Spokane County -- Thumbnail History

  • By Ann M. Colford
  • Posted 3/13/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7686
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Spokane County is the most populous county in mainly rural Eastern Washington and home to the second largest city in the state. After settlement in the 1870s, Spokane became the hub for the mining, timber, and railroad industries of the Inland Northwest. In the surrounding areas, cattle ranging and especially wheat farming became important. Today, the city and county of Spokane serve as the medical, financial, and commercial center of a vast region stretching from the Cascades eastward into western Montana. Fairchild Air Force Base is the county's largest employer, and agriculture remains a factor.

Natural Setting

The land that is now Spokane County in far Eastern Washington emerged through the fire and ice of geologic forces. Its eastern boundary is the state line with Idaho, and the county sits about halfway between the Canadian border to the north and Oregon to the south. The southeastern extent of the heavily forested Okanogan highlands cover the area north of the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers while the southern landscape consists of the northern edge of the fertile Palouse farmland and the bare rock canyons of the channeled scablands.

The Spokane River carves a broad valley from east to west across the county’s midsection; beneath the surface, an equally impressive underground river, the Spokane aquifer, flows eastward from North Idaho’s Rathdrum Prairie, supplying fresh water to the nearly 430,000 residents of the county.

Early Years

Three bands of Spokane Indians -- Upper, Middle and Lower -- called the Spokane River watershed home at the time of first contact with European and American explorers, and the Coeur d’Alenes lived along the river near the present day border with Idaho. Both groups had extensive trading networks with other tribal groups both within the Plateau culture area (the Columbia Plateau region, now known as the Inland Northwest) and beyond. Each year, at the time of the salmon run, tribal groups from across the region would gather at the falls of the Spokane River for fishing, trading, and socializing.

American explorers Lewis and Clark did not pass through any part of what’s now Spokane County, but they met some Spokanes along their return journey in 1806 and noted very basic information about the local tribes in their journals. In 1810, British fur trader and explorer David Thompson of the North West Company sent two men, Jaco Finlay (1768-1828) and Finan McDonald, to establish a trading house in the territory of the Spokanes. They built Spokane House, the first long-term European or American settlement within the boundaries of present-day Washington, at the confluence of the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers in northwestern Spokane County.

Spokane House

Thompson himself first visited Spokane House in June 1811 and noted its geographic coordinates in his journal while conducting business. He returned in August and again in November, then followed the Little Spokane River eastward and crossed the Peone Prairie and into present day Idaho.

For a time, Spokane House thrived as both a trading center and a gathering place for fur traders. In 1821, the rival Hudson’s Bay Company acquired the North West Company and all its trading posts. By that time, trading routes had shifted largely to the Columbia River. In 1825, the Hudson’s Bay Company closed Spokane House and moved its local operations north to Fort Colvile at Kettle Falls, a popular gathering place on the Columbia in present day Stevens County.

The Missionaries

As reports from the fur trade trickled east, missionaries saw the opportunity for soul saving in the region. Two Congregational ministers, Elkanah Walker and Cushing Eells, established the Tshimakain mission in 1838 along the creek of the same name near the present day town of Ford. The missionaries and their wives stayed in the area for 10 years, working to convert the Spokanes to both Christianity and farming, but they were unsuccessful on both counts. After hearing about the 1847 killings of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman at their mission to the southwest, Eells and Walker closed Tshimakain in 1848 and left the area.

Other missionaries passed through, including Jesuit Father Peter DeSmet, who first visited the Spokane River valley in 1842. The Jesuits established missions in surrounding areas, but did not have a permanent presence in the Spokane country until the building of St. Michael’s mission on the Peone Prairie in the 1860s.

Indian Wars

Through the 1840s and 1850s, the trickle of white settlers into the area became more persistent, ultimately leading to increased conflict with the indigenous population. The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 -- homestead legislation allowing each white male citizen 320 acres if single and 640 acres if married -- had its biggest impact in the Willamette Valley, but as prime land there grew scarce, a few migrants made their way to the fertile Palouse, bringing travelers into the Spokane country. Travelers became common enough that in 1851 Antoine Plante built and operated a ferry across the Spokane River at the site of a traditional Indian ford just east of present day Millwood.

In 1855, the new governor of Washington Territory, Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), met with tribal representatives at Fort Walla Walla in an effort to convince them to accept payment in return for allowing white settlement on much of their traditional lands. The Spokanes and the Coeur d’Alenes were not present, although the Spokanes sent Chief Spokane Garry to observe. The tribes at the council signed the treaty, but resentment toward white settlers began to grow among tribes in the area. At the same time, Stevens directed survey teams who were seeking out possible routes for a northern transcontinental railroad.

Skirmishes between Spokane-area tribes and whites escalated into full-blown hostilities that reached a crescendo in 1858. Near present-day Rosalia, just south of the current Spokane County line, a group of Spokanes and Coeur d’Alenes surprised U.S. troops under the command of Colonel Edward Steptoe (1816-1865) in May 1858 and defeated them in battle, forcing the troops to slip away under cover of darkness.

In retaliation, the Army dispatched Colonel George Wright, who came north from Fort Walla Walla. At the Battle of Four Lakes, west of present day Spokane, Wright’s troops defeated the Indian warriors; four days later, the forces met again near the present site of Fairchild Air Force Base, with similar results. Still not satisfied, Wright marched eastward along the river toward the Coeur d’Alenes’ territory. Along the way, he captured several hundred Palouse horses and ordered his troops to slaughter them. The horses' skeletons remained visible for decades and a historic marker notes the site, just west of the current state line.

Two weeks later, at a camp along Latah Creek just east of what’s now Spangle, Wright met with tribal representatives under the pretense of seeking peace but instead captured the warrior Qualchan and six others and hanged them. To this day, Latah Creek is known commonly as Hangman Creek.


Wright’s campaign effectively ended resistance among the Plateau tribes and opened the region to further American settlement and development. In 1859, Captain John Mullan (1830-1909) began survey work for a military road overland from Fort Benton in the upper Missouri watershed to the Fort Walla Walla and the Columbia River. He used several old tribal trails and his road, completed between 1861 and 1862, crossed the Palouse and channeled scablands southwest of present Spokane, then followed the river eastward, crossing at Plante’s Ferry in the Spokane Valley and continuing east into present day North Idaho.

The geopolitical entity known as Spokane County came into existence originally in 1860, when it was formed out of Walla Walla County. It comprised a vast swath of land that extended from Wenatchee to western Montana. The areas that are now part of Idaho and Montana were annexed out in the early 1860s and in 1864 the newly created Stevens County subsumed what was left of Spokane County. Fifteen years later the territorial legislature once again carved Spokane County out of Stevens County and temporarily designated the young village of Spokane Falls as the county seat. When Lincoln County was subdivided out in 1883, Spokane County’s present boundaries were established.

Spokane Falls and Cheney

The 1870s saw the rise of Spokane Falls from a homestead and gristmill to a village to a city of a few hundred by the time of incorporation in 1881. Meanwhile, settlement continued in the rural areas surrounding the growing city, and smaller towns sprang up across the county. One of these is Cheney, created along the eastbound route of the Northern Pacific Railroad and named for Bostonian Benjamin P. Cheney, a railroad director. In the county elections of 1880, when the question of the county seat was first put to the voters, the much smaller town of Cheney scored a surprising victory following a battle of words between the newspapers of both communities. After a recount, a challenge to some votes, and a lawsuit, Cheney prevailed and held the county records until the election of 1886 reversed the results and the county seat returned to Spokane Falls -- the city’s name was shortened to Spokane in 1891 -- where it has remained.

Spokane County boomed during the 1880s with the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1881 and the mining bonanza in the mountains to the north and east. Although no mining took place in Spokane County itself, the city of Spokane became the commercial and residential center for the mining industry and the railroads in the Inland Northwest. Much of the wealth from these businesses flowed into Spokane in the decades around the turn of the century.

Spokane County Towns

By 1900, Spokane County boasted a population of 57,500 in more than 20 towns. Some of these (Cheney, Medical Lake, Deer Park) remain vital today, while others (Deep Creek, Mica, Plaza) have faded to a few buildings at a crossroads.

Still other municipalities have been added over the past hundred years, reflecting distinctly twentieth-century reasons for growth. Included are Millwood (a company town of the Inland Empire Paper Mill, founded in 1910), Airway Heights (formed near Fairchild Air Force Base in 1955), Liberty Lake (incorporated around the tourist site of the same name in 2001), and Spokane Valley (former orchard land between Spokane and the state line following the river and the Interstate 90 corridor, developed for suburban living and incorporated as a separate city in 2003).

An Agricultural Center

While the city of Spokane grew into the commercial hub of the region, the surrounding agricultural lands grew and developed as well. Waves of European immigrants -- primarily from Russia, Germany, and Scandinavia -- homesteaded in the rich Palouse farmland south of Spokane, as did many native-born Americans from points east.

Settler Cyrus Turnbull chose a homesite at the edge of the channeled scablands in 1869. Generations later, in the 1930s, the federal government acquired his original ranch and turned it into the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, a resting place for migratory waterfowl and sanctuary for many animal species.

Cattle ranching was one of the earliest agricultural activities in Spokane County, but crops overtook livestock as more and more homesteaders moved in. Commercial wheat farming took hold in Eastern Washington, including southern areas of Spokane County, in the 1890s, supported by the establishment of Washington Agricultural College (now Washington State University) in Pullman, Whitman County, in 1891. Local grain growers helped to supply flour to the many miners who flocked to the area, as well as feed for their horses and mules. Cheney became a major center for the storage and milling of grain as well as a prime location for its transportation. For a few years starting in 1899, the town of Waverly was home to a sugar beet processing factory, thanks to an investment in irrigation and processing equipment by railroad financier D. C. Corbin and partner Edward Morrison. The crops did not do well, however; the irrigation system developed problems, and the factory shut down in 1907.

The business of agriculture contributed to Spokane’s growth and remains a factor in the local economy. Today, wheat remains the top crop in the county, followed by hay, barley, lentils, and grass seed.

1930s and 1940s

By the 1920s, the booming decades of growth in Spokane were coming to a close. Some of the older mines in North Idaho, which had contributed so much wealth to Spokane, began to play out. Other than a brief rise in metals prices during World War I, prices stayed relatively low before crashing, along with other markets, in 1929. Coinciding with Prohibition and later, the Great Depression, the area entered a long period of economic stagnation and lack of growth. There was a sense of hunkering down into parochial stability even as radio, movies, and later television linked Spokane to the outside world. The construction of the Grand Coulee Dam, 75 miles to the west, and other New Deal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration’s Art Center drew people to the area and provided employment for others already here during the hard economic times of the 1930s. Nationwide, people were on the move during the 1930s, seeking economic opportunity; between 1930 and 1940, Spokane County netted about 14,000 new residents, the highest rate of growth since the boom years of 1900-1910.

During the early years of World War II, two bombardment wings and several support units of the Army Air Corps occupied the newly completed Geiger Field, just west of Spokane. Three years after the war, the War Department returned Geiger Field to the city; it would become Spokane International Airport.

Farther west, in 1943 the War Department opened the Galena aircraft maintenance and supply depot on donated farmland. The depot’s mission changed and grew during the postwar years and in 1951 it became Fairchild Air Force Base. The base continues to have significant impact on the Spokane County economy -- it is the county’s largest employer -- and draws many active and retired military personnel to the area.

Spokane County Today

The largest private employers in the County now are two health-care providers: Sacred Heart Medical Center and Empire Health Services, which operates Deaconess and Valley hospitals. In addition to its role as the financial and retail center for the vast rural Inland Northwest, Spokane has grown into the regional medical hub as well.

Today in Spokane County, suburban and exurban development far exceeds growth within the city of Spokane. During the 1920s, the population of the city grew slightly, while the surrounding rural areas lost population, reflecting a national population shift from farms to cities. Fifty years later, the trend reversed: The number of people living in the County but outside of the city of Spokane exceeded the number living within the city for the first time during the 1980s.

In recent decades, the population growth of Spokane County has occurred largely outside of the city; between 1970 and 2000, the population of Spokane grew 15 percent while the population in other areas of the county increased 90 percent. Population patterns in Spokane County continue to mirror trends seen in the rest of the country.

Despite the recent growth and the transformation of farms and rangeland into home sites, most outlying areas of the county retain their rural character. South county towns like Spangle, Fairfield, and Rockford are still farm towns complete with grain elevators and other businesses related to agriculture. Much of Spokane’s suburban sprawl has spread to the north and east, and those areas have seen greater changes. On the Five Mile Prairie, just north of Spokane’s city limits, new homes are rapidly filling in what was an area of small family farms as recently as a decade ago, and the recent spike in real estate values is putting development pressure on open spaces that lie near the outer edge of urban and suburban neighborhoods.

Still, the city of Spokane remains a metropolitan island set in a vast rural landscape that begins just a few miles from the heart of downtown. Spokane County has a busy urban center, but its boundaries remain rural -- at least for now.


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