, that when later repairs were made to some of the early homes, walls, bridges and other structures, the mortar work was more visible, an easy way to distinguish between older and newer construction. In 1999, the Audubon fireplace was showing its age, so a project took place to repair or replace missing or loose stones, mostly around the firebox and lower exterior sides of the base, with a brass plaque just above the firebox noting the restoration and rededication.

“You can tell the difference,” Emerson said. “The older masonry makes the stones look like eggs in a basket, but more of the mortar can be seen in the restored work.”

In addition to telling the story of native stone construction in Spokane County, the study indicates how each of the 36 structures detailed is eligible for historic register listing.

“These structures are durable,” Emerson said. “I really like them. They last. They tend not to be torn down as readily as other structures. And there are a lot of them. They were built with available and economically viable material, resources from the land.”

The Historic Property Inventory of Rock Structures in Spokane County, Washington, which inventories 36 structures from Cheney/Medical Lake to the Spokane Valley, is available online at www.historicspokane.org/.

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