Sunday, July 11, 2010

Spokane River History Tour

Four or five years ago, my friend Deb Abrahamson asked if I would represent her during official state or local meetings, in the case that she could not appear herself. I agreed, but she never called on me again, until yesterday.

Deb was scheduled to speak during the Spokane River History Tour, sponsored by the local Sierra Club and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy (CELP). A personal matter prevented her from making the presentation, so she asked me to appear in her stead. With less than an hour notice, I got myself ready and gave an impromptu speech to a group of about twenty five people. As much as possible, I tried to remain faithful to her topic and address the relationship of the Spokane Tribe to our rivers.

A variety of local experts addressed other aspects of the river's history, including Jack Nisbet, Bill Youngs, and Rachael Paschal Osborn.

In the photograph above, Larry Cebula (left) introduces Bill Youngs (right). (Larry Cebula is the author of "Plateau Indians and the Quest for Spiritual Power, 1700-1850.")

Local historian and author Jack Nisbet also addressed the group. I recently had the opportunity to meet Jack when he dug brown camas near Spangle, WA with a student group from Wellpinit Middle School.

Bill Youngs is a local historian and history professor at Eastern Washington University. During the Spokane River History Tour, he addressed two main topics. First he spoke about the founding of the city of Spokane by James Glover. Second, he spoke of the 1974 World's Fair that transformed the heart of the city.

A portion of Bill Youngs' comments bear repeating. He wrote:

During the spring of 1873... James Glover - the founder of Spokane - was traveling through the Inland Northwest looking for a place to establish a town and make a fortune.

After journeying from Lewiston by horseback for several days through the lightly settled Inland Northwest he came to Spokane Falls. Glover knew at once that this was the place to build a town. He knew that a waterfall was the ideal source of power to grind grain and mill timber.

Glover also recognized that the falls were a thing of beauty. Later in life he remembered sitting beside the river on a rock during his first morning in Spokane. "I was enchanted," he wrote, "- overwhelmed - with the beauty and grandeur of everything I saw. It lay just as nature had made it, with nothing to mar its virgin glory."

A century later, stumbling upon the falls, he might have "held that thought" and proposed that the falls be set aside as a National Park. (One of the early visitors to Yellowstone, by the way, thought that Spokane Falls and its environs were even more beautiful than the nation's first national park.)

But James Glover grew up in the age of robber barons, industrial tycoons, and city-builders. Setting aside his realization of the beauty of the falls, he saw dollar signs rather than natural beauty, and said of the setting, "I determined that I would possess it."
I've taken this quote from a website promoting the restoration of Spokane Falls, but these words are almost identical to the ones Bill Youngs told us as we overlooked the Spokane River. Personally, I had never heard this story before. Many times I have myself sat captivated by the beauty of Spokane Falls, and I can hardly conceive that anyone could think to possess such a magnificent, living thing. James Glover not only came to possess the falls, but nearly destroyed them beneath the urban development he instigated.

Thankfully, Bill Youngs did not conclude the story with only an account of Glover's personal ambition or tales of environmental destruction. He also recounted the story of urban renewal brought about by the World's Fair (Expo '74).

Youngs wrote the book "The Fair and the Falls: Spokane's Expo '74 : Transforming an American Environment." The book recounts the history of the river and the fair. Up to that point, Spokane was the smallest city to ever host a world's fair, and arguably, Spokane's fair created a more lasting benefit to the local community than other fairs.

The site of the fair was once a scene of urban decay. The river was completely choked by concrete and steel, railroad trestles and industrial buildings. The city of Spokane used the fair as an opportunity to restore the heart of the river. The old buildings were demolished and replaced with a beautiful 100 acre park: Riverfront Park.

As an aside, I was only three years old during Expo '74, but I still remember opening day of the fair. I remember looking up into the sky and seeing millions of helium balloons mingled with hot air balloons.

The events of the day were filmed by a man named Easy; a video will eventually be released on Community-Minded Television. Easy and I first met last year when I gave a local history presentation at Drumheller Springs.

Speed Fitzhugh represented Avista during the tour. He spoke about a recent policy change that will allow water to flow over the falls twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Previously, Spokane Falls would run completely dry during the summer months as all the water was diverted for electric power.

The Sierra Club was instrumental in negotiating an agreement with Avista to allow Spokane Falls to flow during the summer. Rachael Paschal Osborn addressed the group during the history tour and spoke of the Sierra Club's efforts.

The group concluded the Spokane River History Tour near the site of the World's Fair. The former American Pavilion is visible in the background (left), as well as the old Clock Tower and the Imax Theater.

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