EAST WASHINGTON — Around the turn of the 20th century, much of the Columbia Basin was nothing more than miles of sagebrush, couscous, and coyotes. There are a few small villages in the landscape, but nothing that can really be called a city.
Spokane, on the other hand, was a center of commerce between the Cascades and the Rocky Mountains, and it rose rapidly, fueled by mining, railroads, and the fertile farmland surrounding it. From 1900 to 1910, the city’s population nearly tripled to more than 100,000 people, according to U.S. Census records. This brings money, prestige, art, culture; all the good things that city life brings.
It also brought in some, well, annoying people.
“When people break the law, judges say, ‘Do you want to go to jail or Spokane?'” said Deborah Kuyle, author of “The Wicked Spokane.” Published Monday by Arcadia Press. “They’re really going to send their criminals to Spokane by train or whatever, because it’s cheaper than feeding them and housing them. Send them to Spokane and let them fend for themselves.”
“The Wicked Spokane” is the third book about the city written by Cuyle (pronounced “kyle”), following “The Ghosts and Legends of Spokane” and “Murder and Mayhem in Spokane.” Cuyle, a native of upstate New York who has lived for many years in Wallace, Idaho, has always found Spokane fascinating.
“Spokane is probably one of my favorite cities to write about,” she said. “I just love it. I do a lot of just walking around, taking pictures and looking at mansions. It’s amazing.”
In the early years, Spokane was the place to go when you flexed your muscles. The likes of railroad tycoon Daniel Corbin and manufacturing magnate Henry J. Kaiser splurge on homes in Spokane’s trendy neighborhoods. Meanwhile, miles away, the decidedly less trendy areas of the city center are hotbeds of smuggling, prostitution, gambling and murder. “Evil Spokane” recounts anecdote after anecdote of people whose names include Bronco Liz, Dutch Jake, and Dirty Dora.
For the first few decades, gambling was an open secret in Spokane. The infamous Calamity Jane was known to handle faro (a popular card game at the time) in Spokane, while gambling dens like Owl Bar and Grill, Lobby Saloon, and Havana Cigar Shop had a secret room that men could make. A few bucks, or more likely hitting his salary with cards or dice. These places are occasionally raided by aggressive law enforcement or district attorneys, but their owners are rarely actually prosecuted, according to “Wicked Spokane.” In 1904, police officers were ordered not to enter cars after dark, possibly to prevent them from witnessing any illegal activity, Kuyle said.
Stories of early human trafficking in Spokane sound depressing to modern readers. A girl from a poor country is lured to America with the promise of a good, aboveboard job, only to find herself trapped in prostitution. In those days, the traffickers and their victims were from France, Kuyr said.
“Many French women were brought to Spokane under false names,” she said. “It was very, very common at the time. They were brought to New York from France, young beautiful women from France, and they were told they were going to study English and become secretaries. Of course, that didn’t happen.”
One of the most fascinating things about Spokane is the network of tunnels downtown, Kuyle said. During Prohibition in Washington, which began in 1916 and ended in 1933, there were many places with basements where thirsty people could buy alcohol, including well-known hotels, businesses, and even Spokane, according to Kuyle’s book town Hall.
“Underground tunnels do exist,” she said. “You know, later they were used for things like boilers and steam pipes. Most of them are now closed for safety reasons. But they do exist. They’re going to have underground living rooms, or they’re going to gamble. Found a couple of sidewalk spots in Spokane, and down there, guys would be down there with bootleg whisky or something. This guy could put money in a hole in the sidewalk and come up with a drink. I think It’s funny. Where there is a will, there is a way, I guess.”
She said Coyle gathered her story from old newspaper accounts, which meant the narrative had to be pieced together from sporadic and sometimes changing information.
“I would say that reading old newspapers is 70 percent,” she said. “Just going to the library and researching stuff. And of course, some internet stuff. But you really have to piece the puzzle together. Especially when you’re using newspapers, because there’s a lot of factual inaccuracies at the time…you’ll find Names and dates are often misspelled or inaccurate. So when I do this, I have to get truth or facts from several sources.”
Cuyle has been out of the Inland Northwest for a few years now, and she and her husband are renovating an old farmhouse in South Dakota. She is currently working on her next book, about paranormal phenomena in Anaconda, Montana. In Cuyle’s way of thinking, history never completely disappears.
“When I see old brick buildings or century-old hardwood floors, I try to imagine the thousands of people who have visited those buildings,” Cooyle wrote in the foreword to her “Wicked Spokane.” “I think of the strong horses that used to pull wagons and goods down the muddy streets. I think of gunmen and outlaws, bartenders and shopkeepers—all living their lives, running their own businesses, and just like we are today.”
Joel Martin can be reached at email@example.com.