Spokane Valley -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 5/25/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10119
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Spokane Valley is a suburban city of 89,755 residents (2010 census), in Spokane County between Spokane and the Washington/Idaho border. It occupies the broad, gravelly valley of the Spokane River and was originally populated by the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene tribes. Antoine Plante (1812-1890), a former fur trader, operated a ferry over the river beginning in about 1854. Over the next few decades, settlers began to establish farms, orchards, and trading posts such as the Dishman Store. Beginning in 1895, irrigation vastly increased the productivity of the land. Apples were the chief crop until about 1925, when truck farming took over. World War II brought a huge aluminum plant to Trentwood and hundreds of jobs. The trend toward suburban living caused a population boom in the last half of the century. Several incorporation drives were attempted and failed. Finally, in 2002, voters authorized the creation of a 37-square-mile city. When incorporation became official on March 31, 2003, Spokane Valley instantly became the ninth largest city in Washington.

Spokane Valley

The Spokane River is 111 miles long from its outlet at Lake Coeur d'Alene to its mouth at the Columbia River, but through early common usage, the term Spokane Valley came to refer specifically to the broad, approximately 15-mile-long valley between the Idaho/Washington border and the city of Spokane.

The Rev. Jonathan Edwards, a pioneer missionary and early historian of Spokane County, described the Spokane Valley in lyrical terms in 1900:

"The surface is undulating just enough to afford fine drainage. There are seasons of the year when a view of the valley from an elevation is indescribably resplendent; when it is ablaze with green grass and a great variety of flowers. In parts, the grain can be seen waving gracefully in the breeze, and orchards with trees laden with delicious fruit. The Spokane River winds its way through, rushing as if in a haste to reach the series of falls ... . The Spokane Valley is encircled with pine-clad hills picturesquely broken up with cliffs of rugged granite and basaltic rocks, with the towering Mt. Carleton, familiarly known as Mt. Baldy [today known as Mt. Spokane] away in the distance" (Edwards, p. 45).

Edwards went on to say that "even one who has encircled the globe has seen few spots equal in magnificence." He might have been prejudiced, since he lived out his life in Veradale (now part of the city of Spokane Valley), but other observers also commented on its beauty. One called it all "bunchgrass and sunflowers," probably referring to the massive displays of cheerful yellow arrowleaved-balsamroot flowers in April and May (Boutwell, Vol. 1, p. 128).

Early Days

The earliest residents were the Spokane Indians, mainly the group known as the Upper Band of the Spokanes, as distinguished from the Middle and Lower bands whose main camps were farther downstream. The Coeur d'Alene Tribe also lived there. The Spokane Valley was covered with excellent bunchgrass pasture for the tribes' horses. Camas roots thrived near the lakes and ponds. Saskatoon (serviceberry) bushes dotted the grasslands (and still do). Evidence of old Indian fish traps have been discovered in Spokane Valley, although these were probably used for catching the river's prodigious quantities of trout, since most salmon were blocked by Spokane Falls. The area was crisscrossed with important Indian trails. One early Valley settler remembered that some of these Indian trails were "three to five feet wide" and "worn deeper than the cayuse's (pony's) knees" (Boutwell, Vol. 1, p.25).  The Spokane River was relatively broad and shallow in this area, making it a natural place to ford.

In fact, it was a ford that attracted one of the first settlers to the Spokane Valley, Antoine Plante, a French-Canadian-Gros Ventre former Hudson's Bay Company trapper. He married a Pend Oreille woman and later a Flathead woman and roamed widely throughout the region. He settled in the Spokane Valley around 1852, on the banks of the Spokane River at an ancient river-fording site. He traded cattle and horses, hunted, trapped and served as a guide to Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens' (1818-1862) survey parties. In about 1854, Plante and his family built a new house near the ford He grew corn, wheat, vegetables and apples and maintained substantial herds. He also built a ferry to assist travelers in crossing the Spokane River at this strategic point.

Captain John Mullan (1830-1909), who was building military road in the region, described Plante's Ferry as "a good one, consisting of a strong cable stretched across the river and a boat 40 feet long" (Boutwell, Vol. 1, p. 38). He also described Plante as "a very worthy man" (Boutwell, Vol. 1, p. 38).

Conflict and Change

Plante's Ferry became a natural gathering place. Governor Stevens chose Plante's cabin as the site of a tribal council in 1855, during which Stevens attempted to convince the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene tribal chiefs to sell their lands and move to a reservation shared with either the Nez Perce or the Yakama tribes. Chief Garry (ca. 1811-1892), a Spokane chief and spokesman, famously replied that "you spoke bad" and this proposal "would strike the Indians to the heart" (Lewis). Even more scathingly, Garry asked Stevens, "Do you think that because your mother was white and theirs dark, that you are higher and better? ... . If you take the Indians for men, treat them so now" (Lewis).

However, the Spokane Valley soon became the site of one of the most notorious incidents in the ensuing Indian war of 1858. Col. George Wright (ca. 1801-1865) defeated combined Indian forces in two battles east of present-day Spokane and then marched into the Spokane Valley in an attempt to force the utter capitulation of the tribes. There, at a spot near the river close to today's Idaho border, Wright rounded up between 800 and 900 Indian horses and slaughtered almost all of them. Wright also burned the Spokane tribe's stores of wheat. Chief Garry could do nothing but watch somberly from the surrounding hills.

The Upper Spokanes continued to live in and around the Spokane Valley, but settlers soon arrived. Spokane Bridge, a wooden bridge and trading post, was established in 1864 near the Idaho border. The bridge was washed out several times but was always rebuilt. The first post office in the county was established in 1867 at Spokane Bridge. This bridge and several other bridges reduced traffic at Plante's Ferry. Civilization was beginning to encroach on Plante's cabin. According to one account, Plante had fewer than 15 white and French-Indian neighbors in 1872, but by the end of 1873, the number had multiplied. Settlers were grazing cattle, growing wheat and hay, and planting apples and cherries. This was long before the establishment of the city of Spokane Falls (now Spokane), just to the west. Meanwhile, the tribes were still making their camps as they always had in the Spokane Valley. One early settler remembered Indians grazing their ponies in the meadows and picking berries.

When a settler named Addison Dishman arrived in 1886, the Valley still retained some of its wild character. Dishman remembered that "there were two bands of wild horses in the Valley and in the spring large numbers of geese came to feed among the tules which surrounded the numerous small lakes in the area" (Boutwell, Vol. 1, p. 128). There were a dozen or so large farms in the Valley, including some dairy operations, with cows grazing on bunchgrass.

Yet the Spokane Valley was not ideal for agriculture. The soil was nothing like the rich Palouse topsoil to the south. It was gravelly (Out in the Gravel is the title of one volume of Florence Boutwell's indispensable Spokane Valley histories) and could not be plowed until cleared of rocks. Once cleared, it proved to be fertile for raising wheat, corn, hay, and fruit. Yet rainfall was marginal -- about 17 inches a year -- and most of country remained sparsely populated and dusty. One Valley pioneer recalled that dust storms would blow in from the Palouse, "thick and yellow and everything got dark as night" (Boutwell, Vol. 1, p. 56) .

Irrigating the Valley

Agriculture would not really take off until irrigation arrived in 1895. That year, an irrigation company formed to bring water in from nearby Newman Lake and Hayden Lake. Other irrigation schemes followed, using water from other nearby lakes and the Spokane River. Yet the real breakthrough came in 1900 when a Spokane Valley farmer named Albert Kelly dug a 50-foot well and hit an underground river producing 350 gallons of water per minute. He had "discovered" the Spokane Aquifer, a vast underground river that flows beneath the Spokane Valley and beyond. Two companies soon formed to provide a means of pumping and distributing this bounty of water, the Modern Electric Water Company in 1905 and the Vera Electric Water and Power Company in 1908. Before long, the Spokane Valley was humming with dozens of pumps, drawing irrigation water from hand-dug wells.

The Modern Electric Water Company had set up a test plot, planted with every likely crop -- and a few unlikely ones such as cotton and peanuts -- and soon settled on the crop deemed most profitable: apples. The newly irrigated fields of Spokane Valley were planted with acre after acre of apple trees. By 1922, there were more than 1.6 million apple trees in the Spokane Valley. The main road from Spokane to Coeur d'Alene was named the Apple Way (or simply Appleway) because it was lined with apple trees for mile after mile. The chief varieties were Jonathan, Wagner, Rome Beauty, Yellow Newton, Winter Snow, Delicious, Red June, and Winter Banana. These orchards helped make Washington synonymous with apples. The Spokane Valley even became a tourist attraction, with sightseers trekking in May to the rocky points above the Spokane Valley to overlook "a sea of apple blossoms accompanied by a delightful fragrance" (Boutwell, Vol. 1, p. 113). The Spokane Valley also sprouted huge packing houses and cold-storage warehouses along the railroad lines to accommodate shipping all of these millions of apples.

The rail lines and the electric train lines were key to the Spokane Valley's growth. The Northern Pacific line cut directly through the Valley in 1881 and was part of a transcontinental line by 1883. Several other railways also cut through the Valley. Then in 1903, a different kind of railroad -- an electric line -- was constructed from Spokane to Liberty Lake by the Spokane and Inland Empire Railroad Company. This was a local line -- what we might call light rail today -- and it connected the Spokane Valley with its booming sister to the west, Spokane. It had hourly train service to and from Spokane and "was hailed with delight by the young people of high school age, as it enabled them to live at home and attend high school in Spokane" (Boutwell, Vol. 1, p. 99). It also turned one part of the Spokane Valley into a fashionable summer resort: Liberty Lake, called "the Coney Island of the Inland Empire" (Boutwell, Vol. 1. p. 96). 

The Towns of Spokane Valley

In 1921, the Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce was established, which gave a sense of economic unity to a region that was divided into a bewildering patchwork of small townships, mercantile hubs, irrigation districts, and railway stops. These places were known as Dishman, Veradale, Yardley, Opportunity, Trentwood, Trent, East Trent, Chester, Velox, Austin, Evergreen, Orchard Park, Irwin, and Greenacres. All stubbornly resisted pressure to incorporate as cities. Yet all had their unique character and origins. Dishman, for instance, began as a store and trading post built by Addison Dishman for his brother Wilton Dishman in 1895, at what is now Sprague Avenue and Mullan Road. A saloon and blacksmith shop followed and it became a stop on the electric railway line. By 1930, there were 20 businesses in Dishman.

The community of Opportunity sprang up when irrigation arrived and developers platted the land centered on today's Sprague Avenue and Pines Road. The developers sponsored a naming contest and a young farmer's daughter won it with her inspired and inspirational entry. Today that intersection is the hub of the city of Spokane Valley's commercial area.

Veradale was an adjacent irrigation district created by the same developers, and one of the key men, D. K. McDonald, named it for his daughter Vera. They tacked "dale" on to the end after they discovered there was another town in the state named Vera. The settlement of Trent (a name of unknown origin for the spot originally called Irvin) grew up near Antoine Plante's old ferry, and gave its name to the nearby areas of east Trent and Trentwood. The name Yardley was a railroad name for the switchyard just east of the Spokane city limits.

Still, people in the Spokane region usually called the entire area simply "the Valley," as evidenced by the names of its major school districts: East Valley, Central Valley and West Valley. Of the main "towns" in the Spokane Valley, only tiny Millwood voted to incorporate, in 1927. Millwood remains a small island surrounded on three sides by today's city of Spokane Valley.

The End of the Apple Era

This large unincorporated Spokane Valley area had a population of around 6,000 or 7,000 in 1920. The early 1920s proved to be the peak apple-growing years -- but this fruitful bounty would not last. Apples were a risky venture, far from the surefire cash crop predicted by that test plot. By about 1925, farmers were beginning to yank out their orchards because of a combination of problems: disease, insect infestations, low prices, untimely freezes, and competition from the Wenatchee and Yakima valleys, which were lower in elevation and perfectly suited for apple-growing.

Farmers began converting to truck farming. The Heart of Gold cantaloupe became a Valley specialty. In 1926, about 200,000 apple trees were pulled out and by 1945, only about 50,000 apple trees remained. Then a cold snap in 1955 killed the industry off for good. Today, the Spokane Valley's orchard legacy survives only in the name of one of its main thoroughfares, parts of which are still called Appleway.

Matches, Paper, Cement, and Gravel

Industry and manufacturing was already beginning to play a bigger role in the Spokane Valley economy. Matches -- of the wooden variety -- provided one of the first sparks. By the early 1920s, the big national match companies -- including Diamond Match Company, Ohio Match Company and Federal Match Company -- had realized that the Inland Northwest's white pine was perfect for match-making. They also realized they could save money by building factories near the sources of the timber. Three large match plants in the Yardley area, just east of the Spokane city limits, produced millions of matches.

Timber also was responsible for the Valley's biggest employer, the Inland Empire Paper Co., which built a huge paper plant at Millwood. The plant still thrives after more than 100 years. Cement and gravel also became important Valley industries.

Spokane University

Meanwhile, a loftier kind of institution had been established in 1913 in the heart of the Spokane Valley: Spokane University. It began as college to train pastors for the Christian Church -- it was briefly named Spokane Bible College -- but was non-sectarian and had thriving liberal arts and fine arts programs. It graduated hundreds of students.

But when the Great Depression struck, Spokane University had "no endowment and nothing to fall back on," according to one of its professors (Summers, p. 9). It closed in 1933, briefly reopened as a junior college, but then closed for good in 1936 and moved to a campus on Spokane's South Hill under the name Spokane Junior College.

Spokane University's influence remains strong through place names in the Spokane Valley, such as University Road and University High School (which was on the old college site until moving in 2002). Spokane University was also the reason some of the streets in the area are named after famous universities, such as Dartmouth and Oberlin.

The War and After

World War II had a profound impact on the Spokane Valley for two reasons: the Trentwood Aluminum Rolling Mill and the U.S. Navy 's Velox Naval Supply Depot, which both opened in 1942.  The Trentwood Mill was a defense plant, operated by Alcoa, which took advantage of the Northwest's inexpensive electrical power to churn out prodigious amounts of aluminum sheet. According to one estimate, if "all the sheet produced at Trentwood had gone into the manufacture of B-17s alone," it would have equaled 25,000 planes (Boutwell, Vol. 2, p. 207). It took 5,000 workers to build the plant, and hundreds stayed on to operate it. It grew to 525 acres, 70 of which, amazingly, are under one roof. The Velox Naval Supply Depot, located at the old railroad whistle-stop of Velox, was its equal in manpower. At its peak during the war, it employed 4,895. The navy chose the site because of its easy railroad access to the Pacific Northwest's ports, which were already crowded (and more vulnerable to attack). Entire landing craft were shipped out of Velox, destined for the Pacific theater.

Velox's activities waned after the war and it was finally sold in 1958 as an industrial park. The Trentwood Rolling Mill, however, became an increasingly dominant force in the Spokane Valley. Industrialist Henry Kaiser's Permanente Metals leased the plant in 1946 and later purchased it. The Kaiser Aluminum Corp.'s Trentwood Works became one of the Valley's key employers and employed more than 1,000. The plant's market began to decline in the 1990s. A 1998-1999 strike and subsequent lockout was traumatic for both labor and management. Then, in 2002, Kaiser filed for bankruptcy. It appeared to be a knockout blow for the Spokane Valley's economy, but the company bounced back, emerged from bankruptcy, and by 2005,was employing 600. By 2012, it was up to 800 employees

A Growing Suburb

Kaiser helped fuel a population boom in the Spokane Valley in the latter half of the century. These were the decades when people all over America were moving to the suburbs -- and in Spokane, Spokane Valley was practically synonymous with "suburbs." The Valley had all of the required attributes – it was close to the city, connected by good highways and blessed with plenty of former farmland ready to subdivide. From 1960 to 1980, the Valley's population grew 46,458 to 82,153. The median household income was relatively high, in part because of good Kaiser wages. Subdivisions proliferated, schools were built and a small zoo, named Walk in the Wild, was developed in 1972 on a rocky outcrop near the river (it would close in 1995 after Parade magazine named it one of the worst zoos in America).

Yet growth meant crowded schools and traffic jams on former farm lanes. The patchwork of communities in the Valley had always resisted incorporation, but growth was causing all of those old villages and districts to meld into one large entity, which Spokane residents commonly lumped together under the umbrella term Spokane Valley. As early as the 1950s, some residents began to talk of incorporation.

Not much came of it until the 1980s. In 1984, the Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce issued a report on the pros and cons of incorporation. A 1987 pro-incorporation drive stalled before it even came to a vote. In 1990, city proponents proposed turning most of the Spokane Valley into new city to be called Chief Joseph. Voters gave it only a 34 percent yes vote -- partly because many people thought the name made no sense for an area with only a tenuous connection to the Nez Perce chief.

Becoming a City

So backers floated another Spokane Valley incorporation plan in 1994, which left out Liberty Lake on the extreme east end of the Spokane Valley and several other neighborhoods. It went down to defeat with a 44 percent yes vote. Some areas embarked on their own incorporation votes, but did no better. In 1997, an Opportunity incorporation vote failed with only 27 percent approval, and an Evergreen vote failed with 26 percent approval. However, in 2002, Liberty Lake, voted in a landslide to become a city, the first incorporation in the Valley since Millwood in 1927.

Momentum began to build in favor of incorporation in 2002, in part because of the prospect that Spokane might try to annex Yardley and other areas right outside of its borders. Proponents also argued that the Valley could best take advantage of its growing tax base by forming its own government. They said that residents would have lower taxes and better city services. Crucially, the Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce endorsed incorporation for the first time. Under this new plan, the city would be centered on the historic areas of Opportunity, Dishman and Veradale, and would also include Yardley, Trentwood, Trent, East Trent, Chester, Velox, Austin, Orchard Park, Irwin, and Greenacres, among others.

In a vote on May 21, 2002, Spokane Valley voters approved incorporation by a narrow margin, 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent. Ed Mertens, who spearheaded the incorporation drive, called it "evidence that something great has happened ... . I know we're going to have a great city" (Hutson, "Promise"). Before incorporation could become official, citizens had to hold an election in November 2002 to select its first city council. Under the council-manager from of government, the council also elected a mayor from within its own ranks, Mike DeVleming. In order to have time to prepare, the council chose an incorporation date in spring 2003. City departments were organized and city offices established.  Some residents wanted to name the new city Opportunity, in part to separate it from big sister Spokane, but the council stuck with the long established name Spokane Valley.

When incorporation became official on March 31, 2003, Spokane Valley instantly became the ninth largest city in the state, with population of about 80,700. It was the largest incorporation in the state's history, and one of the largest single incorporations in U.S. history to that date, according to the City of Spokane Valley's website. In the 2010 census, Spokane Valley had 89,755 residents, putting it at No. 10 in the state -- bigger than Bellingham or Olympia, to name just two.

Spokane Valley Today

Today, the Spokane Valley Mall, a large shopping complex, attracts shoppers from all over the region. Bicyclists and strollers traverse the city via seven miles of the Centennial Trail, which borders the Spokane River. The old Walk in the Wild zoo area has been transformed into Mirabeau Meadows Park and CenterPlace at Mirabeau Point, a 54,000 square foot event facility. As of 2012, Spokane Valley had 7,000 licensed businesses.

Yet Spokane Valley's past is still evoked by many place names: Plante's Ferry Regional Park at Antoine Plante's old ferry site, University City shopping complex not far from the old Spokane University and many names evoking the old settlements of Dishman, Opportunity and Veradale. And just above Plante's Ferry, visitors can drive to the top of a rocky outcrop, gaze out over almost all of the 37 square miles within Spokane Valley's boundaries and imagine a time when it was a sea of apple blossoms.

Sources: Florence Boutwell, The Spokane Valley, Vol. 1, The Early Years (Spokane: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1994); Florence Boutwell, The Spokane Valley, Vol. 2, A History of the Growing Years (Spokane: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1995); Florence Boutwell, The Spokane Valley, Vol. 3, Out in the Gravel (Spokane: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1996); Florence Boutwell, The Spokane Valley, Vol. 4, The Naval Supply Depot at Velox, (Spokane: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 2004); Rev. Jonathan Edwards,  An Illustrated History of Spokane County (Spokane: W. H. Lever Publishing Co., 1900); William S. Lewis, The Case of Spokane Garry (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1987); June Helle Summers, Spokane Junior College, 1933-1942 (Spokane: June Helle Summers, 2006), copy in possession of Jim Kershner, Spokane, Washington; Lorie Hutson, "A Promise Fulfilled," Spokesman-Review, March 29, 2003, p. V-4; Lorie Hutson, "Spokane Valley is on the Map," Spokesman-Review, April 1, 2003, p. B-1; John Stucke, "Recovery in the Making," Spokesman-Review, February 12, 2012, p. A-1; John Stucke, "Kaiser's Rebound," Spokesman-Review, February 19, 2006, p. G-1; "About Us," City of Spokane Valley website accessed May 2012 (www.spokanevalley.org); Lorie Hutson, "New City Backers Prep for Final Push," Spokesman-Review, May 18, 2002, p. V-22; Lorie Hutson, "Opponents Mean Business," Spokesman-Review, May 18, 2002, p. V-24; Lorie Hutson, "Valley Headed for Incorporation," Spokesman-Review, May 22, 2002, p. A-1.

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