The last time the Spokane area got the kind of boost in employment being projected for a second Amazon headquarters, it took a push by local businesses, a “gift” of local land and some lobbying by state and federal politicians.
And a world war.
The scale of job growth projected for Amazon HQ2 is about 50,000 over 10 years, which would be roughly 10 percent of the current Spokane County population, now estimated at 499,348. If each of those workers has a spouse, and about half have a child, that would boost the area population by about 33 percent – which is roughly the rate at which Spokane County grew between 1940 and 1950, as the local economy swelled from war spending by the federal government, then slacked off when some of that spending dried up.
It’s not the level of competition for the Amazon facility, but several communities were vying in 1941 for a new Army Air Corps depot, where bombers would be serviced.
The War Department, as the Defense Department was then called, had money to build two such facilities on or near the West Coast. It planned one for San Bernardino, California, and let other Western cities compete for the second. On July 12, the Washington congressional delegation announced Spokane beat out Salt Lake City and Everett.
The Spokane Chamber of Commerce had sweetened the city’s pitch by raising about $125,000 to buy a portion of the land for the depot and give it to the Army. The state also promised to quickly build a four-lane highway that would connect the depot to Sunset Highway for easy access to the city and Fort George Wright, which eventually became an Army Air Corps command center.
The Chamber assured the War Department there would be housing for the thousands of workers the depot was expected to employ by the time it opened.
Spokane Army Air Depot – locals called it Galena because of the nearby rail stop – would employ about 5,000 people, many of them women, by 1943. They worked around the clock patching up bombers from the front and sending them back into action.
It was Spokane’s first big economic “get” of the decade, and primed the pump for a sluice of war-related spending.
Less than four months after Pearl Harbor was bombed in December 1941, the Navy announced it would spend $45 million to build a “boot camp” near Bayview, Idaho. Farragut Naval Training Facility would be finished by about 20,000 construction workers holding down 10-hour shifts with one day off every 14. It would train as many as 30,000 recruits at a time, and with the Navy and civilian personnel, it became Idaho’s largest “town” with a population of 42,000.
The Navy also chose Spokane Valley for a major supply depot where it could gather, store and ship supplies to bases on the Pacific Coast and Puget Sound. The $15.4 million depot, which took the name of the nearby Velox train stop, had nearly 5,000 workers on the payroll at peak construction before opening on New Year’s Day 1943.
At the height of its operations in 1945, The Spokesman-Review reported, Velox employed 2,700 people – mostly women – in a setting that resembled a small city or college campus with victory gardens, tennis courts and a ballfield with grandstands.
Less than a month after the air depot was awarded to Spokane, the Reconstruction Finance Corp., a federal agency designed to boost the economy by lending money to build factories and other job sources, announced it would provide $7 million to build an aluminum smelter in the area. Thanks to the Grand Coulee Dam, which had come online in March, the Northwest had plenty of electricity, a necessary requirement for making aluminum.
By the time the smelter was built at Mead, the United States was in the war and the federal government decided to build a mill in the Spokane Valley to process the aluminum from the smelter by rolling it into flat sheets.
That aluminum provided the outer covering of airplanes critical to the war effort. The plants were built far enough from the coast to be harder for enemy planes to attack from an aircraft carrier and far enough apart that they were less likely to be destroyed in a single raid.
Opened in July 1943, the Trentwood mill was finished ahead of schedule and was up and running so quickly that two months later The Spokesman-Review reported thousands of aluminum sheets were waiting to be sent to aircraft factories, but the mill didn’t have the workers to load them onto rail cars.
The classified ad sections in those days were full of jobs, and often carried a banner that urged readers to “Help Win the War by Working.”
Sailors from Farragut, airmen from Geiger Air Field, land the War Department also bought along Sunset Highway to train bomber crews, soldiers from Fort Wright and civilian workers crowded into Spokane when they had time off, spending some of their paychecks in stores, restaurants and bars. The economy boomed. Housing was in short supply and lodging for military personnel and others traveling through town was so scarce that soldiers and sailors often slept on sofas in hotel lobbies because rooms were full.
By 1945, there was little in Spokane that hadn’t changed. Then the war ended, and things continued to change as military personnel returned home and defense work slacked off.
Galena had no more bombers to patch up, but in 1947, the Air Force announced it would become the home to bombers from the new Strategic Air Command. In 1950, the name was changed to Fairchild to honor Muir Fairchild, a Bellingham native who rose to be Air Force vice chief of staff.
Geiger became an Air National Guard base for several decades, but most local residents now know it as Spokane International Airport. The original name lives on in the airport’s official designation code of GEG.
After the war, aluminum giant Alcoa decided it didn’t want to operate the Spokane aluminum facilities. Henry Kaiser leased them for a couple of years, then the company bought them outright in 1949 for $36 million. Once the largest private employer in Spokane County, Kaiser slowly trimmed production at the Mead smelter potlines as an aging plant and rising electricity prices made it uncompetitive with cheaper aluminum being produced elsewhere. The smelter closed for good in 2000, but the rolling mill remains the largest manufacturing employer in Spokane County with about 900 workers.
The Velox supply depot cut back sharply after 1945, ramped up again for the Korean War, but by 1958, the Navy didn’t need it anymore. The federal government sold it as surplus in 1960, and a joint effort by the Valley Chamber of Commerce and Washington Water Power, corporate predecessor of Avista, managed to save it and turn it into what is now the Spokane Industrial Park.
Farragut Naval Training Station, once the biggest community in Idaho, is now Farragut State Park. The grounds of Fort George Wright are now the home to the Spokane campus of Mukogawa University from Nishinomiya, Japan.
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