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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

School name finalist: Beacon Hill sole landmark considered for name of new middle schools

An image of the Fancher Beacon tower, as seen in 1932, is part of the McGoldrick Bamont collection at the Spokane Valley museum.  (Courtesy/Spokane Valley Museum photo McGoldrick Bamont Collection)

On the western flank of Beacon Hill there is a scraggly plot of land that was once home to Chief Spokane Garry.

Most recently a camel farm, now it is a vacant parcel. But in the 1860s, it was important. Chief Garry hosted dignitaries there, including Washington Territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens and the Rev. Henry Cowley.

But then in 1883 or 1884 Spokane Garry was robbed, according to David Beine, a professor of intercultural studies at Great Northern University (most recently the former Moody Bible Institute).

“He occupied (that land) for 20 years. Then European Dutchmen came in while he was away fishing and actually occupied it and kicked him off and burned his cabin down,” Beine said.

Garry fought to get back his land – east of what is now Havana Street and between East Valley Springs Road and East Longfellow Avenue – but never did. He died in 1892.

That’s a bit of long forgotten history about one of Spokane’s namesake locations, Beacon Hill.

Today, Spokane Public Schools is considering naming one of its new middle schools “Beacon Pines” to reflect and honor the rugged and historic natural landmark. It’s a story Beine has methodically researched since 2008. He’s found long-lost records in the national archives and tracked down deeds of sale and titles of ownership.

Now, Beine is writing a book that he hopes to release this fall.

“There were a lot of Indians who were getting their land stolen by whites,” he said.

Chief Garry’s stolen land is just one part of Beacon Hill’s story. Beine has talked to Spokane tribal members who remember camping on Beacon Hill, where there are several archaeological sites and artifacts.

But, as white people filtered, and then flooded, into the region much of that history was obscured. Soon the hill had become an important aviation landmark.

Early flyers, banking toward Felts Field (known then as Parkwater Aviation Field), scanned the skyline for its distinctive shape, knowing home was close, said Spokane Valley Heritage Museum director Jayne Singleton.

To this day, when Singleton is scanning through historic photos searching for ones of Felts Field, she looks for Beacon Hill’s distinctive rise.

“It’s such an iconic landmark,” she said.

That aviation landmark got an upgrade after a flying tragedy in Wenatchee.

On April 29, 1928 Maj. John T. Fancher, a Spokane native and World War I pilot, participated in an air show as part of Wenatchee’s annual Apple Blossom Festival. During the show, Fancher dropped grenade-like bombs from his cockpit in an aerial bombing demonstration, according to the online history website HistoryLink.

The bombs were designed to detonate six seconds after the pilot scratched the fuse; however, several failed to explode. After the show ended, and once he was safely back on the ground, Fancher went to examine the unexploded ordnance. One blew up in his face, severely injuring him. He died shortly after.

Within days, the East Wenatchee airfield was named Fancher Field in his honor, and Spokane citizens raised money to build a rotating light on modern day Beacon Hill. Fancher, who was a member of the Spokane-based Air National Guard unit, had been a proponent of the project prior to his death.

Later that year, the powerful rotating light was built on the 2,589-foot hill in east Spokane. It was known then as the Fancher Beacon tower and could be seen from a distance of 150 miles.

It was accompanied by a large lighted arrow fastened to the tower and pointing toward Felts Field.

Vandalized by gunfire over the years, the light operated until about 1950. The tower stood until 2012, at which point the old 70-foot lattice tower was dismantled to make way for a 120-foot emergency communications tower.

At that time Singleton tried to acquire the light for the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum but wasn’t able to.

“I don’t know what became of it,” she said.

Since its days as a navigational aid, Beacon Hill has become a popular mountain biking and hiking spot.

But like many beloved Spokane-area recreation spots, many of those trails were on private land. For decades, land owners allowed mountain biking and other public use, although frequent complaints of littering and the occasional forest fire stressed relationships, said Paul Knowles, Spokane County park planner.

That began to change around 2008 when a local mountain biking group applied for some federal funding to try and buy some of that land. Those efforts culminated in 2020 when the city and county agreed to purchase a combined 40 acres bordering Camp Sekani Park.

As for Chief Garry’s plot of land? It remains vacant.

“I’m kind of hopeful that maybe it will be a park,” Beine said.