"Nothing is so firmly impressed on the mind of the visitor to Spokane... as the great gorge into which the river falls near the centre of the city."
Those words could have been written by any visitor at any time, but they are from the Olmsted Brothers' 1913 report to the Spokane Park Board. America's preeminent landscape architects, who worked with New York, Seattle and Portland, prepared a detailed plan for Spokane; the city adopted the entire report as official policy, and we can see the results all around us today.
Their top recommendation, however, remains unrealized. They argued for a great gorge park to sit at the spectacular center of the city. Part of their report was spent bemoaning a lost opportunity, because by 1907, when they made their first site visit, the area that has become Riverfront Park was already a tangle of railroads, bridges and industrial uses. All they could say was, "Spokane should certainly preserve what beauty and grandeur remains of its great river gorge." And they turned their attention downstream.
Half a century later, Spokane leaders started looking at reclaiming that abused landscape, and headlines revived the Olmsteds' dream: "Great Gorge Park Favored" appeared in 1964, as public officials started to rally around the ideas that would culminate in Expo '74.
Thirty years after the World's Fair, a group of citizens who wanted to draw attention to the Spokane River as a way to protect it also studied the Olmsteds' work. The Friends of the Falls offered a master plan in 2005 that argued, again, for creating the Great Gorge Park.
And here we are, considering plans to refresh Riverfront Park. As chairman of the citizens advisory committee that offered its vision to the Park Board last month, I have been in awe of how King Cole and his team were able to wrap urban renewal and Spokane pride into such an elegant-yet-powerful package. If only we could do that, too.
Well, I think I've found our own way to tie all these threads into a beautiful bow: Let's take the Olmsteds up on their advice and create something even bigger and better than Riverfront Park.
A more expansive vision of our park is well within reach. We could connect what is now Riverfront Park via the Centennial Trail to a huge loop reaching down through Kendall Yards to Sandifur Bridge, back up through Peaceful Valley, then, with a bit of trail added, connect to the new Huntington Park. And the trail connections could go farther, as the Olmsteds wrote, "to extend this park along the right bank of the river to the street railway amusement resort called 'Natatorium Park' [below the western end of Boone Avenue] and along the left bank of the river to Fort Wright [where SFCC sits today]... " After that, it's not far to the 10,000-acre Riverside State Park. Meanwhile, the North Bank of the park near the Arena is primed for liftoff, and the Centennial Trail to the east, with some key improvements, could offer greater connectivity, too.
So I am hereby proposing that Spokane change the name of all of it — Riverfront Park included — to "Great Gorge Park." This is not a recommendation of our citizens committee; this is just me, standing on the shoulders of the Olmsteds, city leaders of 50 years past and the Friends of the Falls.
There may be some sentiment attached to the name given the Expo fairgrounds in 1978, but let's be honest: If the name "Riverfront Park" were a flavor of ice cream, it would be vanilla. "Riverfront Park" barely scratches the surface of describing this geographical treasure. "Great Gorge Park" tells the world that what we have here is wild, unique and massive — one of the great wonders of the western United States.
Sometime next year, after Spokane finishes looking at improvements to the park, I would challenge the Park Board to consider this. After all, it was the Park Board that asked for the Olmsted Brothers' advice in the first place.
Great Gorge Park. It's a journey back... to the future — a way to honor our past and mark a new beginning at the same time. Great. Gorge. Park. Three words that just won't go away. Three words that sound like destiny. ♦
This is the final column in my month-long series on the future of Riverfront Park. To read the other four, and see the entire Olmsted Brothers' report, go to inlander.com/riverfrontpark.