Downtown Spokane had a much different look to it from the 1880s through the 1940s than it does today.
Spokane housed a crowded Chinatown, filled with businesses and people. This neighborhood spanned a three-block radius, known today as Spokane Falls Boulevard stretching to Main Avenue, right in the center of Spokane’s downtown district.
“Previously called Trent Alley, Japanese Alley, or simply Chinatown, began in the 1880s, mostly as a stopping point for Chinese and Japanese workers imported to work in railroad camps and mines,” said Jim Kershner, a writer for The Spokesman-Review and HistoryLink.org.
These mining and railroad jobs brought Chinese immigrants to Spokane.
Ross Schneidmiller, a Spokane native and history enthusiast, said he knew a little about the Chinatown that resided in Spokane.
“I know that the Chinese would be brought up to the United States by boat to San Francisco, California, to Walla Walla, Washington, and then would come to Spokane by wagon,” he said.
Charlie Wolff, a business development manager under former Spokane mayor David Condon, said the city keeps records of all zoning and building maps dating back to the Chinatown era. The title records also hold the rich history of the types of businesses that were in Spokane’s Chinatown.
Spokane Chinatown had hotels, boarding houses, fish markets, restaurants, barbershops and billiard halls. Chinatown was also home to illegal activities, such as gambling and prostitution, which gave way to a belligerent neighborhood.
“The area was indeed rough and lawless,” Kershner said. “Police routinely raided the fan-tan joints (a Chinese gambling game), but even the police were aware that most of the gambling and opium dens continued to thrive underground.”
During the Great Depression, Chinatown took a hit, forcing many of its residents to move. If the Great Depression did not force families to move, a new government immigration law did.
“After the Immigration Act of 1924, which severely restricted Asian immigration, the population began to recede,” Kershner said.
In the following years, during the 1940s and 1950s, Chinatown was virtually a ghost town. According to Kershner, much of the Asian-American community moved into Spokane’s suburbs leaving Chinatown behind as a memory.
“I had not heard of Spokane’s Chinatown,” Wolff said. “It doesn’t surprise me. With the massive in-migration to the West Coast and expansion of the railroad during the later part of the 19th century.”
For many Spokane residents, the history of Chinatown is unfamiliar. Locals to the city do not know about Spokane’s Chinatown and the important development that it had on Spokane. Without the influx of the population, businesses and work that the Chinese community brought, who knows where Spokane would be today.
“The main reason the history of Spokane’s Chinatown is overlooked is that almost every vestige is long gone,” Kershner said. “What was left of it by the 1970s was razed to make way for parking, for the Spokane Opera House and Spokane’s Expo ’74. Today, the fancy new Davenport Grand Hotel sits on part of it.”
Chinatown was leveled and buildings we know today were built on top of the town, erasing the history of Spokane’s Chinatown.
“Even if we can no longer experience Trent Alley and Chinatown, we should keep its stories alive,” Kershner said.
On that, Schneidmiller agrees. “I love history, so anytime we can familiarize our community with the history of Spokane, it is important,” he said.