Spokane River -- Thumbnail History

  • By Paul Lindholdt
  • Posted 1/25/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21389

The Spokane River is a tributary of the Columbia River, its shores important as a cradle of the oldest known continuously occupied human habitation in present-day Washington. It begins at Lake Coeur d'Alene in Idaho and runs 111 miles to its confluence with the Columbia at Lake Roosevelt. It drains a watershed that includes portions of three Idaho counties and large parts of Spokane, Stevens, Lincoln, and Whitman counties in Washington. The river was historically a gathering place for several Indian tribes, whose descendants enrich the reach of the river and enhance regional culture now. Members of the Spokane Tribe, although their reservation is detached geographically from the namesake river they protected and revered for millennia, contribute actively to the civic life of Spokane, the state's second-largest city, through which the river runs. Extreme in gradient, the Spokane had many falls and rapids, most now tamed by seven hydroelectric dams. In addition to ecological challenges produced by the dams, as barriers for fish and other aquatic life, the river has ongoing cleanup needs due to legacy pollution from local industries and upcountry mines. In the last half-century, political changes have mended key historic injuries and improved the river's health.

Geological History

The Lake Missoula outflows, the greatest known floods in planetary history, shaped the Spokane River's course. At the end of the last ice age, the Cordilleran ice sheet blanketing Canada and the northern United States began to melt. Its runoff formed Lake Missoula, a glacial water body more than 2,000 feet deep that covered 3,000 square miles of what is now western Montana.

The lake first broke through an ice dam at the mouth of the present-day Clark Fork River some 13,000 to 15,000 years ago. Much of Lake Missoula emptied into northern Idaho and central Washington in cataclysmic torrents. On paths carved to the Pacific Ocean, those floods poured with force enough to pluck and transport mountainous boulders and to scour the signature scablands of eastern Washington. Those inundations bared the basalt bedrock laid down by lava flows that overspread the region when the Cascade Mountains formed millions of years before. As Lake Missoula grew and changed across millennia, the Clark Fork ice dam broke and froze over and again, causing a barrage of successive deluges until the Ice Age ended.


The Columbian mammoth roamed in and near the Spokane River before the wide proliferation of humankind. That native mammoth stood taller than the woolly mammoth. In 1876, homesteader Benjamin Coplen (1843-1912) discovered mammoth bones in a bog near Hangman (or Latah) Creek, a major tributary of the Spokane River that begins in Idaho. Coplen and his brothers, after trundling the massive bones around to towns and county fairs for a fee, sold them to the Chicago Academy of Sciences, which reconstructed and mounted the animal that had towered 13 feet high. Today the Coplen skeleton is housed in Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History and the Columbian mammoth is Washington's official state fossil. Other now-extinct animals in the Spokane River area included mastodons, sloths, lizards, and rhinoceroses.

The path of the river now is home to several ungulates (hoofed animals) including mule deer and whitetail deer, whose habitats often overlap. As of 2022, Washington mule deer had been spared the chronic wasting disease devastating herds in many other western states and provinces. Moose have expanded their populations and are often seen along the banks of the Spokane River and its tributaries. Pronghorn antelope historically ranged through the river's shrub-steppe sections, but habitat fragmentation and overhunting extirpated them by the late 1800s. The Colville and Yakama Indian tribes have recently been reintroducing the species with some success.

River Tributaries

Three major tributaries feed the Spokane River. The Little Spokane River is the largest. Surrounded by private lands, it is fed by underground springs and thus navigable all year.

Hangman Creek, the second river tributary in terms of water volume, is sorely affected by agricultural erosion and chemical runoff, which harms aquatic life and creates unhealthful turbidity in the Spokane River below the spot, just below downtown Spokane, where the creek flows in. Named Hangman on federal maps -- to remember Native Americans hanged in 1858 by Colonel George Wright (1803-1865) -- it is named Latah on state and county maps, after an Indian word for fish. In the interest of improving Hangman's water quality, the Spokane Riverkeeper advocacy group filed a lawsuit in September 2015 against the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seeking improvements in the cleanup plan for the river basin, then two more lawsuits in 2021 against the owners of a grain elevator and the town of Spangle. The Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Indians has restored portions of the upper reaches of Hangman Creek. In 2021 the Tribe bought 48 acres of property along the creek at risk of being developed for dense housing.

A third tributary of the Spokane River is Chamokane Creek (Tshimikain for the Spokane Tribe), into which the shuttered Newmont and Sherwood uranium mines historically have leached manufacturing effluent.

Native Americans Before Contact

Native Americans have lived along the Spokane River for thousands of years. A 2005-2006 dig in Spokane at the river's confluence with Hangman Creek uncovered 60,000 artifacts, some of them 8,000 years old. The state Antiquities Act mandated the excavation before the city could bury a 96,000-gallon tank for its sewage treatment system. Stan Gough, then director of Archaeological and Historical Services at Eastern Washington University (EWU), oversaw the dig and sent artifacts out for radiocarbon dating, which indicated the site is the oldest continuously occupied one in Washington.

The confluence of Hangman Creek and the Spokane River was a gathering spot for people from the coast and tribal people farther inland. It is well preserved due to the region's aridity and the layers of sediment deposited by Hangman Creek. Some artifacts collected in the EWU dig originated 300 miles away. An oven hearth with remnant river mussel shells suggests that some Indians made the site a permanent residence. When not capturing the salmon that migrated to the confluence in abundance, people congregated to barter goods and socialize.

The Spokane Tribe consisted of Lower, Middle, and Upper bands. The river provided valuable resources. Fish were so plentiful that tribal members could share the bounty and their territory with neighboring tribes. Widespread sharing let the Spokane people trade for goods unavailable to them locally -- including bison pemmican, clothes, and minerals used for tools.

Like Kettle Falls and Celilo Falls on the Columbia, the confluence of the Spokane River and Hangman Creek drew people from such long distances that a roadway led to the upper stretches of the Pend Oreille River. That throughway, known as the Skeetshoo Road and ending southwest of what is now Sandpoint, Idaho, connected the Spokanes to the Kalispel people and the Coeur d'Alenes, the three tribes mentioned in a Coeur d'Alene origin story. In that story, a Coeur d'Alene woman rejects the romantic advances of the trickster Coyote. Irritated by his inability to get help from the Spokanes or the Kalispels to kidnap or seduce the woman, the trickster deploys his magic vengefully to create the great gorge and steep falls in the center of present-day Spokane and to thwart the bountiful salmon from reaching the Coeur d'Alenes. In a related origin story, the gorge forms when a captive monster breaks free from its bonds near the Columbia River and gouges the chasm in fleeing to Lake Coeur d'Alene.

Coeur d'Alene, Colville, Nez Perce, Sanpoil, Nespelem, and Palouse tribal members also congregated and fished far downstream at Little Falls, till those falls were dammed in 1911, with no fish ladders. The tribes appointed a salmon chief or chiefs to regulate the ways the fish were taken -- whether by net, weir, or spear -- and the exact numbers to be carried away. The chief bore a club that he might have deployed in ceremonies and in subduing captured fish. Those ornamented clubs have become a key part of the archaeological record. The salmon chief made sure the fish were shared fairly, enough released for tribes upriver and enough to spawn and replenish the species for the future. The chief also oversaw the construction of fishing scaffolds, hand tools, and weirs.

Weirs were formed of twin fences spanning the river. The upstream fence, rigid and tight, prevented escape after the fish entered. The lower fence held a series of gates driven open when the fish nosed their way upstream. The force of the river current shut the gates behind the fish.

The trapped fish then were clubbed or speared, brought to shore to be split and dried on open-air racks by sunlight or by fires. Indians also fished from horses and canoes, using hand-woven baskets to store the catch. Other fishing tools included harpoons, basket traps, and nets dipped from scaffolds. A thousand fish could be caught at the peak of the season in one day.

Margo Hill, a Spokane tribal member and EWU planning professor, has emphasized the historical importance of salmon for her people. Coho and chinook salmon were plentiful in spring and summer. Steelhead and cutthroat trout proliferated also. Communal tribal fisheries included rapid-water sites at Detillion, Tum Tum, Little Spokane, and Little Falls. Before the advent of dams, the steep gradient of the river made for lots of falls and rapids. Precipitous falls in the gorge of Spokane kept the migratory salmon from traveling any farther upstream.

Half the local people's annual calorie count came from fish, crayfish, mussels, and other aquatic animals. Salmon was also ceremonially eaten, Hill says, as one of the first foods of the spring season. People also consumed venison as well as berries, camas, biscuitroot, bitterroot, and wild onions that they cultivated.

Contact, Settlement, and Consequences

British explorer David Thompson (1770-1850), of the North West Company, was among the first non-Indian explorers to trade in the region. In 1810 he sent Jaco Finlay (1768-1828) and Finan McDonald (1782-1851) to build a trading post at the confluence of the Spokane and Little Spokane rivers some 10 miles downstream from present-day Spokane. Named Spokane House, that post became the first longterm non-Indian settlement in what is now Washington. The Hudson's Bay Company acquired the North West Company and all of its trading posts in 1821, then four years later abandoned Spokane House.

Christian missionaries came in the wake of the fur traders. In 1838 Congregationalist ministers Cushing Eells (1810-1893) and Elkanah Walker (1805-1877) built a mission on a plain the Spokanes called Tshimakain (understood to mean "place of springs"), a few miles from the Spokane River at present-day Ford in Stevens County. Like the fur traders, the missionaries relocated after several years.

Following the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, which allowed U.S. citizens to homestead up to 640 acres per couple (320 acres for single males), non-Indians began to settle the Spokanes' homeland. Part of Oregon Territory, so named in 1846, the region underwent a series of intercultural spasms. Antoine Plante began running a ferry across the Spokane River in 1851 at the site of a traditional Indian ford several miles east of the present-day town of Millwood. Washington Territory was carved out of Oregon Territory in 1853. Newly appointed Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) traveled and pressured tribal representatives to accept payment for allowing settlers to build and plant on their lands. Those meetings and the in-migration went badly, and the so-called Yakama Indian War flared from 1855 to 1856.

Hostilities flared again in 1858, with significant consequences for the Spokane River area. Colonel George Wright led a campaign through the region to subdue Spokane, Yakama, and other tribal forces who earlier that year had combined to defeat U.S. Army troops led by Lieutenant Colonel Edward Steptoe (1816-1865). After overcoming tribal forces in two early-September battles near the Spokane River, Wright ordered his troops to slaughter 800 horses along the river. Wright's campaign also included hanging more than a dozen members of several tribes near the bank of what was soon named Hangman Creek, most notably the Yakama leader Qualchan. Summoned to Wright's camp after his father Owhi was captured, Qualchan struggled fiercely but unsuccessfully to escape. Accompanying him were his wife Whist-alks (1838-1909), a member of the Spokane Tribe, and his half-brother Lokout (1834-1913), both of whom managed to get free.

Whist-alks and Lokout, who became domestic partners, spent their later years living at the confluence of the Spokane and Columbia rivers. The U.S. Army's Fort Spokane was built in the 1880s near where the couple lived. After the end of the Spanish American War the fort was replaced with a new one established in west Spokane and named Fort George Wright. The old facility was repurposed as the Fort Spokane Indian Boarding School (1900-1914), based on the model of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania (1879-1918). At the boarding school, Indian children underwent severe forms of assimilation and indoctrination. Such schools, in an infamous phrase of the time, killed the Indian to save the man. Children were forced to adopt the dominant culture and punished for speaking their Native languages.

Spokane Garry (ca. 1811-1892), a chief of the Spokane Tribe, was taken as a youth to the Red River Colony in Manitoba, Canada, and schooled in English, French, and Christianity. Upon his return, during early non-Indian settlement, he became a tribal chief, a committed advocate of peace, and a proponent of land-settlement for his tribe. His foremost goal was to see his people keep possession of their property along the river, a goal he had to give up. His own farm, in the northeast of what is now Spokane, was seized in his absence. He was forced to camp with his blind wife beside Hangman Creek. There, kids threw stones at his teepee. Later he camped on white-owned land that became Indian Canyon, now a park of 155 acres above the confluence of Hangman Creek and the Spokane River. He lived a pauper's life until he died in 1892 and was buried in an unmarked grave. A city park was named for him in ensuing decades and a statue erected in his likeness.

Jesuit priests came early to the Spokane drainage. Father Joseph Cataldo (1837-1928) arrived in 1865 as a Jesuit missionary to educate and evangelize children of the Upper Spokane Indians. The Jesuits bought 40 acres along the river near downtown Spokane. There, the city offered to help build a college on the condition that it be a white-only school, contradicting Cataldo's hopes of including Indians. Gonzaga College, later Gonzaga University, admitted its first students in 1887.

Near the headwaters of the Spokane River, the Mary Immaculate School for Native Americans was founded in 1908 as a project of the Sacred Heart Mission in Desmet, Idaho. It was run as a boarding school by nuns, to educate children of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe. The school also accepted Carl Maxey (1924-1997), who would become Spokane's first prominent African American attorney and an influential civil rights leader. Raised as an orphan in Spokane, Maxey found refuge and guidance under the Jesuits with the Native American students in the Mary Immaculate School. He would go on to attend Gonzaga University and lead it to a national boxing championship, graduating from Gonzaga's law school in 1951.

Environmental Challenges

Legacy mining waste from the Silver Valley in northern Idaho makes the Spokane River rank among Washington's most polluted. Such heavy metals as arsenic, mercury, and zinc have been migrating downstream since mining began in the Idaho towns of Kellogg, Pinehurst, Smelterville, and Wardner in the late nineteenth century. That industry's pollution continued through the 1970s. Waste minerals now line the bottoms of northern Idaho streams and Lake Coeur d'Alene, the headwaters of the Spokane River. During flood events in particular, the metals become suspended and get flushed downstream. Signs along the upper Spokane River warn people never to consume too much of the fish. The impacts of those metals and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) on the aquatic species that live in the river are still being studied.

Dams are another major challenge for the Spokane River. Dams at Nine Mile, Long Lake, Little Falls, Post Falls, and three other spots stymie fish migration. All but one of those dams are owned and operated by Avista Utilities, formerly Washington Water Power. In addition to curtailing migration, dam operations result in oxygen depletion due to manipulated in-stream flows. The Nine Mile Dam, when built in 1915, boasted the tallest spillway in the world at 170 feet. The Spokane Tribe, now reintroducing salmon to the Little Spokane River, is offering some hope for the fish, but those salmon will be landlocked and confined to sluggish reservoirs between the series of dams. A 2009 agreement between environmental groups and Avista now keeps the spillways marginally open year-round.

Artists and arts can suffer when the river does. Film director Chris Eyre, while he was making the Sherman Alexie-written Smoke Signals in 1998, experienced a costly epiphany. Scouting film sites, he was stunned with wonder by the gorge that runs through Spokane with all its force and spray. He decided it would be perfect for the scene where Victor Joseph scatters his father's ashes from high atop a bridge. When Eyre and his crew arrived to film the scene, though, they discovered the falls switched off at the dam, leaving nothing but dry stones. His film crew costing him $75,000 a day, he was in a hurry. Getting Avista Utilities' flow schedule, he returned at a prearranged time and managed to shoot the scene.

Alexie, a member of the Spokane Tribe, laments the slow violence enacted on his people by hydroelectric utilities. "How do we forgive our fathers?" Thomas Builds-the-Fire asks in Smoke Signals. The question resonates as viewers take wing above the Spokane River. In Alexie's poem about the river, "That Place Where Ghosts of Salmon Jump," the word love erupts eight times. How can Indians trust to love again, the speaker wonders, when the salmon mostly now are ghosts? The poem, commissioned as public art for Spokane's downtown library, was carved in polished granite in the shape of a spiral. The reader begins at the outside of the poem and spirals inside to read to its end. The installation was subsequently moved from within the library to an outdoor site overlooking the Spokane River.

PCBs pose a third major challenge for the river's ecology. Contaminated groundwater, stormwater runoff, wastewater treatment plants, and industrial discharges are the leading sources of this chemical pollutant today. PCBs were first manufactured in 1929 in the United States. Due to concerns about toxicity and persistence, the EPA banned PCB production in 1977. Though the ban made illegal any new manufacturing, some PCBs still are inadvertently found in pigments for tinted newsprint, in photocopying, packaging, and yellow street stripes.

The Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force leads efforts to reduce toxic compounds in the river. Its chief goal is to develop a comprehensive plan to bring the river into compliance with water-quality standards for PCBs, which exceed thresholds in several segments of the river.

A New Era for the Spokane River

Spokane hosted Expo '74, the International Exposition on the Environment. That 1974 world's fair, building on the first Earth Day (1970) and dedicated to celebrating a fresh new ecological ethic, was held at what became Riverfront Park -- one vestige of the four large gorge parks proposed decades earlier by the Olmsted Brothers landscape-design firm. The smallest city at that time to host a world's fair, Spokane needed buy-in from corporations and nations to keep from drowning in red ink. In the summer of 1973, executives from Ford and GM agreed to be wined and dined to scope the site. A businessman named Walt Toly, fabled for his sales skills, set up lunch at a posh restaurant amid the lower falls. Those falls usually went summer-dry to produce electricity, but Toly got Washington Water Power to switch the falls on for the visit so that a showy flow of water might greet the guests. That impressed the automakers' representatives, and they agreed to shell out for major exhibits at the fair.

Expo '74 prompted a cleanup of rail lines, sawmills, flour mills, rickety bridges, and an industrial laundry that all polluted the downtown river around Canada and Havermale Islands. During the opening ceremony for the Expo, some 2,000 trout were released in the river. When low-income visitors needed a place to stay, the city agreed to let them spread out downriver from the fair on the same wedge of land where local Indians had made their home for more than 8,000 years. Officials called the place a transient youth camp. Occupants called it People's Park, after one in Berkeley, California, five years earlier. The Spokane River running on one side of the counterculture encampment and Hangman Creek on the other came together at the isthmus tip. As many as 5,500 people lived in the park during the summer of 1974. They planted gardens, sold handmade crafts, staffed a clinic and a free kitchen, and built community. They policed themselves and shared resources. More than 5 million guests visited Expo '74.

Five decades after the fair People's Park, screened by trees, sheltered sunbathers and occasional nude volleyball players in summertime. Fishing enthusiasts cast barbless hooks to catch and release redband rainbow trout, west slope cutthroat trout, and brown trout.

Just above People's Park, the Sandifur Bridge connects to the forty-mile Centennial Trail across the river -- a paved path for cycling, skating, walking, and jogging that extends from the Idaho state line to Nine Mile Falls west of Spokane. Paddlers, rafters, and inner-tubers put in below the Monroe Street Bridge near Riverfront Park and bounce the river down miles of gentle rapids shared by ospreys, eagles, beavers, and moose. Others brave the brisk water for distance swimming in the Big Eddy, a broad spot where the Spokane River doubles back upon itself. Nesting in a clayey sidehill above that eddy, bank swallows skim the water by day, while nighthawks at dusk boom high in the sky as they plunge for bugs.

Fort George Wright Drive, named after the Indian fighter who killed Qualchan and many others, was renamed in 2020. Its new name, spurred by the Spokane Tribe of Indians and adopted by a unanimous vote of the Spokane City Council, was Whistalks Way, honoring Whist-alks, Qualchan's widow and Lokout's wife for fifty years, who was known as a warrior.


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