Spokane History Timeline

The Making of Riverfront Park, 1963-1974

If you walked through downtown Spokane anytime in the 1950’s and 60's you would see lots of smoke, smog and grime floating through the air. You could see and hear railroad tracks and tall trestles on the sides of the river and on Havermale island, as 3 of the 4 RR lines (Great Northern RR, Northern Pacific RR, and Chicago, Milwaukee, Washington Rail Company) through the city and their switching yards were there, but you could not see or enjoy the river and the falls!

River front 1929
L87-1.37410X29 - 1929 Aerial View looking North East from Howard and Trent



Spokane experienced tremendous growth between 1900 and 1920 largely due to the railroads bringing new people to the city to work in the industries: mines, forests, and farms and suppliers of the region.  The Spokane River was the major source of energy to power the industries: mills for lumber, wheat, and power for the growing city. The river was also subjected to the industrial wastes and was polluted.


Union Station
L83-226.2 - Union Terminal Dedication, December 1914.


Back in 1908, the city parks director, Aubrey White, had commissioned the famous parks planners, the Olmsted Brothers of Massachusetts, to propose locations for development of parks, boulevards and playfields in the city. The Olmsted Brothers recommended that the city establish a large park in the center of the city along the river called Gorge Park. They also recommended that the railroads be moved from the center of the city. Their report: “Nothing is so firmly impressed on the mind of the visitor to Spokane as . . . the great gorge into which the river falls near the center of the city. It is a tremendous feature of the landscape and one, which is rarer in a large city than river, lake, bay or mountain. Any city should prize and preserve its great landscape features, inasmuch as they give it individuality.”

"Report, Olmsted Brothers, to A. L. White, Board of Park Commissioners, Spokane," in Board of Park Commissioners, Spokane – Annual Report, 1891-1913 (Spokane: Board of Park Commissioners, 1914), 71-75, 88-97.

It took until the early 1960’s for the city leaders to begin thinking of renewing the downtown and cleaning up the dirt and grime floating around the city from the trains around the Spokane River and the Falls. A group of businessmen formed “Spokane Unlimited” and hired a young urban planner named King Cole to lead the revitalization project in 1963. Cole began negotiating to relocate the rail lines and other businesses and proposed that the city consider hosting a world’s fair. The ambitious plan took 10 years to take shape and come to fruition as Expo 74 – a World’s Fair with the theme: “Man and the Environment.” The Fair was supposed to demonstrate how Spokanites had rediscovered their river. Fair backers proclaimed that this was to be the first environmental world exposition, and that Spokane’s plan would be at the forefront of ecological sensitivity. 

Riverfront Park Construction
L2002-23.11 - Construction of US Pavilion for EXPO 74.

The city had to tear down the old Great Northern train station, built in 1902, with a handsome the clock tower. This became a controversial decision. Finally it was decided to retain the tower. You can see the old roofline on the Clock Tower in Riverfront Park, as the bricks don’t exactly match. A plaque on the Tower tells of the contribution of the railroads to the development of the city and the gift of land from the RR. An important part of the World’s Fair plan was that the site would become Riverfront Park, a remaining legacy after the fair. Expo 74, which ran from May 1974 – September 1974, was a success as over 5,300,000 people came and pumped an estimated $150,000,000 into the local economy. At that time Spokane was the smallest town to host a world fair. Even President Nixon attended to officially open the Fair.

Following the fair, the historic Loof Carousel which had been in Natatorium Park was restored from its closing and installed in 1975. Many features in the park today remain from the World’s Fair, such as the IMAX theatre, the Pavilion, the sky ride over the Falls, the Garbage-Eating Goat and the butterflies. Riverfront Park, today, is 100 acres of beautiful riverbanks, bridges, islands, plus the Opera House and Convention Center, Centennial Trail, and gathering place for community-wide events through out the year.

The before and after pictures show amazing differences between the old railroads, stations and trestles, and the new Riverfront Park.


Bowers, Dawn.  Expo '74 World's Fair, Spokane.  photography, Dennis Anderson ... [et al.]. Spokane : Expo '74 Corp., 1974.

The Northwest Room, Spokane Public Library
EXPO '74 World's Fair official souvenir program. Spokane, 1974.
Fairchild, Leonard . Expo74 [scrapbook].
Spokane -- Expo '74 [vertical file].


Photos used with permission from Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture/ Eastern Washington State Historical Society.

L87-1.37410X29 - 1929 Aerial View looking North East from Howard and Trent (later Spokane Falls Boulvard), LibbyStudio
L83-226.2 - Union Terminal Dedication, December 1914.
L2002-23.11 - Construction of US Pavilion for EXPO 74.

copyright (c) 2011, Discovery School.
All rights reserved.
Report created May, 2011.
Last Modified on January 3, 2012