Mount Spokane State Park

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 8/02/2006
  • Essay 7819
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Mount Spokane, the largest of Washington state parks, began as a small privately owned parcel of land on the flank of the 5,883-foot mountain in northeast Spokane County. The mountain, its rounded dome easily visible from Spokane, is slightly more than an hour’s drive northeast of the city. The summit affords views in all directions: the city and valley of Spokane, North Idaho lakes, the Pend Oreille River, even peaks in Canada. Over the years, through purchases and donations, the property that became the park has been expanded to 14,000 acres. It is now a major recreational area for Eastern Washington, providing excellent facilities for winter and summer activities.

An Old Mountain

The southernmost mountain in the Selkirk Range, Mount Spokane is much older than the Rockies or the Cascades, second-oldest of all land areas in Washington, and was once higher than its present elevation. Millennia of erosion and forces of weathering have worn it to its present height and rounded form. Judging from its shape, the nature of its granites, and the fossil record, the mountain likely had its birth 425 million years ago, and “before that time, the rocks that formed its crest must have lain deeply buried beneath the surface of the sea” (McMacken, unpaged).

Although “few ethnographic or historic sources state specific aboriginal land uses associated with Mount Spokane,” early accounts refer to the hills and mountains north of the Spokane River as “prime berry and game areas” (Luttrell, 4). Spokane tribal member David C. Wynecoop includes Mount Spokane on his map of Spokane territory and says his people hunted and gathered berries on the mountain. There is evidence, too, that Indians may have used it for spiritual quests. Although no stone cairns indicating such use can be found on the mountain today, an 1895 traveler described many such “piles or columns built up as high as chimneys ... ” (Bell, 24) This young woman, accompanying a rancher to round up his horses from summer pasture high on the mountain, also reported that they rode horseback over an Indian trail, “just wide enough for one through dense tangled underbrush on the mountain side” (Bell, 24). Today members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation gather beargrass and other basket-making materials on Mount Spokane, another possible indication of past Indian uses of the mountain.

The Railroad Era

Beginning in 1862, massive federal land grants to the railroads, intended originally to help them generate revenue to finance construction of transcontinental lines, resulted in a checkerboard of railroad-owned lands throughout the West. Thus the Northern Pacific eventually came to own much of what would become Mount Spokane State Park as a small part of its vast swath of Northwest property.

As late as 1912, much of this land had yet to be “purchased from the corporate railroads by settlers, investors, or timber interests” (Luttrell, 6). The largest early private logging interest on Mount Spokane was Frederick Blackwells’s Panhandle Lumber Company, which owned most of the eastern flank of the mountain leading down to his sawmill at Spirit Lake, Idaho.

Father of Mount Spokane Park

One of Spokane’s early entrepreneurs, later referred to as the Father of Mount Spokane State Park, newspaperman and developer Francis H. Cook (1851-1920), intentionally acquired lands that would eventually become major parks in the Spokane area: Manito, the premier city park; Wandermere Lake and Golf Course; and Mount Spokane State Park. Cook had lost the bulk of his original fortune in the Panic of 1893, but he still owned farmland on the Little Spokane River that he sold in 1909 to purchase 160 acres on Mount Spokane, then called Mount Baldy or Mount Carlton (sometimes spelled Carleton).

Cook and his son Silas (one of his 11 children) promptly set to work surveying and building the original road to his “Paradise” camp, using horse-drawn equipment and their own muscle power. During the years of construction, Cook built two cabins where he stayed while working on the road. The only income he made from the mountain was the 50-cent toll for using the road that he later charged. During the hot Spokane summers, Cook preferred his cabin on the mountain to his residence in the city. On August 23, 1912, Cook, Governor Marion Hay, Miss Spokane Marguerite Motie, and other dignitaries drove as high as they could on the mountain, then rode horseback and finally hiked to the summit for a ceremony officially changing the name of Mount Carlton to Mount Spokane.

Cook's Road

Soon Cook’s road to his mountain camp became a touring opportunity (albeit a harrowing one) for early motorists. Fortunately many springs along the climb provided water for overheated engines. Frank W. Guilbert (d. 1940), David T. Ham, and several other leaders of the Inland Automobile Association and the Spokane County Good Roads Association began to realize the recreational potential of Mount Spokane. In 1916 Guilbert and his colleagues used its proximity as one of their arguments that the proposed route of the National Parks Highway should pass through Spokane.

In the meantime, Cook had added to his mountain property, and on May 20, 1920, Guilbert and his friends completed negotiations with Cook for an indirect purchase of his land by Spokane County. Because at the time the county could not legally hold title to land for recreational purposes, they arranged for Louis M. Davenport (1868-1951) to hold it as trustee for the county. They purchased 320 acres on top of the mountain and a few scattered parcels for $32,000, none too soon, as Francis Cook died a scant month after selling the property. Although the city of Spokane never owned Mount Spokane, its Parks Department helped to care for and supervise it.

Becoming a State Park

During the ensuing years, Guilbert and the Inland Automobile Association raised money to purchase more of the mountain for an eventual park. In addition, gifts of land from the Northern Pacific Railroad, newspaper owner William H. Cowles, and others further increased the acreage. In the summer of 1922 there was once again a ceremony at the summit, this time to dedicate the land as “Spokane’s new regional park” (Stricker, unpaged)

Then, somewhat incrementally during July 1927, the title of Mount Spokane Regional Park was transferred, for $1, from trustee Louis Davenport to the Washington State Parks Board (later Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission). On August 20, an auto caravan transported 400 dignitaries and others to the document-signing ceremony officially creating Mount Spokane State Park, the largest in the state and the first created east of the Cascade Mountains. Again, participants were obliged to abandon their cars at Cook’s cabin and walk to the summit.

Skiing and Climbing

Mount Spokane proved to be one of the earliest ski areas in the West, its snowy dome, so visible from Spokane, inviting devotees of the newly popular sport. Early skiers were a hardy lot, trudging up the slope with their heavy wooden skis for the brief pleasure of zooming down. The Spokane Ski Club was formed in December of 1931, largely under the leadership of Cheney Cowles (1908-1943), son of William H. Cowles. In time they built a log clubhouse, installed two rope tows, added jump hills and lights for night skiing, and pressed for road improvement. The Selkirk Ski Club and the Spokane Mountaineers followed, and between them, the clubs purchased more than 500 additional acres on the mountain.

Typical of the Mountaineers’ activities was the 1935 “Fourth Annual New Year's Eve climb ... the chance to see old Mt. Spokane in all its winter beauty of the deep snows, and to spend a mid-winter night a mile high on the peak’s rocky summit in the great stone Vista house, with song, story, fun and feasting before the huge fireplace.” They would hike on skis or snowshoes four to six miles from their parking area “depending on road conditions” (Kin-Ni-Kin-Nick, unpaged). Everyone would be expected to backpack food and blankets. Twenty-eight Mountaineers had participated the previous year.

Preserving and Protecting the Park

Beginning in 1933, although continuing separately, these clubs, plus the Spokane Chamber of Commerce and conservation and service organizations, were affiliated under the Mount Spokane Association, of which Cheney Cowles was president. In 1939 he proclaimed: “The mountain boasts superb facilities for skiers. Its great bald pate provides slopes of all degrees of difficulty,” and reported that Mount Spokane had hosted major regional downhill and slalom ski championship tournaments in 1937 and 1938 (Cowles, 5-6).

Mount Spokane had long been logged, especially the eastern slope. Even the park’s largest early land donor, the A. F. Linder family, retained logging rights to some of their former property. Yet conservationists worked hard to preserve private stands of virgin timber on the mountain. In the spring of 1939, Mrs. Polly Mitchell Judd of the “Save the Forests of Mount Spokane” committee, assisted by The Spokane Federation of Women’s Clubs, spearheaded a movement to raise $3,000 to purchase such a property, a difficult challenge during the Depression. Crucial to the effort were the writings and speeches of Cheney Cowles who stated: “Preserving the timber is important, not only from the standpoint of retaining the beauty of the drive to the summit of the mountain, but also to forestall a serious fire hazard which would be the certain result of the slashings left by lumbering operations” (Cowles, 5).

Ultimately the owner reduced the asking price by half, and donors were able to save the forest. Cowles's fear of slash as a fire hazard was well founded: It had been one factor in the rapid spread of the disastrous 1910 forest fire that devastated much of the Idaho Panhandle and Northeastern Washington. Furthermore, in August 1939, a fire swept down the east flank of Mount Spokane wiping out considerable timber and the Spirit Lake sawmill of the Panhandle Lumber Company.

Work of the CCC

A Depression-era program, the Civilian Conservation Corps, greatly improved the park. The Spokane Ski Club and others helped in securing a CCC camp on Paradise Mountain not far from the Cook Cabin area. The camp, established in 1934 for 200 young men, was named for Francis Cook. Over time, CCC Company 611 and a “Junior” unit, Company 949, planted grass, constructed picnic and parking areas, constructed trails and shelters, and improved roads.

Although a few camps elsewhere were plagued with bad food, poor living conditions, and low morale, that was not true of Company 611. Because of its work on Mount Spokane, it was selected in August 1934 to represent the Fort George Wright District in competition to determine the best CCC camp in the United States. It won high accolades from CCC Director Robert Fechner, and “likewise, M. J. Bowen, third-ranking official of the CCC organization, declared that Camp Mount Spokane was the best of more than 400 camps he had inspected” (Carroll, 107, 108). In 1974 the CCC camp was converted into a warm-up station for snowmobilers.

The major projects of the CCC camp were to improve Cook’s old road and to cut a new road from the Cook’s Cabin area down the east side of the mountain to intersect with the existing Deadman Creek Road, which was completed in the summer of 1937, with the help of the Works Progress Administration at the lower end. The Deadman Creek Road, State Highway 206, now called the Mount Spokane Parkway, leaves State Highway 2 at Mead. It replaces the old Day-Mt. Spokane Road farther north (now used within the park only as a hiking and snowmobile trail), as the route to the mountain.

Vista House and Mount Spokane Lodge

The most conspicuous and beloved achievements of the CCC era were the Vista House and the Mount Spokane Lodge. Built at the summit in 1933, the Vista House still stands, a structure of native granite, designed by Spokane architect Henry C. Bertelsen (1888-1963) and erected by CCC crews from the camp at Riverside State Park. It is “an excellent example of the naturalistic design principles that the CCC inherited from the National Park Service” in which “stone and timber structures were meant to emerge from their surroundings as if they were expressions of the site, rather than foreign improvements that had been imposed upon them” (Hansen, 17). The Vista House, now a day-use facility, is the park’s most photographed subject, especially when “covered with winter’s crystallized cake frosting of wind-blown snow” (Stricker, unpaged).

In 1939, with a federal grant of $58,000, work began on the Mount Spokane Lodge, which opened in October 1940. It was a cozy and functional building of hand-peeled logs and cut granite, again based on “principles of naturalistic design” (Hansen, 24). During this period, W. Weigle was parks superintendent and Charles Saunders parks architect, although it is not entirely clear whether he designed the lodge. Materials were purchased through the CCC, but the actual construction was done by carpenters and masons from the area. The lodge offered guests a lounge, fireplaces, dining areas, dormitories, and waxing room for skis. During World War II, it mainly hosted military personnel from Geiger and Fairchild Air Force bases. They had the best of Alpine ski instructors, ironically German or Austrian internees, paroled to the FBI in Spokane for the duration of the war.

After the war, land acquisition for the park continued but with far more difficulty. Prices went up because of the discovery of a popular uranium crystal on Mount Spokane and the mining of it by Daybreak Mine. Tragically, Major Cheney Cowles, who had done so much for Mount Spokane, did not survive the war. The Mount Spokane Association continued active under the leadership of Frank Guilbert’s son David, Clyde T. Stricker, and others. It raised funds locally, sought donations of land, and lobbied the state legislature and the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission for funds to improve roads and facilities. A strong supporter of the park, the visionary and dynamic Dr. Frank F. Warren (1899-1963), president of Whitworth College in Spokane, served on the state commission, often as chairman, from 1949 to 1961.

Postwar Mount Spokane saw an influx of skiers. Private ski clubs gradually gave way to the general public, and the Spokesman-Review sponsored a ski school. Soon chairlifts largely superseded rope tows, except for beginners. The Riblet Aerial Tramway Company of Spokane, long-established as a provider of trams for mining operations, was a pioneer in the field. Riblet Tramway had already installed a chairlift at Mount Hood, and in 1946, converted an ore-bucket mining tram into a chairlift for Mount Spokane, alleged to be the first double chairlift in the world. The company went on to build hundreds more ski lifts, as well as other aerial trams, throughout the world.

In 1951 a state-funded wing was added to the existing lodge, resulting in a much larger and aesthetically integrated building designed by the Spokane firm of Funk, Murray, and Johnson. All but the last-minute furnishing of the guest rooms and dining hall was complete when, on January 24, 1952, as the Spokesman-Review reported, the “once luxurious Mount Spokane lodge is now charred ruins.” One person, electrician Rulon L. Downard, died in the fire started by an explosion: Sources vary as to its cause. The uninsured lodge was never rebuilt. Though smaller than the great lodges at Mount Hood, Mount Rainier, and Glacier, it would have held its own in that distinguished tradition.

Today Mount Spokane is a year-round recreational facility comprising 14,000 acres of land. Winter activities include downhill and cross-country skiing, as well as snowmobiling and even dog sledding, all with groomed trails. In summer, these trails are used for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, or just marveling at the view and breathing the mountain air. Picnic areas and overnight camping facilities are available in the park. Even with all this human activity, Mount Spokane remains home to moose, cougars, coyotes, deer, and black bears, and there can still be found stands of old growth timber.

Sources: Tony and Suzanne Bamonte, Manito Park: A Reflection of Spokane’s Past Second Edition (Spokane: Tornado Creek Publications, 2004), 32-37; Tony and Suzanne Bamonte, Spokane and the Inland Northwest: Historical Images (Spokane: Tornado Creek Publications, 1999), 172, 173, 180, 212, 322; Beth Bell, “On the Top of Mount Carleton,” The Northwest Magazine, June, 1895, pp. 24-25; Robert Wesley Carroll, The Civilian Conservation Corps in Washington State, MA thesis, Dept. of History (Pullman: Washington State University, 1973), 107-108; Cheney Cowles, “Mt. Spokane -- To Be or Not To Be,” The Northwest Conservationist, January and March, 1939, pp. 5-6; John Fahey, “The Brothers Riblet,” Spokane Magazine Vol. 4, No. 11 (November, 1980), 14-17; David M. Hansen, Cultural Resources Management Plan: Buildings and Structures, Mount Spokane State Park (Olympia: Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, 2001); Ki-Ni-Ki-Nick: Bulletin of the Spokane Mountaineers (November-December, 1935); Crystal Lentz, Washington State Library, email to Laura Arksey, June 8, 2006, in possession of Laura Arksey, Spokane; Charles T. Luttrell, Cultural Resources Investigations for the Mount Spokane State Park ... Short Report 693, submitted to Mount Spokane (Cheney: Archaeological and Historical Services, Eastern Washington University, 2000); Joseph G. McMacken, “Mt. Spokane,” undated typescript, Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture; Douglas Olson, “The Good Roads Man,” Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 29, No. 3 (1985), 43-48; “Seek Good Road for Mt. Spokane,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, September 19, 1935; “Push Program to Save Mount Spokane Trees,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, April 12, 1939; “Win Mt. Spokane Forest Battle,” Spokesman-Review, June 19, 1939: Carlos Schwantes, Railroad Signatures Across the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993), 98; “Old Baldy Now Mount Spokane,” Spokesman-Review, August 24, 1912; “3-Decade Dream Realized Here,” Spokesman-Review, August 21, 1927; Spokesman-Review, January 24, 1952; Clyde Thomas Stricker, Purchasing a Mountain (Spokane: Kroma Graphics Center, 1975); Standard Atlas of Spokane County, Washington (Chicago: Geo. A. Ogle & Co., 1912), 139; Your Guide to Mount Spokane State Park (Olympia: Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, undated); Clipping files at Northwest Room, Spokane Public Library, and the Research Library, Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. See also: Jim Kershner, "The Point of Many Returns," Spokesman-Review, November 5, 2006, p. D-8.

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