Eastern Washington University

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 9/12/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8288

Eastern Washington University's roots date back to the Benjamin P. Cheney Academy, which opened its doors in the town of Cheney in 1882. The academy, equivalent to a combination of elementary and junior high school, was built with a $10,000 donation from Cheney (1815-1895),  one of the directors of the Northern Pacific Railroad. In 1890, the academy ceased operations, but that same year the state legislature voted to create a State Normal School -- a teacher's college -- in Cheney. One of Cheney's selling points in winning the school was the existence of the academy building and its eight acres of property. The State Normal School at Cheney opened its doors on October 13, 1890, with 16 pupils. The young school weathered financial crisis after financial crisis in its first decades, mostly caused by a balky state government. By 1896, attendance was up to 252; by 1915 it was more than 1,000. The school was devoted almost exclusively in its early decades to its teacher-training function.  In 1937, the name of the school was officially changed to the Eastern Washington College of Education, which provided a boost in prestige. Enrollment dropped during World War II but after the war, the college experienced a boom fueled by returning veterans on the G.I. Bill. Students numbered 1,447 by 1949, and men were now the majority. In 1961, the college was renamed Eastern Washington State College, reflecting its expanded offerings, and entered a period of explosive growth. In 1977, the school was renamed Eastern Washington University. As of 2007, more than 10,000 students were working in more than 150 undergraduate and graduate fields of study.

Starting with Willow Springs

Eastern Washington University’s history stretches nearly all the way back to the founding of Cheney.

The town, in the spot formerly known as Willow Springs, sprang up almost instantly in 1880 when word leaked out that the Northern Pacific Railroad planned a key depot stop there. The newly arrived settlers and speculators named the town after Benjamin P. Cheney, a Boston industrialist and one of the directors of the Northern Pacific Railroad. He was so honored and flattered that he donated $10,000 toward one of the town’s most pressing needs – a school. The Northern Pacific threw in eight acres of prime land on the hill above the town. Construction proceeded on a two-story frame structure at what is still the center of today’s campus.

On April 3, 1882, the Benjamin P. Cheney Academy opened its doors to students from the elementary grades up to the eighth or ninth grade. In those early years, enrollment averaged between 100 and 200 students. It operated as a kind of semi-public, semi-private school in partnership with the Cheney school district. The academy received some tax levy money, but students were also charged tuition, although a modest one: $6.50 per term for primary grade students.

Industrialist Cheney visited in 1883 to inspect his town and his school, and in a speech on Sept. 17, he announced that if the academy needed to expand, he would be happy to make it happen.

This proved premature. The town of Cheney was not growing as its boosters had foretold – the town of Spokane Falls, 16 miles away, was turning into the region’s metropolis. The merger with the school district proved awkward. Within a few years, Cheney built its own public schools, which drew most of the students away. The academy languished and in 1890 the school closed.

Teacher Training

At exactly this time, the town of Cheney began to see a new future for the academy building on the hill. The newly created state of Washington commenced plans, as specified under the statehood Enabling Act, to establish several State Normal Schools. These were essentially teacher training schools, with the name derived from the French “ecole normale” upon which they were modeled.

Cheney’s boosters, still smarting from the loss of the Spokane County seat to the city of Spokane Falls in 1886, immediately mounted a campaign to land one of the three schools. Many towns throughout the state were vying for one, yet Cheney held what it hoped would be a trump card: the empty academy building, surrounded by eight acres of land, available for instant conversion. The town’s boosters had convinced the trustees of the academy to offer the campus as a gift to the state of Washington on provision that it be used as a state teacher’s school.

Landing one of these coveted schools did not prove easy. The state legislature had many competing interests to consider, including inter-city rivalries and the need to scatter schools equitably throughout the state. Cheney residents were convinced that Spokane Falls would try to "grab" too many state plums and kill Cheney’s chances.

Cheney Rejoices

However, in March 1890, Cheney’s representatives in the statehouse finally won passage of the bill establishing the State Normal School at Cheney. This prompted great rejoicing in Cheney. The town’s boosters believed it would restore "all the prestige it lost when the county seat of Spokane was moved to Spokane Falls" (Oliphant).

The other Normal Schools were established in Ellensburg and Bellingham (which have now evolved into Central Washington University and Western Washington University). A principal and faculty were appointed and plans were made to lure students to this dusty small town.

"There are several reasons why students who wish to attend a normal school should come to Cheney," the school administration declared in a published statement:

"The two most important are expense and climate. The expense of living is much less in Cheney than any place in the state, if not on the Pacific Coast, and the health, the important feature of all, should be the deciding point. ... [Cheney] has a health record that speaks for itself and it speaks in thunder tones. Then, too, Cheney is a town where fathers and mothers can send their sons and daughters in perfect safety from immoral influence. The city is free from that class of people, found so commonly in many towns, who have an evil influence on the young" (Oliphant)

To be admitted, applicants had to show they were at least 16 years old; of good moral character; in good health; in possession of a certificate showing they had passed their grammar school tests; and in possession of a written recommendation from their county’s school superintendent.

Ups and Downs

The State Normal School at Cheney opened for instruction on October 13, 1890, with 16 students enrolled. By the end of the year, the number had grown to 50, of which 29 were women. Women remained the majority – as was common in teacher’s schools – until after World War II.

Disaster struck almost immediately. A two-story addition to the original academy building caught fire on August 27, 1891. The entire building, including the original academy and all its furnishings, was destroyed. The cause of the fire was a heated mortar bed, left overnight by a workman. Overnight, then, the State Normal School at Cheney became a smoking ruin.

This cataclysm was a foretaste of what was to come. College historian Cecil Dryden writes that the school was fated to “suffer tremors” of various kinds for the next 40 years.

The school had little money to weather this initial crisis, but with help from the local townspeople, classes opened on schedule in a rented office building in downtown Cheney. This sufficed until the state legislature was able to pass an appropriations bill for a new permanent building in 1893.

Passage of that bill prompted a civic celebration: "Anvils are booming on four corners, the Wonder Band [the town band] is serenading the board of trustees and the teachers ... the steam whistles of the city are blowing" (Dryden).

The celebration was short-lived, as word soon arrived that Governor John H. McGraw (1850-1910) had vetoed it. The town’s citizens, faced with the closure of the school, immediately voted to issue bonds for a new public school, which would be shared with the Normal School until the state government finally came through with an appropriation. The Normal School was based at this new building from 1893 to 1896.

Controversy and Difficulty

A new Normal School building, complete with central clock tower, was finished in 1896, yet like nearly everything else in the college’s early history, it was surrounded by controversy. The first contractor defaulted and failed to pay the workmen, leaving the school in debt and disarray. The atmosphere was further poisoned by an acrimonious public spat, initiated by students, about the competence and integrity of some teachers and administrators. This resulted in the resignations of the principal and several teachers.

These controversies contributed to a growing feeling around the state that three Normal Schools were too many. During the 1897 legislative session, Governor John R. Rogers (1838-1901) vetoed the appropriations for both Cheney and Bellingham, leaving Ellensburg as the sole Normal School. In the fall of 1897, the State Normal School at Cheney failed to open, leaving the hilltop campus “deserted except for the birds and squirrels,” in the words of Dryden.

Once again, the townspeople of Cheney came to the rescue by pledging money to re-open the school in the fall of 1898. Just over 100 students showed up, down from 252 two years previously. Meanwhile, boosters convinced the state legislature in 1899 to restore appropriations for both the Cheney and Bellingham schools. This time, Governor Rogers didn’t veto the bill because the votes did not exist to sustain one. When he came to Cheney to make the school’s commencement address on June 22, 1899, he conceded, somewhat reluctantly, that the State Normal School at Cheney would be, from that point on, a “permanent fixture.”

Still to come were many more fights over funding and one more catastrophe that threatened the school’s existence. Early on April 24, 1912, a fire of unknown origin started in the school’s main building.  Two young men, who had been asleep in the building, were trapped inside. Both jumped from the third floor into a makeshift net held by firefighters. Both survived. The building was a total loss. The nearby Training School – a model school where student teachers from the Normal School taught Cheney children – was pressed into service as the new main building until a grand new administration building was completed in 1915. In 1940, it was renamed Showalter Hall, after N. D. Showalter, president of the college from 1911 to 1926. It remains the centerpiece of the Cheney campus.

Student Life

Student life in the 1910s and 1920s was governed by rigid rules. Students were expected to behave with the propriety expected of the teachers they were soon to become. Five nights a week were designated as quiet nights – no social activities allowed after 8 p.m. Only Fridays and Saturdays were designated as social nights. A weekly "play hour" became customary in the gymnasium, and was used for folk dancing up until about 1920 and for "modern dancing" after that.

Many clubs and organizations sprang up, including the Lyric Glee Club; Yep Kanum, a hiking club for women; and the Natura Club, dedicated to science. Other clubs were strictly for fun: The Order of Fat Men, with 14 charter members; and the Corncob Touchers, with no officers, no rules, and a motto that consisted entirely of "Good Fellowship."

College football, which swept the country around the turn of the century, was a challenge for the school, because there were so few male students. In 1920, the football coach reported that his line averaged about 135 pounds. He worried that some players would be "broken in two" (Dryden).  However, the school did compete regularly with teams from the region and with the other Normal Schools.

In 1920, the administration found it necessary to discourage bobbed hair – the style associated with flappers – because it would look "childish and undignified on a teacher" (Dryden). This stance was eventually softened when bobbed hair became so common as to no longer attract much notice.

By 1922, the Normal School had an enrollment of 1,764. Students commonly lived in boarding houses or private homes in town since there were not enough residence halls to accommodate everyone.

Arriving at College Status

The Great Depression hit the school hard in the early 1930s. Many students could no longer afford tuition. Graduates had fewer prospects of getting a job. However, the school soon won two major advances in its academic prestige. In 1933 it won the right to grant Bachelor of Arts in education degrees, instead of only teaching certificates. This was followed closely by the school's official designation, on March 3, 1937, as the Eastern Washington College of Education, a name it kept until 1961. According to Dryden, reaching true "college" status was a cause for elation among students and faculty alike. In her words, the school had finally arrived.

Yet after Pearl Harbor in 1941, enrollment suffered again as many of the students and faculty went off to war. Many of the women students busied themselves with making surgical dressings for the Red Cross in their spare time. Students were recruited to help harvest wheat and apples in the region, since labor was so scarce.

Once World War II ended in 1945, Eastern experienced an unprecedented boom when former servicemen and servicewomen took advantage of the G.I. Bill to enroll in college. Suddenly, the Eastern campus was full of trailers, brought in to house hundreds of new students. A new state Degree Bill, passed in 1947, transformed all of the state's colleges of education into full-fledged liberal arts colleges, which began to grant degrees in a wide range of subjects. By 1949, the campus had more men than women students for the first time.

Unbroken Growth

The school experienced an unbroken string of growth over the next few decades. New buildings went up almost every year and new academic programs were being introduced. In 1961, the name was officially changed to Eastern Washington State College. After the addition of a wide range of graduate programs, the name was changed again in 1977 to Eastern Washington University.

Today, Eastern Washington University's enrollment tops 10,000 students. Many students commute from Spokane, yet about three-quarters of its freshmen students live on campus. Women once again comprise a majority by about a 58-42 percent ratio. Noted alumni include novelist Jess Walter, a 2006 National Book Award finalist; Thomas Hampson, one of the world''s leading operatic baritones; and Todd McFarlane, creator of the "Spawn" series of comic books and movies.

The university now has nationally recognized programs in such fields as creative writing, physical therapy, music, dental hygiene, criminal justice, and biotechnology. Yet Eastern Washington University remains true to its roots in one way. One of its most popular majors remains, as always, education.

Sources: J. Orin Oliphant, History of the State Normal School at Cheney, Washington (Spokane: Inland-American Printing Company, 1924); Cecil Dryden, Light for an Empire: The Story of Eastern Washington State College (Cheney: Eastern Washington State College, 1965); "EWU History," Eastern Washington University website (www.ewu.edu/x4542.xml).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You