One bright spring morning in 1873, James Glover rode his horse over some foothills and there, spread before him, lay his future and the future of a city he would build, a city now named Spokane.
“It was as lovely a day as I ever saw,” he wrote in his reminiscences. “The beautiful view that revealed itself to my eyes was more entrancing than I had ever beheld. The valley, filled with sunflowers, looked like a field of gold. I was charmed with the entire country.”
He rode west. The river, swollen with spring runoff, began to roar, flinging spray into the air. He came to a gorge and on the banks of the thundering falls, he swung down from his horse and looked over the beginnings of a pioneer town. It consisted, he wrote later, “of half a dozen board and log cabins, with a little shed that housed a sawmill.”
He settled in, found a partner, improved the primitive water-powered sawmill, built a store and founded a city.
Always, at the center, was the river.
But native tribes, who revered the falls and at their base would catch enormous salmon that once swam from the Pacific up the wild, undammed Columbia, had proved better stewards than their successors in that young pioneer town. Millworks, dams and bridges soon spanned the river and tapped its power.
In 1893, the young city built Natatorium Park along the river’s bank in north Spokane. Families toting picnic baskets flocked to see its zoo and listen to touring brass bands. In 1909 the brightly painted horses of a Looff Carrousel joined the park’s attractions.
By 1916, city garbage trucks were dumping the community’s refuse down a chute west of the Monroe Street bridge, straight into the river.
In 1930, fishermen complained about 25 city pipes that poured raw sewage into the river day and night. “Who wants to give a friend a mess of trout caught in polluted waters,” they asked city officials – who replied that the fish “are in no danger.”
By the 1940s, railroad bridges criss-crossed the river’s gorge and gritty rail yards covered its banks alongside the downtown falls. The state of Washington declared the river “one of the most seriously polluted streams in the upper Columbia basin.”
Below the falls in Peaceful Valley, where native tribes once pitched tepees in meadows to catch and dry their salmon, the city’s low-income residents lived in shacks. City officials declared the riverbank shacks a health hazard and set them ablaze one day in 1946. Thousands of residents watched the inferno from nearby bridges.
In 1949, for the first time in 17 years, the falls were illuminated at night during spring runoff. Miss Spokane Glenda Bergen threw a switch that fired up 62 1,000-watt spotlights. Celebrating the event, The Spokesman-Review declared the falls to be “Spokane’s No. 1 tourist attraction and scenic beauty spot.”
In 1951, the Washington Water Power Co. announced that, at a cost of $2,500 to $3,000, it would construct a public viewpoint on the river’s south bank at Lincoln Street and what was then called Trent Avenue.
In the early 1970s, the railroads and their switching yards moved out. Some of the bridges came down. A 1974 world’s fair, devoted to the environment, landscaped the river’s cleaned-up banks with lawns and pavilions, stringing steel cables for gondolas that carried visitors into the gorge. When the fair closed, Riverfront Park took its place.
The city still dumped its sewage into the river, but usually treated the effluent. In 1975, to complete work on improvements to the sewage treatment plan, workers bypassed the plant, dumping 110 million gallons of untreated waste into the river. Toxic algae blooms appeared downstream in the Long Lake reservoir. A lawsuit ensued, and improvements to the treatment plant continued.
By the 1990s, volunteers began annual campaigns to remove junk from the river’s banks. The city bought more land from the railroads, and construction began on a higher education branch campus along the river east of the Division Street bridge.
As decades went by, the city began to capture its stormwater to prevent it from pouring untreated into the river – a project that continues to this day.
In 2014, Spokane voters approved a bond issue to renovate Riverfront Park and build a new home for that same Looff Carrousel that spun children down by the riverside in 1909 – extending for a new generation the appreciation that led James Glover, and his many native predecessors, to put down roots where the ghosts of salmon jump.
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