An Eastern Washington University archivist who worked in his spare time as a regional rail historian and area history preservationist was killed Sunday night in a traffic collision west of Spokane.
Charles V. Mutschler, 63, was driving west on state Highway 904 in the Four Lakes near the Interstate 90 off-ramp at about 7:30 p.m. when he veered into oncoming traffic, striking two eastbound cars, the Washington State Patrol reported in a news release. A passenger in another vehicle was taken to a hospital.
Mutschler died at the scene.
A longtime Cheney resident, Mutschler was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and lived in Colorado as a child, but moved to Cheney as a teenager. He graduated from Cheney High School before earning a bachelor’s degree in history from EWU in 1977. Decades later, in 1999, he earned his doctoral degree in history from Washington State University.
For most of Mutschler’s 37-year career at EWU, he worked as a library archivist, but in July he was selected as interim dean of the university’s library system.
“Charlie was a beloved member of our Eastern family and contributed greatly to ensuring that our libraries flourish at the heart of our academic community,” wrote Mary Cullinan, president of EWU, in a note sent to staff and students Monday. “Charlie knew and lived EWU’s history, and he was delighted to share his knowledge and love for this university.”
But his work away from the university arguably had a bigger impact on the community. At his death, he was chairman of the Cheney Historic Preservation Commission and president of the Cheney Depot Society. For decades, he also worked closely with the Inland Empire Railway Historical Society, which operates the Inland Northwest Rail Museum in Reardan.
Susan Beeman, secretary of the preservation commission, on which Mutschler served for 20 years, said he was an “old-fashioned gentleman” with a penchant for storytelling and an eye for photography.
“He was very kind,” she said. “Almost courtly manners. He said things kindly.”
When Mutschler told stories, he “could weave the story in a way that made it fascinating,” Beeman said. “Stories and details mattered to him and he was very precise. He told very good stories.”
John Taves, a Cheney city councilman, worked with Mutschler at the Cheney Depot Society.
The group, a nonprofit started in 2016 dedicated to preserving the 1929 Spanish-style Northern Pacific Railroad depot southeast of Highway 904 in Cheney, is planning to move the historic depot building to I Street in Cheney where it will operate as a rail museum.
An open house for the depot’s campaign is scheduled for Thursday, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Cheney Public Library.
“He was a vital member of the Cheney Depot Society. He was real into railroads and was a prime mover in the effort,” Taves said. “He was a real fountain of knowledge. He was a very cheerful fellow. I’d say he was one of my favorite people.”
The Reardan rail museum is familiar to many motorists on U.S. Highway 2, with its rolling stock collection of locomotives, coaches and other rail cars. The museum also has the only known remaining streetcar from Spokane’s once-extensive urban commuter network.
The 1906 Brill streetcar, built for Washington Water Power Co. as it operated Spokane United Railways, was used for decades as a restaurant in Chewelah after streetcars were swapped for buses in 1936.
Dale Swant, president of the railway society, said museumgoers would seek out a copy of “Spokane’s Street Railways: An Illustrated History,” a book Mutschler co-wrote while attaining his master’s degree in history at EWU in 1981.
“It’s been a consistent seller ever since it was published by the museum” in 1986, Swant said. “We own the last Spokane streetcar. People that see that want to know more about the streetcars of Spokane, and he was instrumental with that.”
Dave Snyder met Mutschler in 1981, when they helped found the railway society. Snyder said he last saw Mutschler on Sunday at the Model Train Show at the Spokane County Fair & Expo Center.
He was in good spirits, as he normally was, Snyder said, but said he was tired from his new duties as interim dean.
“He was always interested in what you had to say. With all the knowledge he had, he never tried to overshadow anybody else or put anybody else down,” he said. “Just an all-around nice guy.”
Besides his historical and preservation work, Mutschler was also active with Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Cheney, and met monthly with a group of retired EWU professors at Cheney’s El Rodeo Mexican restaurant.
He wrote “Wired for Success: The Butte Anaconda & Pacific Railway,” which was published in 2002. When time permitted, he taught history classes at EWU on public history and cultural resources.
He is survived by his mother, Denise, and younger brother, John.
A previous version of this story mistakenly said there would be an open house at the Cheney Public Library this Thursday about the railroad depot.
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