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New book tells the little-known story of Spokane’s forgotten Riblet brother

Ty Brown, a West Valley teacher, has written a new book about Byron Riblet, a Spokane engineering genius who died forgotten and in poverty – and with his younger brother, Royal, having been given the credit for a lot of his accomplishments.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
Ty Brown, a West Valley teacher, has written a new book about Byron Riblet, a Spokane engineering genius who died forgotten and in poverty – and with his younger brother, Royal, having been given the credit for a lot of his accomplishments. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

Ty Brown is leading us around the site of the old Riblet mansion – though it’s not the one you probably have in mind.

Here is where the Kirtland Cutter-designed home stood before it burned down in 1933. There, an original rock wall along a property line and a stone bench grown mossy with time.

Here is a massive water wheel, rusted orange in the shady overgrowth by the Little Spokane River. There, a fishing shack with its deck on the water, where anglers used to pull fish from the placid, willow-shaded waters.

Here is the carriage house and there the former servants quarters.

No, we aren’t touring Arbor Crest Wine Cellars, the iconic former home of Royal Riblet known as Cliff House. Brown is guiding us through the remains of the mostly forgotten mansion of a mostly forgotten Spokane icon – Byron Riblet, an incredibly accomplished engineer whose tramway systems were used at mines and ski hills around the world, and whose many achievements have been often awarded by history and conventional wisdom to his flamboyant younger brother, Royal.

This colonial-style mansion, designed by Kirtland Cutter, was built on the Little Spokane River in 1911 for Byron Riblet. The mansion burned down in 1933.  (Courtesy Little Spokane Bookworks)
This colonial-style mansion, designed by Kirtland Cutter, was built on the Little Spokane River in 1911 for Byron Riblet. The mansion burned down in 1933. (Courtesy Little Spokane Bookworks)

“Byron is the one who basically created everything,” Brown said, “and Royal got all the credit – which he was happy to take.”

Brown is looking to set that straight with the publication of his second book, “Byron Riblet: Forgotten Engineering Genius.” A Spokane native and history teacher at West Valley High School, Brown’s book aims to restore the lesser-known Riblet to his rightful place in our community’s memory.

When Brown tells people the story of Byron, they often “correct” him by saying no, that was Royal. Some people simply do not believe him, he said, so firmly has the legend of Royal Riblet taken root. Part of that is due, no doubt, to the iconic nature of Cliff House, which overlooks the Valley and on whose beautiful grounds the story of Royal Riblet lives on.

Part of it is due also to the “riches to rags” trajectory of Byron’s life; following years of great success, he faded into a period of alcoholism, financial struggle and family breakdown. For decades, his ashes – along with the ashes of his wife, Hallie Jane, and one of his daughters – sat unclaimed on a cemetery shelf.

A pioneer

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Byron Riblet was among the most important figures in booming Spokane and the Inland Northwest.

A civil engineer and Iowa native, Riblet and his partner platted scores of neighborhoods in Spokane in the period of growth following the Great Spokane Fire. He engineered railroad tracks and trolley car systems and waterworks, among other projects, in Spokane and around the region, all of which are detailed in Brown’s book.

In the last years of the 19th century, Riblet took on a new project: designing and building a tramway system for hauling ore for a mine in Sandon, British Columbia – a development that rapidly laid the groundwork for his most important legacy: Riblet Aerial Tramway Co.

Over the next few decades, he designed tramway systems all over North and South America. The tramways hauled ore up- and downhill for mine operators, and carried grain uphill and across rivers to be shipped by rail. These were massive projects constructed in harsh, difficult terrain, involving large towers and cable systems, carefully engineered buckets to transport materials, and enormous landing stations.

Eventually, his tramways carried ore in British Columbia and Bolivia, in Park City, Utah, and Argentina, in Montana and Alaska. His business reached its peak in the 1920s; Byron had involved both of his brothers, Royal and Walter, as partners and company officers.

Even then, the dynamic between Byron and Royal was clear, according to the book and other historical sources. Royal was flamboyant and outgoing; Byron was more serious and hard-working. Royal was a salesman, clever and inventive; Bryon was a serious-minded engineer.

The two of them often shared credit – and sometimes Royal received more than his share – for things that Byron had done alone or they had done together.

An example is the square-wheeled tractor that is still displayed at Cliff House as Royal’s invention. According to Brown’s book, the brothers invented the tractor – which was meant to cause less erosion and provide greater traction – together in 1915 but couldn’t make a success of it.

Byron Riblet poses next to a pulley system powered by a car engine at one of his many tramway projects. Riblet designed and installed tram systems for mines, logging operations and other uses all over North and South America in the 1920s and ’30s.  (Courtesy of Donna Mitchell)
Byron Riblet poses next to a pulley system powered by a car engine at one of his many tramway projects. Riblet designed and installed tram systems for mines, logging operations and other uses all over North and South America in the 1920s and ’30s. (Courtesy of Donna Mitchell)

Byron sold his part of the tractor project to Royal in 1925, according to Brown’s book, and Royal kept at it, trying to make a hit of the square-wheeled tractor on his own.

Riblet mansions

Byron built his home on the Little Spokane in 1911, on a 40-acre plot of land. A couple years later, he bought another 90 surrounding acres.

The Colonial mansion, known as Riviera, was one of the city’s finest, and the secluded location along the river north of town, where many of its most successful families had homes, was a perfect grassy setting for summer gatherings.

Byron and his wife were important figures in Spokane civic life, often mentioned in society pages of the local papers.

If Byron’s home was spectacular, Royal’s was of a different order of magnitude altogether. Known as the Eagle’s Nest, the Italianate mansion was completed in 1925, at the height of the Riblets’ success.

It had a swimming pool, a croquet court/skating rink and a nine-hole mini-golf course. A 25-square-foot checkerboard graced the grounds, and a tram – of dubious quality – ran between the house and the valley floor.

During this period, Royal married and divorced at a dizzying rate; he had seven wives during his life. Byron’s great-grand-nephew, Dan Carpenter, described Royal in a recent video produced by local historian Chuck King as a scoundrel, womanizer and “four-flusher” – someone who makes empty or unsuccessful bluffs when they’re one card short of the real deal.

Toward the end of the 1920s, though, the brothers’ lavish spending and debt were becoming a problem, despite the company’s international success. In 1928, the company was forced to restructure and pay down debt. And tramway orders were declining, right as the stock market crash of 1929 loomed.

A change in fortunes

The Depression was difficult, but not disastrous, for Riblet Tramway.

The family’s personal and financial fortunes took a sharp downward turn in the 1930s, however.

Byron’s majestic home burned to the ground in 1933. City fire crews did not respond because the home was outside city limits; the blaze helped prompt the creation of rural fire districts, Brown discovered.

Later that same year, Byron severed ties with Royal, formally firing him on Dec. 7, 1933. Though the details are a bit murky, it seemed that Royal had tried to drum up business separately, representing some Riblet Tramway designs and materials as his own.

“He was a scoundrel,” Brown said. “He tried to do his own thing and take the credit for it.”

He would later start his own tramway company. It built only one tramway, later described as a “complete disaster” by a Riblet Tramway engineer. It had to be rebuilt.

The basis of the falling-out between the brothers is more hinted at than fully documented, but it seemed permanent.

“Allegedly, they did not talk for the rest of their lives,” Brown said. “Only through lawyers.”

Byron was not without his own vices, particularly drink. During the ’30s, he became more known around town for erratic behavior and driving drunk.

And when the next big opportunity for Riblet Tramways presented itself, he seemed uninterested in the possibilities.

A new chapter

Tramway technology had been adapted for the first time as a ski lift in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1936. An engineer and company official with Riblet Tramway, Carl Hanson, was immediately interested in seeking opportunities in this new field, and began pressing Byron to pursue it, Brown writes in his book.

Byron was reluctant, but Hanson prevailed, and the company designed its first lift. The “Magic Mile” at Timberline ski resort on Mount Hood, opened in 1939.

Before long, Riblet Tramways had designed what is believed to be the first double chairlift in the country, a short-lived project at Mount Spokane that had to be taken down after mechanical problems.

However, a new era for Riblet Tramways had begun, and the company eventually built more than 400 lifts around the world.

Byron, though, evolved toward a consultant’s role, while Hanson was the primary author of the company’s new chapter. He formally took over the company in 1948. Ironically, The Ski Journal once referred to Byron as “the Henry Ford of Skiing” for Riblet Tramway’s central role in bringing the modern era of ski resorts into being, when Hanson was probably more deserving of that title.

In any case, ski lifts became the primary business of the company for the next half-century; Riblet Tramway went out of business in 2003, in part because its designs were overtaken by faster, larger chairlifts.

But if you ski at resorts around the region, you’ll still ride on Riblet lifts – the older, slower, two-seaters.

Byron’s days ended in a period of sad decline, marked by financial difficulties and family dissolution. He and his wife lived to the end of their days in the modest servants quarters on the mansion grounds; he sold off most of the land surrounding the main property.

Upon his death in 1952, he had an estate of roughly $24,000, Brown writes.

A hidden story

Brown first heard of the not-so-famous Riblet mansion when he was researching his first book, “Wandermere: Legacy on the Little Spokane River,” a few years ago.

Brown grew up in Spokane, graduating from Mead High School and going on to earn degrees at Washington State and Whitworth. His family owns and operates Wandermere Golf Course.

He worked on his first book with Tony Bamonte, the prolific local historian and former Pend Oreille County sheriff whose efforts to solve a decades-old murder case was the subject of Timothy Egan’s “Breaking Blue.”

Bamonte helped teach Wood how to find primary historical documents and other sources, as well as the nuts and bolts of writing and publishing a book.

“He was so good about that – he taught me how to do it all, and that was wonderful,” Brown said.

Brown dedicated his new book to Bamonte, who died in 2019; he has published both volumes through his company, Little Spokane River Books, and both were printed by Spokane’s Gray Dog Press.

It was while working on his first book that Brown found the kernel of the idea for his second. He and King, who produces local history videos and is a co-founder of the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum, had heard about a Riblet mansion in the Wandermere area.

Brown eventually was able to locate the site, just north of North Little Spokane Drive along the river. He knocked on the door of the man who currently lives in the former servants quarters and began working outward from there.

One break came when they contacted the last president of Riblet Tramway, Doug Sowder, who was clearing out the offices of the company at the corner of North Foothills Drive and North Hamilton Street.

Brown told Sowder, “Why don’t you just throw that stuff into the back of our trucks and we’ll find a museum or something.”

A lot of that stuff lives at Brown’s house now, though it’s going to be moved to the heritage museum. A large sandcast for a sheave – a tramwheel – hangs on the outer wall of a shed. A rusty ore bucket sits nearby, along with a metal plate: Riblet Aerial Tramways.

Inside, Brown has a large collection of photographs, documents and company records. That trove was where he discovered the letter outlining Byron’s banishment of Royal from the business. It’s also where he came across the many photographs, blueprints and other items that fill his book.

Last August, Brown, King and Jim McLefresh, a retired county surveyor who was interested in giving Riblet’s ashes a deserving final home, helped unveil a new monument to Riblet at Fairmount Memorial Park.

That effort and the rest of Brown’s research share a common purpose. It’s right there in the title of Chapter Nine: “Forgotten No More.”

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