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Sunday, August 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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The stories behind the stairs: Big steps taken to connect Spokane communities

Just scan the names of Spokane.

Cliff Park. High Drive. Summit Boulevard. The South Hill. Grandview. Peaceful Valley. North Foothills. The Palisades.

It’s not exactly flat city.

The Spokane River gorge and the slopes of the city give Spokane character, but they do make getting around a bit harder. The route going up the South Hill on Monroe Street, for instance, would never be built today, thanks to an incline approaching the perpendicular. In fact, that steep climb is only a road because the South Side Cable Company built a cable car going up it in 1890. The cable car only lasted five years; the road, much longer.

Before the road and before the cable car, people walked. The city has 1,223 miles of sidewalks, but what happens when a sidewalk meets one of our defining slopes? They get steep or they get stairs.

Spokane has upward of 1,000 individual stair steps maintained by the city’s streets and parks departments. Some are wooden, some are iron, most are concrete. Some are well-known, some are secret.

Of the 27 staircases in town, all but two are south of the river. Perhaps more surprising is the lack of written history about the stairs. When were they built? Did the city build them, or a private developer?

These questions are largely unanswered. Largely, but not completely. The few stories we do have of Spokane staircases are rich with conflict and schoolchildren, and the only reason they remain is because such stories were reported in local newspapers or preserved by local historians.

What is surely the oldest set of stairs climbs up from Peaceful Valley to Browne’s Addition, a wooden rise with 102 steps the city calls the Spruce Street stairs. They could be nearly 130 years old – no one’s sure – but their rickety nature can be thanked for the construction of Cowley School, which sits almost directly below the Maple Street Bridge.

Before 1917, the year the school was built, the children of the working-class people of “Poverty Flats” attended school in Browne’s Addition.

As the neighborhood’s old name suggests, the people of Peaceful Valley were far from well-off. Most folks who first built homes there were poor immigrants from Finland, Germany, Sweden and Italy.

“They were stonemasons, carpenters, mill workers, lathers, bricklayers, plumbers, teamsters, lumberjacks and laborers who poured their sweat into long hours at low pay to construct and maintain Spokane,” wrote Nancy Compau, a local historian, in a 1985 essay called “Spokane’s Peaceful Valley Historic District.”

Even if they had cars in those early motoring days, which is unlikely, the route out of the valley was treacherous.

“Main Street was really, really steep at that time, and it was mud when the weather was not dry. It’s ice and snow and mud in the winter,” said Linda Yeomans, a local preservationist who estimates she’s written 250 historic preservation nominations over two decades, including for Cowley School. “It was so difficult in inclement weather to get up Main, which was such a mud pit.”

With no cars, no good way out and school at the top of the bluff, the children “climbed up the steep winding paths to attend school in the big, brick Washington School building,” according to the neighborhood’s historic district nomination.

Yeomans figures the original stairs that climbed the hill, where the Spruce Street stairs currently are, were probably installed in the 1890s and not just for schoolchildren, but for their working parents.

“A lot of those young women lived in Peaceful Valley and they walked up those stairs to Browne’s Addition to go to their jobs, and down to go to where they lived,” she said, referring to the “maids, cooks and nannies” who toiled in the homes of Spokane’s logging and mining tycoons.

But the wooden stairs didn’t solve the problem. They were steep and “children generally avoided them because they were slippery in winter,” according to the neighborhood nomination.

Children as young as 5 years old were forced to brave the stairs for an education, and parents had had enough. In 1915, The Spokesman-Review first reported that parents were appealing to the Spokane School Board for their own school in Peaceful Valley.

“Mrs. George Holly of Peaceful Valley spoke for a new building in the Valley, and said one of her children had been advised by the family physician not to climb the long flight of stairs,” the article reported. “She insisted that the location of the building is a hardship to the small children residing in the Valley.”

Local papers ran photos of children struggling up the snowy hill.

Their pleas were heard. The school for first- and second-graders was built in less than two years, but the stairs remained for their working parents.

Steps to progress

A different struggle between wealthy homeowners and “common people” took place 16 years later. The battle also was taken up by local papers, and led to the creation of the Tiger Trail, a parks-owned staircase that cuts by the Moore-Turner Heritage Gardens in Edwidge Woldson Park on the South Hill before cresting on Cliff Drive.

Its name comes thanks to the students from Lewis and Clark High School, and their tiger mascot, who used it then and use it now.

A sign at the top of the trail pegs its creation to 1931, the same year Cliff Drive came into existence, suggesting a twinned birth.

As is the case with many other roads in Spokane and across the country, the growing popularity of the automobile led to a proliferation of new streets. Graded and paved for motorists’ pleasure, Cliff was intended to relieve congestion on Grand Boulevard and made to “skirt the rimrock and afford an unobstructed view of the city,” according to a Feb. 13, 1931, article in the Spokane Daily Chronicle.

But there was more to it in Cliff’s case. The nation was deep in the Great Depression, and the work to make the road would be done by “unemployed family men,” according to another Chronicle article.

The well-to-do residents of Sumner Avenue protested. The new scenic route would essentially run through their backyards.

Facing a backlash, Mayor Leonard Funk called for a meeting between homeowners and city officials, but a city attorney spoke against the homeowners.

“The street is a heritage reserved for the common people,” said James Geraghty, the attorney, noting that the street had been planned for years. “It was put in the original plat and again when the division was replatted.”

Lloyd Gandy, an attorney who moved to Spokane in 1880 at the age of 3, lived on Sumner at the time. He too supported the road, noting that 20 years before it was common on a Sunday for “hundreds of people to stroll along this avenue to drink in the view.” Over time, Gandy said, property owners gradually enclosed it “and it became more or less private property.”

The wealthy folks of Sumner didn’t stand a chance. The road was approved by the city, and The Spokesman-Review and Chronicle ran letter after letter from people praising the project and the work it gave to struggling men and their families. Those men probably built the Tiger Trail as well.

Though the stories of the Spruce Street stairs and the Tiger Trail carry echoes from Spokane’s past, the Cedar Street stairs are noisy with today’s happenings.

The Cedar Street stairs have gathered more newspaper ink than any other public staircase, but even then only its recent history – primarily about political battles – is told.

These stairs are the city’s tallest, with 125 steps connecting Riverside Avenue near its intersection with Cedar Street to the Peaceful Valley neighborhood. They also happen to be the newest – at least a section of them. Last fall, the city demolished the upper portion of the stairs with little fanfare – or a demolition permit – as part of its work to build a sprawling sewer and stormwater basin just south of the staircase.

The stairs were rebuilt, and they reopened earlier this month looking much like they did before: steep, skinny, metallic.

Their quiet, partial demolition didn’t cause much of a stir, unlike the ruckus that erupted in 2008 when developer Mick McDowell asked to buy the staircase from the city for $7,500. At the time, he had plans to build a tall condo tower just to the east of the stairs, overlooking Peaceful Valley, and he promised to maintain public access. Then-Mayor Mary Verner opposed the idea.

“Why are we getting rid of a piece of property that provides connectivity?” she said to a group of neighborhood residents at a community meeting. An ad hoc “Friends of the Stairs” group was formed to oppose McDowell’s proposal, and the city ultimately refused his offer. That same year, with the economy in a historic plummet, McDowell’s condo plan stalled.

The stairs remained the same, a pedestrian affair far from the grand vision of architect Warren Heylman, known best for the Parkade, who owns the piece of land just west of the stairs and lives in the “flashcube” Riverside Falls apartment building down the road, which he also designed. For years, he’s wanted the stairs to be rebuilt into something more like Spanish Steps in Rome. Something like a wide promenade with multiple terraces, more of gathering place than a conduit from here to there.

Last fall, the 93-year-old Heylman was found looking at the demolished stairway, contemplating its future.

“It should be monumental,” he said.

Something worthy of a story, one to be told and retold.

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