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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Before the falls: Spokane and the history of river cities

Just down from the Washington Water Power building on Post Street, near the top of the staircase in Huntington Park, there’s a perfect spot.

There, just out of reach, a massive green ribbon of water curls over the Lower Falls Dam. It looks jewel-like, as if an industrial sheet of emerald were being made before our eyes. The fast-moving water seems almost solid till it crashes into a turbulent tangle of whitewater, settling down to flow placidly under the looming arches of the Monroe Street Bridge.

The falls are beautiful, they’re powerful and they’re the reason for the city. Spokane is one of a small number of American cities that have falling water in their hearts, and it’s no accident. The reasons for a city are many, but chief among them is water – for drinking, for transportation, for industry and, most recently, for beauty.

In 1877, Robert “Pard” Strahorn was hired by Union Pacific to scout sites for a railway. His trek brought him to Spokane, joined by his wife, Carrie, who wrote about the trip in her book, Fifteen Thousand Miles by Stage.”

“As we stood on the banks of the beautiful river and saw its wonderful falls with the magnificent valley, its rich bunchgrass carpet then yellow as gold in its autumn garb, and recalled the vast grainland empire stretching to the southeast and southwest, the wonderful mines opening up nearby on the east, the ample forests, and the possibilities for power, the majesty of the situation made Pard declare that ‘here will be the greatest inland city of the whole Northwest,’ ” she wrote.

Sounds about right.

Always urban, always powered

Before settlers arrived with financial interests in modern industry, the falls drew people, namely the indigenous people who “appreciated the falls for their abundant salmon runs,” as J. William T. Youngs wrote in “The Fair and the Falls.”

Even then, said Spokane Riverkeeper Jerry White, Spokane was, in a sense, “urban.”

“It probably started 8,000 or 9,000 years ago. The falls are a really great place to set up fish traps and provide a lot of sustenance for native American people, whether that’s Kettle Falls, Celilo or Spokane Falls,” he said. “For that reason, they were the center and there was kind of an urban core here for thousands of years.”

When white people arrived, bringing with them ideas that more resemble our contemporary conception of a city, they had something else in mind: the power inherent in falling water.

Carl Abbott, an urban historian and retired urban planning professor at Portland State University, said the energy of waterfalls was one of the prime reasons cities grew around them.

“Water power,” Abbott said. “Very early, before electricity, people would locate near waterways for water mills. In some cases that’s just a small stream and a grist mill. But there are some places where there’s a major waterfall where you could tap a significant amount to power multiple mills and factories.”

Abbott might as well be speaking about Spokane. The falls were first put to industrial use by two former livestock traders, J.J. Downing and L.R. Scranton, who built a mill on the south side of the river. Soon, mills dotted the falls and in 1885 George A. Fitch brought dynamos from the steamship Columbia, set them up in the basement of one of these mills and made the falls power-generating.

Four years later, in 1889, Washington Water Power, the energy company now called Avista, was created.

End of the line

Not all waterfall cities have the same story as Spokane.

Abbott points to the situation created by Saint Anthony Falls in Minneapolis, one tied to transportation.

These falls were the only major waterfall on the Mississippi River, and they provided an unavoidable roadblock.

“A significant waterfall marked the end of navigation unless you built a way around it,” he said.

Eventually, people did build a way around it, but for a long time the falls were a natural stopping and resting place. Either the watercraft turned around, or the cataract was portaged. Before white settlers, the future site of Minneapolis became a node for trade. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Minneapolis was called the “Flour Milling Capital of the World.”

Nowadays, the falls are defined by locks and dams, and are largely unrecognizable from their natural state. In effect, the falls are gone, since the river is easily navigable, thanks to modern technology. But the city they created remains.

The falls were credited with Minneapolis’ success at a recent exhibition at the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Culver City, California.

“The falls, altered by dams, spillways, locks, and other control structures, are the reason why Minneapolis is there, and why the Twin Cities emerged as one of the economic centers of the nation,” the exhibit said, noting that the city is still home to General Mills.

Abbott said the Willamette Falls in Oregon City, about 15 miles south of Portland, played a similar role as Saint Anthony Falls.

Oregon City was established in 1842, when the falls were the natural impediment for river traffic heading south up the Willamette River. River locks arrived 30 years later, and Oregon City saw its fair share of mills and plants, but it was no match for the city to the north, where the Willamette and Columbia rivers met.

Like many rivers in this age of highway and rail freight, the Willamette is no longer that important for trade and commerce. The locks were closed in 2011, and so was the Blue Heron paper mill.

The collapse of such industry, however, has created new opportunity. For a century and a half, viewing the falls was nearly impossible as it was “hidden behind a phalanx of hydropowered industrial buildings,” said an article in Portland’s alternative newsweekly, Willamette Week.

But now efforts are underway to transform the area into a commercial center with a multiuse trail, allowing access to a natural phenomenon.


Oregon’s just catching up to Spokane.

In an oft-told story, the Spokane Falls were uncovered and saved by Expo ’74, when the World’s Fair triggered massive investment and rehabilitation in what was the steel heart of a powerful mining and lumber region.

As preparations for the fair removed rail lines, concrete and other industrial leavings, people again saw the Spokane River tumbling down its basalt gorge.

There was still the matter of the dam. In the years before Expo, Washington Water Power wanted to rebuild its Lower Falls Dam and had applied for licensing to the Federal Power Commission. The project’s environmental impact statement received public input in April and May 1972.

In June 1972, the assistant regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended removing the dam.

“It might be more prudent planning to deny re-licensing and remove the present Monroe Street facility and return the Spokane Falls to its original state for the duration of Expo ’74,” wrote the EPA’s Hurlon Ray in a report.

The energy company was not pleased. Kenneth McCord, a spokesman, said the falls were “in fact, created by the dam.” Wendell Satre, president of the company, took his disagreement public.

“It is disconcerting to see an agency of the federal government making unfounded statements which represent opinion and not fact,” Satre said. “They suggest we should return the river to a natural state. Well, to me that would mean tearing down the bridges as well as the dams, removing all the adjacent structures, and, in essence, removing the people, too. Then it would still take a long time for the river to cleanse itself.”

A bit of hyperbole, sure, and others noted that the waterfall had, in fact, been described in particular detail by Isaac Stevens, Washington territory’s first governor, who said Spokane Falls consisted of two principal falls, “one of 20 feet and the other of from 10 to 12 feet; in the latter, there being a perpendicular fall of 7 to 8 feet; for a quarter of a mile the descent is rapid, over a rough bed of rocks, and in this distance we estimate a fall of 90 or 100 feet.”

Regardless, the new dam was built.

A new type of value

It’s a common experience: Visitors come to Spokane and have their minds blown by the Spokane Falls.

Jeanna Hofmeister, board member and former president of the Spokane River Forum, said she remembers leading a group of a dozen German tour guides around Spokane one early May.

“The first thing we did after having breakfast was to walk down to Riverfront Park,” she said. Then they crossed the pedestrian bridge by the Upper Falls. “We stood there and every camera came out in lightning speed time. They repeatedly had to line up. I had to take everyone’s picture with all 12 cameras.”

White, with the Riverkeeper organization, said he believes the attraction to the falls runs deeper than just an appreciation of natural beauty.

“I can’t help believe that people are attracted, in a very primal way, to the sound, the energy and the beauty of falling water,” White said. “On days like this, you know how many people are going to be down there, just admiring and soaking in that amazing energy. It’s baked in our DNA that attracts us to falling water.”

The falls always have been viewed through the human idea of prosperity. Whether through fish, mills or power, the falls have been used to provide for us in some way.

It’s no different now, but how we value them has changed. Like Willamette Falls, Spokane Falls are valued as an attraction, a reason for people to come, and perhaps stay, in Spokane.

“You can pin some sort of aesthetic attraction to the falls. I think that’s getting more and more important in this post-industrial age we’re in in our culture,” White said. “You’re going to see people value those falls more and more.”

It’s not just more people White sees coming to the falls. He said there’s evidence that steelhead trout may have once been able to traverse the falls every four or five years.

“Some trout may have been able to squeak over there, where the salmon just couldn’t do it,” he said.

He’s not sure if those trout could do it, but he’d like to see them try again.

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