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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Industrial to incredible: Expo ’74 spurred beauty of Spokane River

The development and construction of Expo ’74 spurred the beautification surrounding downtown Spokane and its river. (Spokesman-Review photo archives)
The development and construction of Expo ’74 spurred the beautification surrounding downtown Spokane and its river. (Spokesman-Review photo archives)

On a chilly afternoon this March, Bill Youngs took two of his granddaughters to Riverfront Park. He said there were a few complaints and pleas of “Can’t we go inside, Granddad?” but he felt a swelling of pride when the awe of the falls made them forget the cold.

“Those footbridges give you a sense of a wonderful, intimate view of the water rushing underneath,” Youngs said.

Youngs was able to give his granddaughters a more thorough tour than most: He wrote a comprehensive book about the Spokane River and Expo ’74, “The Fair and the Falls.”

“I have a pride in knowing about so many different corners of the park,” Youngs said.

He contends the drama and beauty of the falls cutting through downtown Spokane rivals the majesty of any national park. He should know: He works at Eastern Washington University as a professor specializing in national park history.

“If you were in Yellowstone Park and you walked 3 miles to see a scene like the Spokane Falls, you’d probably feel like the hike was worthwhile,” Youngs said.

Youngs said in the 1950s there was a belief that you could throw anything into the river – trash, human waste and more – and it would clean itself within 5 miles. The result was a riverfront that was essentially a trash dump.

“You’re taking a lunch break, you wander under railroad trestles, you might get pigeon droppings on your head if you went through,” Youngs said. “ … There was a big parking lot and a motel on Cannon Island, this industrial laundry. It simply did not speak to the beauty of the place. It did not say, ‘Come in and enjoy nature.’ ”

Spokane had to change this image if it wanted to court the world’s fair, and what it accomplished was transformative. Even environmentalist David Brower, whom Youngs described as an “environmental bad boy” so radical the Sierra Club wouldn’t have him, gave the city a glowing recommendation.

In his book, Youngs quoted King Cole, Expo ’74 president, describing Brower’s endorsement as “not only was this a good thing, but that it was an actual classic textbook case of a community trying to change the environment.”

Youngs thinks that assessment hits the nail on the head. The beautification of the area and creation of the Expo grounds, and ultimately Riverfront Park, didn’t only change the aesthetics but also the community’s mindset.

“There was a disposition to simply forget the river was there,” Youngs said. “People would say ‘We hadn’t even realized the river was there.’ ”

Cole decided to move the needle; there needed to be a citizens group. Youngs said a member of that group, Joe Tewinkel, described the vision of the project best in speaking of how he hoped people would see the restoration 50 years later.

“Somebody must have loved that place,” said Tewinkel, a former North Central High School principal.

The guiding philosophy behind the cleanup and beautification of the Spokane River is that people will take care of what they love, city spokeswoman Marlene Feist said.

“For our community in 1974 to be as visionary as it was, to remove those train tracks and create a 100-acre downtown urban park, is extraordinary,” Feist said.

This caretaking is ongoing and requires partnerships with organizations like the Spokane Riverkeeper and businesses such as Avista. And the city of Spokane is nearing completion of a $200 million project to install stormwater tanks to prevent sewage from running into the river.

“What we believe as a community and as a city is that the more our citizens engage with the river the more they will take care of it for future generations,” Feist said.

Avista’s dam has a long history with the river, and the company played a key role in courting the world’s fair. Spokane officials received an assist when they were trying to impress potential company partnerships midsummer, when there wasn’t much water in the river. Yet the guests were directed to look at the falls.

“They looked over the river from the restaurant and the water was just raging through there,” Youngs said. “What (Avista) had done, is they cleverly timed things with the dam so that they released water so that it would be going through like gangbusters at 1:30.”

Youngs hopes to one day publish a second edition of his book, promising there are many more stories of Expo and more history of the falls to tell.

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