Water Power

MAC 100 Stories: A Centennial Exhibition - Story 12

For nineteenth-century pioneers like James Glover, falling water represented power - the power to grind flour, to saw logs, and to build a city. These were the fundamental industrial activities in a region still rich in timber and already rich in grain and they would draw people to the village of Spokane Falls. The mill business, though lucrative, was also volatile. Owners made their profits then quickly sold out and moved on. As this doggrel from The Spokesman-Review put it:

"There was Simon, who built him a mill,
And dressed dudish sufficient to kill
On the banks of this stream
Ah it seems like a dream.
He's departed, but it's with us still."

But mills were also literally volatile. Flour and sawdust were both explosive and flammable. This spot was the site of the Spokane Mill Co., which survived the Great Fire of 1889 only to partially burn in 1892. To trap logs coming down the Spokane River, the mill companies filled the southern channel with earth.

Electricity in Spokane began in 1885 with a single generator in the Spokane Flour Mill. Demand grew rapidly, and four years later local investors formed Washington Water Power and built a power station near Monroe Street. The company ran electric streetcars to encourage residential expansion and grow the market for electricity. By 1920, Washington Water Power had electrified the Hillyard rail yards, built a 100-mile transmission line to the mines and constructed three dams along the Spokane River. Electrification brought enormous social and economic progress, but the dams that generated that power permanently altered the landscape and the fishing traditions of the Plateau tribes.

Harnessing the river defined Spokane as a community before, during and after the mining and railroad booms. In 1897, The Spokesman-Review asked its readers to celebrate the Spokane River in verse, and even the most satirical poems lauded the manifest and majestic power of the falls.

As years of European-American settlement passed into decades, the edge of the river became encrusted by businesses that depended on its power and water. Spokane was enriched by its namesake river, but only sometimes remembered it.

MAC 100 Stories: A Centennial Exhibition is told on the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture campus in Spokane's Browne's Addition, with additional highlights at 15 sites in Spokane and eastern Washington. The exhibit experience (February 22, 2014 - January 2016) weaves stories and programs about Inland Northwest people, places and events by capitalizing on the MAC's extraordinary collection. www.northwestmuseum.org

Spokane Historical presents 15 regional and city tours in partnership with the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture and its 100 Stories exhibition.

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