Royal Riblet: Man Against the Corporation

  • By William E. Barr
  • Posted 1/23/2006
  • Essay 7538
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William E. Barr wrote this account of an early environmental lawsuit brought by a Spokane-area citizen that alleged air pollution for the Autumn 1987 issue of The Pacific Northwesterner. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the publishers. Barr was the Collection Development Librarian for the Eastern Washington University Library and earned several degrees in history from Washington State University. His interest in the lawsuits brought by Royal Riblet (1871-1960) began when, for a high school history class assignment, he attended a session of Mr. Riblet's first lawsuit in April 1951.

Man Against the Corporation

In May 1950, Royal C. Riblet filed the first of several lawsuits against the owners of a cement plant located across the Spokane River from his hilltop home in the Spokane Valley, charging damage from air pollution. The series of lawsuits lasted for almost 10 years. An advocate of environmental protection might be tempted to assume that the results were all in his favor, but the courts at that time placed other considerations first.

The circumstances between the homeowner and the processing plant were against Riblet. Riblet found what he considered to be an ideal spot for a home, and indeed there are few locations in the area to match Tramway Hill, but a cement plant had already been built nearby more than a decade earlier. The ingredients for controversy were at hand from the very beginning: a dream home, an industrial polluter, and a determined man.

Royal Riblet was born in Iowa on July 9, 1871, the youngest of four children. He had a sister Nellie, and two brothers, Walter and Byron. About 1890, the family moved to Aberdeen, South Dakota. In later life, Royal developed what amounted to a passion for things mechanical, an interest undoubtedly growing out of his childhood experience with farm machinery in Iowa, and his later absorption with the bicycle. In South Dakota, he became the proprietor of a bicycle shop, and a cycling celebrity. He held several cycling championships in the state, and was fond of touring long distances. Considering the probable condition of roads in turn-of-the-century South Dakota, and the state of the art in bicycle construction, he must have been a prodigy on wheels. Perhaps this early success is a clue to his later energy and tenacity. He developed a winning habit early; he didn't like to lose.

But lose he did. Life was not all success for Riblet. At age 20, he fell in love with Gertrude Knapp. He courted her, and in 1895 they were married. Three children were born to the couple: Virginia, Marjorie, and Jackson. He deeply loved his wife, but after only eight years of marriage, she fell ill, and passed from life in 1903. Two weeks later, his father, who with his mother, had come to be with the couple, suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. This left Royal in his mid-30s with three young children and a dependent mother. In search of companionship and help, he married and divorced five times before marrying his seventh wife, Mildred. Although she was 32 years his junior, they remained together for the rest of his life.

Royal was drawn to the Pacific Northwest by his older brother Byron. Popular belief erroneously attributes invention of the tramway to Royal and often confuses him as the guiding hand behind the Riblet Tramway Company, but it was Byron who made the Riblet name famous. A 1886 graduate in civil engineering from the University of Minnesota, Byron made his way westward working for the Northern Pacific Railway as a surveyor. In Spokane he became Chief Engineer for the young Washington Water Power Company, supervising the laying out of electrical railways and equipment and designing and constructing a dam, pumping station, and distribution system in the city. He constructed his first tramway in 1897 while employed by the Noble Five Mining Company near Sandon, British Columbia. He did not invent the aerial tramway but he made significant improvements in its design and construction.

Other mining companies in British Columbia were soon asking Riblet to build tramways for them, so he opened a factory in Nelson, B.C., with the help of his brothers. Walter was installed as office manager and salesman and Royal was put to work in the blacksmith shop that fabricated tramway parts. Between 1897 and 1908, Byron developed several patents for tramway application, sold those patents, worked and traveled for another firm, and completed 30 or so tramways. In 1911, the Riblet Tramway Company was incorporated in Spokane by Byron Riblet, J. T. Clark, and Walter J. Nichols. Byron granted the company a license for the exclusive use of several patents, which he owned. In exchange he was given all the capital stock of the company. Royal also joined the company and remained until the brothers had a falling out in 1933. Royal allegedly diverted company funds to his personal use. Enraged, Byron fired Royal and the two parted, never to speak to each other again. Royal, wanting to capitalize on the family name, relying on his talent as a salesman, and drawing on his mechanical and technical experience, attempted to go into business for himself building tramways. But the nation was in the depth of a depression, and there was little enough business for the senior company, let alone a new venture. Airline Tramway Co., Royal's competing company, attempted only one major project, which was not a complete success.

Despite a lack of formal training, he was an incessant tinkerer and prolific inventor. He claimed to hold about 30 patents in later years, but unfortunately, few sparked much interest in others.

Years after his death, a treasure trove of his plans and ideas for inventions was discovered. Yet, skeptics have questioned whether any of his projects ever proved as rewarding as he had hoped. His automobile turn indicator, using a semaphore-like signal, was never adopted. Neither was his square-wheel tractor, a working model of which can be seen on the grounds of Eagle's Nest. Building a home of unique design in an impaired location is a lasting example of Riblet's sometimes independent, but misdirected judgment.

In August 1953, Royal Riblet quietly put his house on the market in a lengthy letter written to a New York firm. Quietly indeed, for one suit was pending in superior court, and he was on the verge of filing another.

It is a revealing letter in which he shows his pride and intimate knowledge of the buildings, grounds, and vistas. The one thing omitted is reference to the Spokane Portland Cement Plant and the cement dust problem. One gets a feel for the prospects from that Tramway Hill through his description:

"We have eighty-three acres of irregular shape, the north-side bordering on Pleasant Prairie -- a very rich and prosperous non-irrigated farming country ... On the West is also the Spokane Valley and beyond that, ten miles from our home, is the city of Spokane ... Also to the West within twenty-six miles and within view of my home is Fairchild Air Force Base, Geiger Airport and Felts Air Field. To the East we look into Idaho and see fields, orchards, mountains and manufacturing plants all within fifteen miles."

Not only was the view superior from Tramway Hill, but the climate was somewhat better:

"Our temperatures, which are obtained from a recording thermometer, are always two or more degrees cooler, at the same hour, in the summer and from eight to twelve degrees warmer at the same hour in the Fall and Winter than in the Valley surrounding us below. We have always picked at least varieties of garden flowers on Armistice Day, before the slightest frost. We nearly always have a breeze or moderate wind and have never registered a gust of wind over forty-five miles per hour."

He went on to describe in great detail the house and grounds: "Our house is a frame stucco with stone foundation and tile roof. It is built on solid basalt rock and the lower floor has the entrance with tile floor." Riblet roughed out the main dimensions of the house (24 feet by 58 feet, three-story, stucco exterior, red-tiled gabled roof), and worked with Spokane architect George H. Keith on details. But regardless of who the architect or the contractor was, it was his house. There is available a detailed list of specifications drawn up for the contractor governing design, materials, and workmanship, which undoubtedly was written with Riblet's advice and approval. The house, perched on the brink of a cliff, seems more imposing in that setting than it really is. And still, it is a structure pleasing to the eye, near or far alike. In 1925 it was described in glowing terms as "crowning the brow of a sheer cliff ... is a new residence which has no parallel in this region ... This home, standing out in bold whiteness against the sky, east of Spokane, belongs to R. N. Riblet, vice-president of the Riblet Tramway Company ... The object was not to build a queer or flashy home, but a common sense home."

To illustrate just how proud the Riblets were of their new residence, they claimed to have opened the grounds to around 10,000 visitors in 1926, and averaged 7,000 visitors during the next eight years. The Riblets were finally forced to control the flow of visitors with a sign that read "Friends Welcome Anytime, Others Welcome by Appointment." Pride in house and home helps explain somewhat his persistence in court. In the long run nothing came from his query to the New York realtor. Perhaps lack of buyer interest prompted him to return to court, for he filed a second suit the following October.

Two corporations were defendants in Riblet's lawsuit: the Spokane Portland Cement Company (originally the International Portland Cement Company Ltd.) and the Ideal Cement Company (later Ideal Basic Industries). Construction of the International plant began in 1910 at Irwin, Washington. Still shown on U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps across the Spokane River south of Plante Ferry Park, it is close to the intersection of Trent and Pines in the Spokane Valley. The Irwin site produced Portland cement from rock mined at quarries at Marble and Boyds, Washington.

The Ideal Cement Company, a Colorado-based corporation, bought the assets of the Spokane firm on October 1, 1954, for $1,600,000, adding the Irwin plant to the company's 13 other cement plants. It also got Royal Riblet as a neighbor and a string of lawsuits in the bargain.

When the Irwin plant was first established, Spokane city limits were about 11 miles west, and the area was sparsely settled. A few homes were located in the vicinity, but generally it was a vacant unpopulated area. Cement production began in 1913 with capacity gradually increasing. In 1931, the average production was about 215,000 barrels. Twenty years later, in 1951, when Riblet had begun his lawsuits, the annual production had increased to 666,110 barrels.

The house, built in Florentine style, is perched on the edge of a cliff. The grounds are decorated by pools, streams, and gardens. A large patio is in the foreground. From the vista house with the round roof, the view extends from Post Falls, Idaho, to the eastern reaches of Spokane.

Portland cement is composed of ground limestone, chalk, seashells, sand shales, clays, coal ash, and iron ore slag mixed with gypsum. Before the advent of pollution-control devices, an unpleasant by product of manufacture was a fine dust. It was the airborne residue of this industrial enterprise that fell on Riblet's property. The dust produced an encrustation on building exteriors, landscapes, shrubbery, and plants. Removal of the dust from the exterior resulted in removal of paint. Windows had to be kept tightly shut, but the dust still invaded the house. It settled to the bottom of the swimming pool, making it unpleasant to use. It changed the terra cotta color of the roofing tile to a dull gray. The dream house became a nightmare, and the Riblets brought suit for damages.

They are reported to have sued the owners of the cement plant six times. Records of five of the lawsuits have been identified. It is possible that the so-called first suit was re-instituted as the first action of record. That first trial was heard without jury by Judge Ralph Edgerton. The second and third were terminated by mutual consent. No evidence has been found as to what settlement was reached. The fourth and fifth trials were heard before juries, the Riblets winning trial number four and the cement company winning the fifth and final trial in the series. Case number one was appealed twice to the State Supreme Court and the fourth and fifth were each appealed once. From the first filing to final disposition of the last appeal, the lawsuits spanned a decade, ending in 1961 when the plaintiff's petition for a rehearing of an appeal of case number five was dismissed by the Washington State Supreme Court.

Riblet had persisted in his litigation because the statute of limitations confined a plaintiff's action to the two-year period prior to filing a complaint. The first trial confirmed that Riblet could seek damages only for the period from May 1948 through May 1950, and not, as he had hoped, for the 10 or 15 years during which the bulk of the cement dust from the Irwin plant had been deposited on his estate. Dissatisfied with the award from the first trial and thwarted in seeking compensation for damages sustained over a longer period of time, he resorted to frequent lawsuits.

One of the best summaries of the background of the lawsuits is to be found in an opinion rendered by the State Supreme Court in 1952. In 1924, Mr. and Mrs. Riblet purchased a tract of about 90 acres, located on top of a rock cliff some 3,000 feet northwest of the cement plant. Apparently, Royal had spotted the property some years earlier and had determined to make it his.

It has been suggested that not only was he drawn to that wonderful vista point, but that this location was also a metaphor for his need to be apart and above others, yet quite visible -- something that set him apart from the crowd. The Riblet tract was 450 feet above the river and the cement plant.

Construction of a modern home and extensive improvements to the grounds began in 1925. Over a period of five years they had constructed a vista house, a garage, a swimming pool, a croquet court (which could be flooded in winter for use as a skating rink) and an outdoor checker board with giant-sized checkers were built during the next five years. Riblet had access to the skill, technology, and materials with which to build a private tramway connecting his property to the southern side of the Spokane River.

The tram was reportedly built in 1927, in the wake of a rumor that the Inland Empire Paper Company intended to dam the river and create a lake. Riblet built the tram to have rapid access to a boat house on a lake that never materialized. The upper terminal was anchored on Riblet property; the lower terminal was located on Inland Empire Paper Company property, which had been leased gratis to Riblet for 99 years. The lease could be cancelled at any time on one year's notice. In 1956, expansion of the Spokane Sand and Gravel Company's pit on the river site necessitated termination of the lease and removal of the tramway. Riblet claimed that the tramway had become unsafe due to the action of cement dust on the cable. According to him, it was the only passenger aerial tramway in the world with no moving cable, no winding drums, no operator at either end, and privately owned.

The Riblets later asserted that the house and grounds were the culmination of their dreams and that at the time it cost approximately $50,000.

Testimony revealed that Mr. Riblet had worked at Metaline Falls, Washington, building tramways for a cement company. Therefore, he was aware of the dust problems usually associated with cement manufacturing plants. It was unclear whether he worked at Metaline Falls before or after construction of his residence began. He also testified that occasionally after he bought the land, but before starting construction, he had observed smoke and dust emitting from the stack at the Irwin plant, and, based upon his previous experience, knew of a potential dust problem. However, he believed that the daily plant production was not enough to pose a problem. When queried on that belief, he stated that he had no particular source for any authoritative knowledge about plant production, but he believed that the daily production was about 200 barrels. In fact, the production at that time was between 589 and, 811 barrels. Riblet claimed that he had believed that the combination of low production, and the prevailing direction of the wind away from his house would protect him from a dust problem.

It remained unclear when the problem arose. The Riblets pointed to 1939 and thereafter, but a photograph dated 1935 showed evidence of dust deposition. Riblet contended that it was the increased production that caused the problem over the course of time.

The Riblets complained to the company. The company eventually installed dust-control equipment, and later there was testimony that dust abatement was noticeable. Whether it was satisfactory was another issue. The Riblets complained to the end that, in their view, the program was incomplete; that the modification brought insufficient relief from the problem, and that is why they were forced to pursue their suits.

The first recorded evidence of complaint by the Riblets is a letter written on October 16, 1939. It asserted that the dust problem had "become unbearable and cannot be tolerated." The company replied on October 25, 1939, that the issue would be submitted to the Board of Directors, which apparently was done. No further action was then taken by the Riblets. Apparently they considered a lawsuit in 1941 or 1942, but were advised against it by an attorney on the grounds that cement production was necessary for the war effort, and a lawsuit at that time would be unpatriotic.

Five years later, On October 2, 1947, Riblet tendered an invoice to the company for $40,000 for "irreparable damages to my property by uncontrolled cement dust from your plant at Irwin." The Riblets renewed their claim for damages by letter from their attorneys on January 1-4, 1949. In the absence of reply by the company to both claims, the Riblets finally went to court on May 22, 1950.

The successive complaints were similar in language and form. Although the time periods covered changed, the damages sought remained roughly the same, and a similar pattern was more or less followed through the three trials that went full term. A summons was issued, a complaint was filed, a demurrer was filed by the defendant, followed by an interchangeable series of notices, motions, interrogatories, answers to interrogatories, and so forth.

What did Royal and Mildred Riblet gain from their five trials and four appeals? In the first trial, which was limited to consideration of the period from May 1948, to May 1950, they had asked for a total of $130,000 in combined property and personal damages. Following a dismissal by the trial judge, two appeals to the Washington State Supreme Court, and one rehearing, they were granted $970 in property damages, and $1,000 in personal damages.

The second and third trials were ended out of court. The fourth trial, which considered the period from 1954-1956, saw the Riblets asking $1,000 a month for property damages, and $500 a month personal damages for each month, plus the cost of cleaning up the premises. Further, they asked that the monthly damages continue up to the time of the trial. They asked a minimum of $38,500. After trial by jury they were awarded the sum of $10,800 ($4,800 for property damages, and $6,000 for personal damages) plus costs. This case was appealed once to the Supreme Court.

The fifth and final trial covered the years 1956 through 1958, and the Riblets asked essentially the same damages: $1,000 a month for property and $500 a month for personal damages. The verdict of the jury went to the defendant. Riblet appealed without success.

Royal Riblet died on May 11, 1960, before final disposition of the fifth case. He died probably with the belief that he had been wronged, and had he lived, he might have continued his litigation. One of the last documents in this final case is from the State Supreme Court, which indicated that the issue had gone on to the Federal Courts. What transpired there is not known.

In the early 1970s, the corporation, of its own accord, ceased manufacturing cement at Irwin. The simple facts of economics no longer made plant operation profitable and the plant nowadays is used solely as a warehouse. Although Riblet was unable to force the company to close the plant during his lifetime, his will eventually prevailed.

In the years following the deaths of Royal and Mildred Riblet, the house remained in fairly stable condition, but the grounds deteriorated. In 1985, David and Harold Mielke purchased the property and began a process of restoration and conversion. Eagle's Nest, or Tramway Hill, became Arbor Crest Cliff House, a showroom for Arbor Crest wine. The structure, once described as a "thirty-five year-old house of bizarre design," has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a step that recognizes its unique quality and offers its owners incentives for restoration and for providing public access to the property.


William E. Barr

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