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Thursday, October 22, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Then and Now: Spokane River Shacktown

Shacks, built by transient laborers, began popping up on the sparsely populated north rim of the Spokane River gorge in the 1890s. It wasn’t long before Spokane’s growth reached that area, and landowner Col. David P. Jenkins evicted them in 1898. The homeless campers hiked down the steep bank and rebuilt their makeshift refuges along the river’s edge.

Spokane citizens called the village “Shacktown.”

The residents were all single men, both with and without employment, who survived on meager wages or panhandling donations. A few were elderly and living on meager pensions.

Respectable society looked down, literally and figuratively, on the squatters and their shacks.

In 1945, writer C.R. Sparks of The Spokesman-Review described the situation of the 20 or so men who lived there: “Many people who want to see it abolished think the matter would not work any particular hardship on the residents (because) they are getting their pensions and could live elsewhere just as well.”

“Such is not the case for three quarters of the men involved. Five of the 20 residents are pensioners, the others are working hard, some of them in war industry.” The men, who were carpenters, lumberjacks, miners and blacksmiths heated their hovels with driftwood from the shore.

The men didn’t own the land, but shack owners would sell their huts for whatever they could get when they were ready to move on. After World War II, the village population had grown to 100 or more men.

The city turned to the Spokane Park Board, which was charged with city beautification. After years of complaints, the board met with the publicity-tourist bureau of the Spokane Chamber of Commerce in 1950.

Harold Abbott, the city parks superintendent, said city organizations wished to bring visitors here and the river and banks “must be made attractive.”

Otto Warn, a Park Board member and president of the Chamber of Commerce, said it was humiliating to show visitors a view of the falls from the window of the Civic Building on Riverside Avenue.

In April of 1951, workmen began dismantling the cabins and burning the wood. Early plans called for stairs leading down to the cleared riverside, which were never built because of railroad tracks on the gorge rim.

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