Spokane County History
Spokane County boasts a rich history dating back to the mid 1800's. The geographic makeup of the county went through many, many changes between 1860 and 1883, as our chronology of Spokane County history shows.
The historic Spokane County Courthouse, completed in 1895, boasts a rich and interesting history of its own.
There are many other sites available for additional information on specific areas or events throughout our region. Please check out our list of history reference sites for more information.
Situated east of the Cascade Range in Washington and on the western slope of the Coeur d'Alene Mountains next to the Idaho-Washington boundary, Spokane County is bordered mostly by township and range lines, except for a small section of the western boundary, where the line is purely arbitrary, and for a 20-mile section of the northern boundary formed by the Spokane River. Spokane County contains 1,756 square miles. It has a maximum length north and south of 54 miles and a maximum width east and west of 36 miles. In point of geographical size, it is the average Washington county, there being 19 counties which are smaller and 19 counties which are larger. In point of age, it is one of the oldest counties, having been created in 1858, but not organized until 1860, only six years after the creation of Washington Territory. Because of its annexation to Stevens County at one time, however, Spokane County was non-existent for 15 years. (Excerpted from Inventory of the County Archives of Washington No. 32 Spokane County, 1941.)
Historical Dates and Maps
(Excerpted from Inventory of the County Archives of Washington No. 32 Spokane County, 1941.)
- 1843 Map of Spokane Region circa 1843
- 1851 Map of Spokane Region circa 1851
- 1854 Map of Spokane Region circa 1854
- 1858 On January 29, 1858, Spokane County was created by an act passed by the Territorial Assembly. View Map
- 1860 First Spokane County government. Pinkney City, a small trading post near Colville, was first county seat. On Feb 15, 1860, the county commissioners assembled at Pinkney City and proceeded to locate the first county road. Taken from the Stevens County Auditor's Vault Record, the proceedings read: "Commencing at the ferry on the Columbia River opposite the mouth of Kettle River; running from thence to Peter Currie's, at the foot of the hill as near a strait (sic) line as practicable; thence following the present wagon road, as near as convenient, to Pinkney City; from thence following the government road to the bridge at "old Peers," leaving the present wagon road at, or near, the bridge, and following an old Indian trail bearing to the right and intersecting the old road running up the valley near George Mose's claim; running up the old road as near as practicable to where the old pack trail leaves the wagon toad to cross Mill river; turning to the right; following said pack-trail, or as near to it as convenient to strangers; running from thence along the pack-trail to the Spokane river." View Map
- 1861 Jan 9, 1861 Shoshone County created, taking only a small section of Spokane County. View Map
- 1863 Idaho Territory was created, cutting off two-thirds of Spokane County.
- 1864 Jan 19, 1864, Spokane County was annexed to Stevens County by act of the Territorial Legislature. Colville was the county seat. The reason for retaining the name Stevens County rather than Spokane County when the two counties were combined was due largely to sentiment honoring General Isaac I. Stevens, by naming the county after him. Stevens, the first Territorial Governor of Washington, had volunteered his services to the Union cause in the Civil War, and was killed in action in Sept. 1862 at the Battle of Chantilly.
- 1875 Nov. 5, 1875 Law making Spokane Falls the county seat was passed by the Territorial Assembly but was not enforced. The county commissioners opposed this: "That in the opinion of the majority of the Board of County Commissioners, that the Act of 1875, being an amendment to the Act of 1863, an Act repealed by the Act of 1864, permanently locating the county seat at Colville, and consequently null and void. That amendment of 1875 must be of necessity also null and void, and in consequence the Act of 1864, still remains in full force and effect."
- 1879 Spokane County was again established, after a trip to Olympia by J.N. Glover, known as the 'Father of Spokane". View Map 1 View Map 2
- 1880 First county seat election was held. Confusion as to the outcome of the election ensued, with the city of Cheney taking the county records in dispute. Cheney remained the county seat for six years.
- 1883 Lincoln County was sub-divided from Spokane County and the present county boundaries were established.
- 1886 County seat was moved to Spokane after a second election.
- 1893 Construction of the present County Courthouse began. Its initial cost was $273,600.
- 1895 All of the county officials moved into quarters in the new courthouse by Nov 20, 1895.
- 1885-99 Twenty-two counties were made out of what was originally Spokane County. Five of these are in Idaho, six in Montana, and eleven in Washington.
- 1941 Road Map of Spokane County 1941
- 1943 Township Map of Spokane County 1943
- 1946-1953 The Spokane County Courthouse was extensively remodeled in 1946, and a new wing was added in 1956 which cost more than the original building - $525,000.
Historical Reference Sites to Visit
Spokane County Courthouse History
You might not expect to come upon a castle while visiting Spokane, but that is exactly what you will do if you visit the Spokane County courthouse. Most of us associate such architecture with romantic old castles in Europe, or perhaps something out of the world of Walt Disney or fairy tales. To find such a building in the center of a modern, growing regional hub city such as Spokane is a bit startling.
How did this come about? You'd expect such a building must have a colorful past, and our courthouse does not disappoint!
When the first ground was broken in the fall of 1893, Spokane was still a boomtown that had been suffering from the financial panic of 1893. The project itself was designed in part as a stimulant for a faltering economy in those hard times. At first, there was some bitterness from the initial decision to place the structure on the north bank of the Spokane River. Downtown business owners had hoped to keep the building in the central business district. Residents from the southern and western parts of the county lobbied the county commissioners to select a more rural location. One man even told the Board that if they put the courthouse in Spokane, then those outlying parts would secede and form a new county. There was also harsh criticism that the building itself was an extravagant waste of public funds.
Contest for Courthouse Design
But the full story of the courthouse began almost a decade earlier when in 1887, colonel D.P. Jenkins donated the land and $1,000 for the construction of the new county courthouse. But it was not until 1893, when leaky roofs and other problems of the old courthouse became painfully apparent, that the Board of County Commissioners decided to act on Jenkins' offer.
On June 7, 1893, the Board officially opened the design competition for the new structure of "brick and stone or stone as near fireproof as practical to include commodious vaults for records, plumbing, heating, sewerage, closets, and everything necessary for the courthouse and jail to cost no more than $250,000." A prize would be awarded for the most original plan! Prizes were awarded as follows: Winning design 5% of the cost of construction, second prize $500, third prize $300, fourth prize $200.
The architect who submitted the winning design for the courthouse was W. A. Ritchie, then just 29 years old. He never attended a formal school of architecture, having received his initial training from a correspondence course conducted by the superintendent of architecture in the U.S. Treasury Department. Before moving to Spokane, he designed and supervised the construction of public buildings and courthouses in Seattle, Bellingham, Port Townsend, Vancouver and Olympia. He had arrived in Spokane just the year prior to winning the courthouse design competition. Kirtland Cutter, the renowned Spokane architect who designed the Monroe Street Bridge, took second place in the competition.
On August 4 1893, Mr. Ritchie submitted his detailed drawings for the new courthouse and the Board of County Commissioners ordered that notice to contractors be advertised in the Spokane newspapers, giving details of the plans of Mr. Ritchie. From Oct 25th to Oct. 28th, 1893, the commissioners studied submitted bids and finally ordered the contract to be awarded to David B. Fotheringham, and John Keenan was appointed superintendent of construction. Construction began in October 1893, but the building really began to go up the following spring. The brick was manufactured locally by Washington Brick and Lime Manufacturing Company of Spokane. The roof was made from imported slate shingles.
Work was suspended on the courthouse in March 1895 as a quarrel broke out between Ritchie and the superintendent of construction. The commissioners asked Ritchie to resign, he refused, and a grand jury investigated charges of 'Fraud and Swindling" in connection with the courthouse. The jurors concluded: "We have sifted these charges thoroughly, find them untrue, malicious and wicked, having been made by parties who must have known differently, and made for the purpose of misleading the people generally, and this surely and particular. Hard times, prejudice and disappointment must have been at the root of the matter. We find the courthouse to be one of the most substantial and well-built offices in this or any other state, and built in accordance with the plans and specifications, excepting changes that were duly authorized. We find no evidence of boodle or corruption and we believe there has been none." The courthouse was finally completed in November 1895. All county officials had moved into quarters in the new courthouse by Nov. 20, 1895.
A Castle in Spokane
The courthouse is said to closely resemble two famous 16th century chateaux in the Loire Valley of France, the Chateau de Chambord, built in 1519 and the Chateau d'Azay Le Rideau built in 1516. Many architects through the years have commented on the masterly replica of a 16th century French Renaissance design, its fine lines of style and proportion with regard to the towers and turrets, the sculpture, iron and brickwork which excel in pattern and craftsmanship. Detailed exterior trim such as shell patterns with wreaths and festoons and decorative arches are a few of the outstanding features of its design. The beautiful center tower, now lighted at night, is a masterpiece of detail in itself.
A New Jail Next to the Courthouse
Adjacent to the Courthouse was the new jail. The first man booked into the jail was a James Kershaw on a charge of grand larceny. The last entry under his name reads, "Disposition of case - escaped." Hangings were held in the courtyard between the jail and the Courthouse. The most famous case involved George Webster in 1899. More than 300 invitations, bordered in rope, tied in a hangman's noose and bearing a picture of Webster, were sent out.
The courthouse was also the scene of at least one violent episode a year after it opened. On August 1, 1896, Lou H. Plattor, an attorney and politician, was shot by Henry Siefert in the second floor corridor outside a courtroom. Newspaper accounts give a sketchy picture of what actually happened. But Siefert was apparently angered by what he thought were derogatory remarks about his character by Plattor, who also apparently struck Siefert with a cane. Siefert then, out of retaliation or self-defense, pulled his gun from his jacket and shot Plattor dead. Siefert was charged with murder, but the jury acquitted him.
A Multi-Use Building
In 1897, another scandal erupted when a news article reported that county employees were actually living in the courthouse, using it as a hotel for their families. According to the article: "There are times and places when the odor of boiled cabbage and other delicate edibles is not offensive. In a courthouse, however, almost at any time, such odors are hardly keeping with the surroundings." Soon after the article appeared, the county commissioners dealt with the problem. A later article reported: "The odor of fried onions, sauerkraut, oysters and mushrooms was less pronounced than heretofore, and the prospect is that the county will not hereafter engage extensively in the hotel business."
Remodeling has been done over the years to meet the growing needs of the county. In 1953, the old Public Health Building on the northwest corner of the courthouse block was razed to clear the way for the present four-story courthouse annex. It was hoped that the annex would take care of the county's needs for the next ten years. The first floor was assigned to the Sheriff's department, the second floor went to the three justices of the peace, the third floor to the county prosecutor, and the fourth floor was unassigned for the time being with no immediate plans. At that time, the courthouse also housed many other departments as well, including Planning, Engineering and Parks and Recreation.
Today, the Spokane County Courthouse houses the offices of the Board of County Commissioners, Assessor, Treasurer, Auditor, Clerk, and Superior Court courtrooms, offices, and support services. The Courthouse Annex houses the Auditor's Motor Vehicle Licensing Office, the Counsel for Defense, and the Superior Court Administrator's Offices. The Sheriff, Prosecutor, and Jail and moved to the Public Safety and Jail buildings north of the Courthouse and Annex. Planning and Engineering are now located in the Public Works Building east of the Courthouse, while Parks and Recreation have offices on Havana next to the County Fair and Expo Center.
Spokane County takes pride in its 'castle' showcase building. Improvements and renovations have occurred over the years to improve both the functionality and efficiency of the building. Windows were replaced recently, which has greatly improved the energy efficiency of the building. At that same time, the outside brickwork was cleaned and re-sealed. The Courthouse is surrounded by manicured lawns, shrubs and trees, wonderfully framing this beautiful historic treasure!
The tower was in need of structural repair highlighted by the flag pole tilting in the fall of 2006. The renovation included; structural repair and re-pointing of the brickwork, structural repair to the tower roof, complete new slate roof on the tower (original roofing over 100 years old), structural repair to tower decks and deck covers, restoration and repair of decorative terra cotta, and….. replacement of the flag pole.
The project was extremely difficult with the scaffolding needing to go around the entire tower roof but not touch any of the roof. There were areas of the tower that had not been seen or touched since the tower was built, and there were 100 year old construction techniques that had to be learned to assure the repairs were made properly.
Total cost was about $2,000,000 with 50% of the money coming from a state grant from the Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation.
The goal was to make sure the tower would not need any work for another 100 years.
The US Flag was returned to the tower on January 16, 2009 along with a new POW/MIA flag.