On February 9, 1947, a front-page article in the Spokesman-Review announces a gift from the estate of John Aylard Finch (1854-1915), an English immigrant who made a fortune in mining, to fund the establishment of the Finch Arboretum. The city of Spokane has long owned the land at the west end of town but lacks the funds to develop it until the last living executor of the Finch estate, William A. Corey (1880-1963), releases $250,000 for the purpose. The Park Board and community leaders rally behind the idea of establishing an arboretum rather than adding to Spokane’s many existing conventional parks. The eventual mile-long strip of 65 acres between present Interstate 90 and the Sunset Highway will become a prime asset of the region, valuable for scientific purposes and public enjoyment.
Garden Springs Creek
The land that became the Finch Arboretum was once, of course, the domain of the Spokane Indians. The next occupants were Chinese market gardeners who helped supply the new town of Spokane with vegetables. Soon pioneer businessman Daniel H. Dwight (1862-1950) acquired some of the land and built his summer cottage, Brookside, on Garden Springs Creek that flows through the property. Between 1900 and 1910, Dwight planted some of the oldest trees still standing in the Finch Arboretum, including a Hungarian linden (Tilia x juranyana) believed to be the largest in the state and a Norway spruce (Picea abies), which is tied for third largest. The Seattle, Lakeshore & Eastern Railroad once claimed the right of way to the land but never laid tracks in that location.
Although not initially envisioned as an arboretum, the land seemed destined for a special purpose. In 1907 Spokane voters approved a new city charter that included the creation of an independent Board of Park Commissioners. The board promptly engaged the renowned Olmsted Brothers, landscape architects of Brookline, Massachusetts, to devise a plan for the development of Spokane parks and boulevards. The Olmsted report included recommendations for Queen Anne Park on land that later became the arboretum but did not directly specify such a use. It did state, however, that:
"It can be made a beautiful small park, its chief landscape features being the grassy valley with borders of planting. The south side of the valley is rather steep, and can be left wooded, with walks for strolling: but the north border can be planted with deciduous trees and flowering shrubs. The ravine will be a picturesque landscape feature. Here deep shade, with evergreen shrubbery and vines, ferns and the like, will be appropriate" (Report, 84.
By the time the Report of the Board of Park Commissioners (including the Olmsted recommendations) was published in 1913, the name had become Garden Springs Park which, because of its "continuous stream ... and grove of natural deciduous trees and shrubs [will be] entirely different from any other park in the system" (Report, 29) Although this quotation does not mention an arboretum, it is easy to see how such an idea could take hold. In fact investment banker and civic leader Joel E. Ferris (1874-1960), a park board member and chairman of the Citizens Advisory Committee to the board at the time of the 1947 gift, stated: "The arboretum idea is not a recent one. For many years John Duncan (1868?-1948), superintendent emeritus, has visualized an arboretum in the Garden Springs area because of its particularly favorable exposure, soil conditions, accessibility, and natural beauty" ("$250,000 Gift...," 6).
Purchasing Land and Planting Trees
A $1 million bond issue passed on May 4, 1910, enabling the city to begin purchasing land for many parks, including Garden Springs, which was acquired in 1912, mainly from Dwight and Finch. The Finch wealth had already funded land for parks and would continue to underwrite many other worthy causes in Spokane and the region. Finally in 1947 the Finch trust, with an additional personal gift from William Corey, made possible the development of an arboretum. Corey’s gift enabled the purchase of more land up the creek at the west end of the present arboretum, today called Corey Glen. Harold T. Abbott was park superintendent and Laurence R. Hamblen (d. 1956) chairman of the park board at the time. Robert L. Woerner became the first director of the arboretum, a position he held until 1956. The 1947 newspaper announcement outlined the goals:
"to collect, grow and propagate all the trees, shrubs and woody vines that are hardy enough to grow in the area between the Rocky mountains on the east and the Cascades ... not only to offer a scientific service to the people of this great Inland Empire but also an economic and cultural service as well, where the landscape architect, forester, amateur gardener, nurseryman, botanist, etc. would find an opportunity to study and do research" ("$250,000 Gift ...," 6).
Part of the land had been leased by the city to the federal government during World War II for housing for Air Force families. As late as 1955, some remnants of wartime housing were still being removed to make way for arboretum development. The schoolhouse was salvaged and by 1954 modified for use by the Arboretum.
Grading was done in 1948 to remove traces of the undeveloped Seattle, Lakeshore & Eastern Railroad. Planting officially began in 1949, with 18 local trees, mainly from city greenhouses at Manito Park. In January 1951, the Finch Advisory Committee reported a gift of 168 seedlings from the University of Washington Arboretum (now Washington Park Arboretum). Many trees planted during the 1950s are among the most impressive at the arboretum today. Presently (2012) there are more than 2,000 labeled trees and shrubs representing over 600 species, some of which are now the largest specimens in the state. These include varieties of arbor-vitae, cherry, crabapple, fir, hawthorn, juniper, maple, and willow. A devastating ice storm on November 19, 1996, destroyed many of Spokane’s valuable trees. Among the casualties in the Finch Arboretum was Washington’s largest bristlecone pine (Pinus aristata).
Preserving and Renovating
One of the formerly rare trees at the arboretum is a dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). Until 1944 it was known only as a fossil and thought to be extinct, when a living tree was discovered in a remote part of China. In 1950 the Finch Arboretum received three precious seedlings, two of which survived.
In 2009 a $6,300 grant from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources enabled work to begin on the restoration of Garden Springs Creek, involving the replacement of invasive plants with new trees and shrubs, including native species. According to Steve Nittolo, horticulture supervisor for the Spokane Parks Department, the project’s new plantings would provide shade and "improve habitat for fish, frogs and other critters" (Prager)
The arboretum is free and open to the public year round, maintaining an active schedule of lectures, guided tours, and school field trips. Visitors range from avid gardeners to scientific researchers to families enjoying an outing. In years past, a dedicated cadre of volunteers, the Arborettes, assisted the professional staff in maintaining the Finch Arboretum and providing its services to the public. Efforts are currently underway to restore such a level of volunteerism: A newly formed club called Finch Arboretum Conservators planning to train guides for leading tours, create a master plan, and label trees and shrubs. There is also community help at special times such as Arbor Day. A notable example was Sunday, April 18, 1993, when parents and children were invited to assist arboretum staff in planting 800 tree and shrub seedlings.