Spokane’s New Era In Transportation

In the early 1900's, this city had one of the largest concentrations of automobiles West of the Mississippi

Horse-drawn carriages became less desirable, streetcars and railroads were well established around the county and in the city, and a new contraption called the automobile became the dominant mode of transportation in Spokane.

In the year 1909, Spokane was home to several hundred automobiles. Many of these early automobiles were classified as Tin Lizzies (common cars like the Model T) and delivery trucks. In Jess Walter’s novel, The Cold Millions, several automobiles are present in Spokane. Rye Dolan got to experience one of the finest autos of the time. Before meeting Lemuel Brand, one of the city elites, Rye and Ursula the Great traveled in a fancy Peerless seven-passenger touring which was priced at around $7,000. “Heads turning like royalty was passing” was used to describe those staring at the mechanical piece of art. Having an automobile was a status symbol in those days.

In 1898, H. Henry Wemme, a Portland Businessman, sent a Spokane tent manufacturer named F. O. Berg to New York to acquire a car for him. Sent with a commission, Berg tested many models before taking a touring car back to the Pacific Northwest. Wemme was taught how to operate the contraption, but after a couple of years of failing to get it to go, it was sold to Berg and shipped to Spokane in 1900. He kept it in his possession for over a year and rode over 7,000 miles. Mr. Berg sold it to a laundryman who turned out to be an incompetent mechanic and the last owner of the car. The car was found one day to be held together by wire, rather than nuts and bolts. Traveling up Cannon Hill with several passengers, the laundryman stopped to let a team of horses pass. He then started the car back up when the wire broke, and the front end was destroyed. The occupants escaped, but the car rolled backward down the hill, burning up after impact.

Though Berg claimed to have had the first car in Spokane, that may not be true. A man named Roy Boulter claims to have had one in town several months earlier, though the car failed to run for long and was only seen in public on a couple of occasions. Spokane had some of the first cars on the West Coast. In the year 1902, the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene area was home to nearly 100 automobiles. Dr. C. P. Thomas, who owned a 1900 Franklin, was proud to be one of the first Spokanites with a car. Another doctor, A. A. Franklin, bought a 1906 Maxwell. Regretting his purchase, he sold it soon after and bought a horse. Garages were selling record amounts of automobiles. In the year 1911, over 750 cars were registered within Spokane. That number doubled the next year. The automobile became the dominant mode of transportation in the city.

With no official laws regarding automobiles, many early auto pioneers attempted to push the limits around town. On May 25, 1902, the chief of police at the time, Chief Witherspoon, observed what he claimed was a “horseless carriage” moving through the middle of downtown at a high rate of speed. Jumping off his streetcar, he caught up to the fast and furious driver and issued the man a citation for going upwards of 15 miles an hour. The current law was not to exceed six miles per hour on horseback within the city. However, since most laws were targeted toward horses and bicycles, the charges against the man were dropped since they did not pertain to automobiles. Accidents became frequent as well. Spokane saw its first fatal wreck in November 1908. Miss Mary Nicholls was killed after falling over the edge of a bluff downtown with several other passengers. Fed up with these growing problems, Chief Witherspoon began to issue dozens of ordinances related to vehicles.

By 1920, Spokane had largely completed its transition from literal horsepower to the automobile. Spokanites drove their new horseless carriages past the unused horse rings set in the curbs around town.