Many artifacts from a region’s history have some size to them – buildings, tombstones, monuments. Some, such as arrowheads, are small. And others are even smaller still and might appear at first to be unlikely symbols of stories from earlier days. Clothing buttons fall into that latter category.
The button shown here is one such remnant – a tiny leftover representing a large piece of Spokane’s development. It comes from a time and place connecting growth of the city with any number of the city’s founders and even to the Riverfront Park Carrousel. It’s all there; you just have to travel down the path.
And traveling such paths is what many button collectors do. According to the National Button Society, which has tens of thousands of members across four continents, they emphasize “the preservation and study of clothing buttons.” Button collecting was recognized as an organized hobby when the society was founded in 1938.
The Spokane Street Railway button comes from the button collection of Kathy Maurer, who now lives in Pasco. She estimates she has 12,000 clothing buttons in all, including this one and a number of others from railway uniforms – most of which just have generic designations on them such as brakeman, conductor, agent and trainman. This button, from the uniform of an employee of Spokane’s first railway system is unlike many other railway buttons in that it doesn’t have a shiny finish, Maurer said.
She grew up in Spokane and after marrying her husband, Terry, in 1968, moved from the city in 1986. She had been an employee at Phalice’s Thread Web in Spokane; he was an assistant news director at KREM-TV and later director of communications at Eastern Washington University. It was on their recent visit to Spokane that she explained how being “research curious” led her to collecting buttons and finding historical information about as many of them as she can.
A little history behind this button: The Spokane Street Railway was incorporated in 1886 by John J. Browne, Henry C. Marshall and Andrew Johnson Ross, all considered founding fathers of the city. For example, Browne was the first attorney in Spokane, a large real estate developer in the heart of the city and founder of the Spokane Chronicle.
The SSR’s first horse car operation began in 1888, providing transportation along a 4 1/2-mile line between downtown and the new Browne’s Addition on the western edge of the city at a construction cost of $43,000. The investment paid for itself in eight months.
Charles V. Mutschler, author of “Spokane’s Street Railways: An Illustrated History,” said that while the city’s first railway and the others that followed were begun by developers (allowing them to sell residential lots farther from the city’s core), the developers were never interested in staying in the transit business. New owners took over SSR in 1889 and by 1891 had converted to trolley operations.
When other routes and railways sprung up, people could travel from downtown to new neighborhoods north, south, west and east – for a nickel. All lines quickly converted from horse-drawn or steam-powered to the new and cheap form of energy, electricity, to power their rail cars.
Washington Water Power Co., which had acquired the Spokane Street Railway, used that company to collect the stocks and bonds of most of the other street railway lines and consolidated operations in Spokane under its banner in the early 1890s, according to Mutschler, who is university archivist at Eastern Washington University. By 1896 the railway had acquired and was operating 23 miles of track with a network of lines flowing out like a cartwheel from its hub at Riverside Avenue and Howard Street downtown.
Another rail line, Spokane Cable Railway, had been providing service on its Twickenham Addition route west of Spokane River and north of Boone Avenue. After a series of ill-fated endeavors, its operations also were absorbed by SSR. At the end of the trolley line at Boone and the east bank of Spokane River, SSR began in 1892 developing an amusement park at the site – called Twickenham Park. It was one of the city’s earliest trolley parks. In 1893 the company decided to build an indoor pool there, filled with water from the Spokane River, and the park was renamed Natatorium Park (a natatorium is a building that houses a swimming pool).
The advent of widespread automobile use increasingly made trolleys obsolete, and the last trolley ran to Natatorium Park in 1936.
During the park’s heyday, in 1909 (when street car ridership was approaching 24 million riders annually), the famous Looff Carrousel was installed at the site, and the city fell in love with the wooden carved horses that took two years for German wood carver Charles I.D. Looff to create for it. When the park closed in 1968 the carousel went into storage and in 1975, it found a new home at the new Riverfront Park in downtown Spokane.
And that’s a short-version of some of the history behind that small Spokane Street Railway button and how it connects to early-day pioneers, the development of the city itself and the Looff Carrousel.
But there’s always more to learn from clothing buttons, Maurer said. She is now researching her current favorite, an oversized Japanese ceramic button created after WWII with a hand-painted image of Grand Coulee Dam on its face. Already intrigued because her husband’s mother worked as a nurse at the dam during its construction, she’s eager to see just what there is to find out about that regionally themed button.
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