Publication Date

November 1, 2004

The bulk of Washington State's population today lives along the thin western strip known as the I-5 corridor, but its geologic history and key elements of the state's history and identity—pioneer trails, missionary settlements, an economy rooted in natural resources such as wheat, wine, and apples—lie in the east. Washington east of the Cascades also has a thriving history community. Spokane is regularly first in the state in securing National Historic Register districts and Historic Register properties. The Eastern Regional Branch of the Washington State Archives, newly opened on Eastern Washington University's campus, is the first digital state archive anywhere in the United States. Whitman and Whitworth Colleges, along with Gonzaga University, house the records of missionaries who sought to Christianize the Pacific Northwest. The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture has the largest collection of Plateau Indian artifacts, and with Washington State University, extensive archival holdings relating to northwestern tribes. But eastern Washington's most singular artifact is its topography. To experience it, drive the state east to west on U.S. Highway 2. Eastern Washingtonians speak wryly of the "Cascade Curtain" that divides their state. Like its infamous Cold War namesake, the curtain of the Cascade Mountain Range is imagined to divide two vastly different peoples—Washington State's "Ossies" and "Wessies"—and opposing ways of life.

Mountains, high plains, rivers

Travelers crossing Washington from any compass point toward Seattle immediately experience one of the realities on which this cultural perception is based. Dramatic geologic events beginning 200 million years ago created a diversity of terrains in the Pacific Northwest. Today's Rocky Mountains are the accordion shapes created when prehistoric North America's coastal plain collided and crumpled up over oceanic crust. Geologists surmise that a succession of floating microcontinents docked on the new Pacific coast, crunching up more mountain ranges. The last of these, the Cascades, may consist of six or more island-like micros that crashed onto North America roughly 175 million years ago.1

Gargantuan natural forces set limits and created opportunities for human survival in what was to become Washington. Between 17 and 15 million years ago, molten basalt oozed up through fissures in the earth's crust, covering the interior of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California, in places three miles deep. Ice-age winds buried these basalts with silt in Washington's southeast corner, creating the rolling hills—actually loess dunes—of the Palouse. Then, 15 thousand years ago, the largest lake formed by an ice dam known to have existed anywhere in the world—Glacial Lake Missoula—broke free in a series of floods and shoved 2,000-foot-high walls of water across east-central Washington into the Columbia Gorge and out to sea.2 The floods scoured out the channeled scablands and carved the coulees of north-central Washington.

The history of the Pacific Northwest is tied to the Columbia River. Archaeological evidence of human presence along the Columbia dates from 11,000 BCE. Indian populations on the lower Columbia were among the densest anywhere in aboriginal North America.3 All along the Columbia, they encamped to fish at salmon-concentrating spots downriver from falls, named sacred and mundane sites, and carved petroglyphs. Salmon swam abundantly and freely in the river and spawned in its tributaries until the 1890s. However, after Lewis and Clark explored the river, industrialization brought commercial over-fishing and dams to harness the river’s energy, and the millennia-long human material dependence and spiritual engagement with the Columbia was permanently altered. The 29 dams on the Columbia-Snake River federal system produce 70 percent of the region’s power. The largest, Grand Coulee Dam, alone generates more than five times the electricity consumed by the city of Seattle. It also pumps water to irrigate more than half-a-million acres of crop land in the parched center of the state.

Mining, cities, rails

In the second half of the 19th century, when Seattle was a timber village, Washington's boom economy was in the east. In the 1860s, tales of gold drew immigrants into a region sparsely settled by missionaries and pioneer farmers. Walla Walla, supplier of mining camps as far east as Montana, became the largest city in Washington territory and remained so until the 1880s, when it was overtaken by Spokane.4 Subsequent gold rushes helped populate the entire northern Rocky Mountain region as far east as Butte and north to the Fraser River valley in British Columbia. Though fueled by opportunist adventurism, the rushes spurred development of urban infrastructure and eventually railroads, preparing towns like Walla Walla and Spokane to become commercial hubs of an emerging agricultural empire. Discovery of silver on the south fork of the Coeur d’Alene River in 1885 changed the nature of regional mining. Unlike gold, which could be prospected by any soul with patience and a pan, silver was expensive and labor-intensive to extract and necessitated large-scale investment in equipment and wage labor. Ore had to be carried by rail to mills and smelters a distance from the mines. At the time, at least, the investment proved worthwhile: the Coeur d’Alene district claims the world’s largest silver production, and Spokane remains the region’s dominant city.5 However, the region still struggles with the environmental impact of the silver boom.

Today, Spokane's neighborhoods, parks, and major businesses bear the names of the men and women—Browne, Cannon, Comstock, Corbin, Cowles, Davenport, Hutton—who came to the turn-of-the-century boom town to make, and in some cases lose, their fortunes. The city experienced fantastic growth followed by a gradual, though far from complete, decline. After Spokane's downtown was leveled by fire in 1889, city leaders—men new to the region and newly enriched by railroads and mining—began ambitiously rebuilding. With sizable loans from a Dutch-owned mortgage company, they constructed renaissance-style banks, department stores, newspaper offices, hotels.6 Towers with spires, columns, arches, and cupolas rose up. The latter-day Pazzi and Medici of Spokane built their urban palaces in a close ring around the heart of downtown, importing European artisans, materials, and furnishings. Italian artisans locally produced glossy white, glazed terracotta tiles, ornaments, and frieze works to adorn the facades. Both Spokane and Seattle implemented extensive city beautification plans commissioned from the Massachusetts landscape architecture firm of Olmsted Brothers. Then World War I and the Depression began draining inhabitants away from Spokane, and downtown entered a slow decline.

Eastern Washington today is in the midst of a transition—from an economy based on traditional extractive industries to an economy based on medicine, technology, recreation, and education. Local history, archaeology, and historic preservation are essential parts of that mix.

—, a member of the Local Arrangements Committee, teaches at Eastern Washington University.


1. David Alt and Donald W. Hyndman, Northwest Exposures: a Geologic Story of the Northwest (Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing, 1995).

2. Alt and Hyndman, 303–4, 381–85.

3. Richard White, Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), 21.

4. Carlos Schwantes, The Pacific Northwest, an Interpretive History, rev. ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 133.

5. Ibid., 213–14.

6. John Fahey, Inland Empire: The Unfolding Years, 1879–1929 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1986), 215–221.

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