Spokane’s History – In Digital Form

Babe Ruth at Spokane's Hutton Settlement
Babe Ruth signs autographs for children
at Spokane’s Hutton Settlement*
(click for a larger view)

When you think of Spokane’s history, what comes to mind first? Expo ’74? The Great Spokane Fire of 1889? The time Babe Ruth hit a home run at Natatorium Park (it happened, according to this)?

A lot has happened in Spokane’s life. Eastern Washington University’s Public History program, under the leadership of Dr. Larry Cebula, has developed a smartphone app called “Spokane Historical,” a fine, free app with loads of information on Spokane’s past. It also has a nifty website –

Dr. Cebula is a Professor of History at EWU, and doubles as the state’s Assistant Digital Archivist. The state needed to preserve its archives in a format that could be secured in case of a natural disaster. Since the Spokane region isn’t at risk for too many natural disasters, EWU became the prime location due to its university infrastructure. Dr. Cebula helps run the world’s first digital archive built from the ground up.

The smartphone app and website came about when Dr. Cebula went looking for a project where his students could develop digital skills (it is 2012, after all), and something that could last a lot longer than a typical term paper.

So the smartphone app and website idea was hatched, and continues to evolve.

Dr. Cebula said his students write the content and produce the audio clips. They are placed in a database, where he must approve them after checking and re-checking content, format and any copyright issues with the photos used.

Speaking of the myriad photos, Dr. Cebula said accessing those is the hardest part. Riva Dean and the Northwest Room at the downtown branch of the Spokane Public Library have been a huge help to Dr. Cebula and his students.

It’s a fascinating project the students at EWU are undertaking. Here’s just some of what we learned by using the app and perusing the website:

…….You’ve seen that steel sculpture that appears to be floating in the Spokane River outside the INB Performing Arts Center, right? It was created by Harold Balazs in 1978 to commemorate Spokane’s centennial year in 1981. And no, it’s not floating – it’s anchored in the river’s south channel.

…….The building where the current Hotel Lusso is located was rebuilt in 1890 after the original burned in the Great Spokane Fire. It went through several owners and housed a number of businesses such as the Arthur Murray Dance Studio, the Business and Professional Women’s Club, the Canadian Legion and more. Our office building – built many, many years later, is on the same block.

…….You may or may not know that City Hall used to be in the same building as the Olive Garden on the corner of Wall and Spokane Falls Boulevard. Old City Hall, as the building is called, housed Spokane’s local government for 70 years.

…….Speaking of City Hall, the current home to our city government is the Montgomery Wards Building. It was built in 1929 to accommodate the Union Pacific Railroad line that once passed through that part of town.

…….We all know the beautiful Looff Carrousel is in Riverfront Park today – though it didn’t always call that park home. The 100-plus-year-old carrousel was a wedding gift sent to Emma Vogel from her father. Vogel and her husband owned Natatorium Park (more on this later) and installed the carrousel there in 1909.The ride’s original organ is still in place, though due to its age, a digital recording is now used.

…….Fairchild Air Force Base is currently the staple military base in our area. But Fort George Wright was built in 1896 and at one point it housed 500 soldiers and veterans of the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War. Currently, the site is home to the Mukogawa Women’s Academy near Spokane Falls Community College.

…….Spokane once had its own amusement park – Natatorium Park. It went through a couple names – Ingersoll Park and Twickenham Park – and modernizations during its time before closing in 1968. The location is now a mobile home neighborhood across the river from Spokane Falls Community College in Spokane’s West Central area.

…….Did you know Manito Park used to have a zoo?

…….And did you know Bing Crosby was an altar boy at St. Aloysius Church in 1916? He later joined the choir, of course.

Our blog doesn’t do it justice, but the smartphone app and its website do. Spokane has a rich history, with much of it documented in an easy-to-find format, thanks to Dr. Cebula and his students.

*Top photo courtesy of The Hutton Settlement, which says Babe Ruth was an orphaned child and made a point to visit the home when he was in Spokane.

**We discovered this app after reading this tweet.


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