by Mike Corrigan
The legend of Louis Davenport and his rise to local prominence reads like a frontier fairy tale, a rags-to-riches story of the highest order and a parable illustrating what can be accomplished when grand visions, determination and a strong work ethic all intersect within the same mind. It also fits snugly within our romantic notions concerning the taming of the West and, more broadly, within the pursuit of the American Dream, which places a premium on the qualities of self-reliance, individualism and ingenuity.
This is how it goes (see if you've heard it before): The 20-year old Louis Davenport arrives in Spokane in 1889 quite by accident, with less than $2 in his pocket and without any immediate prospects. Shortly thereafter, he opens his first restaurant, a waffle foundry, which he starts in a tent almost immediately after the great Spokane fire of the same year. From these humble beginnings, Davenport ascends quickly, first scraping together enough money, by 1890, to open Davenport's Restaurant, and then soon after, amassing the fortune necessary to build a world-class hotel and to take his place amongst Spokane's wealthy, influential elite.
As inspiring and full of frontier charm (not to mention a heck of a lot of waffles) as it is, this accounting just isn't consistent with the facts. The tales of Louis Davenport and of the glorious hotel that bears his name have been told and retold for the better part of a century, passed down from generation to generation and in histories that have relied, perhaps too extensively, on such tales. In their new book, Spokane's Legendary Davenport Hotel, local historians and authors Tony Bamonte and Suzanne Schaeffer Bamonte devote the very first chapter to dispelling long-held myths and misconceptions concerning the background of Louis Davenport in an effort to boldly go where no local historian has gone before. They intend to shed new light on perhaps the single most significant figure in Spokane's history.
"We want to know why," says Tony Bamonte explaining the team's zeal for investigation. "And we don't like to write off of other people's writings. And so we wanted to find out for ourselves. And if it was true, we wanted it to make sense. The story wasn't logical, and we wanted to make it logical."
Challenging such widely and dearly held conceptions, particularly when they apply to someone of such mythical proportions as Louis Davenport, might, for lesser researchers, prove an intimidating task. But the Bamontes did not set out on this journey of discovery with the intent of diminishing a legacy or dismantling a legend. On the contrary, their stated purpose for setting the record straight about Davenport and his many accomplishments was merely to "broaden the perspective on one who cut such a wide historical swath in the Northwest and to acknowledge others who contributed to his success."
The book is based not on past histories or comfortably familiar legends but on fundamentally new research involving old newspaper accounts and city records, family histories and, perhaps most revealing of all, interviews with Davenport family, friends and former employees.
"Any time we write a book, we research just as strongly as we can. I was suspicious from the start [about Louis' rise to prominence in Spokane] because for what he was supposed to have come to Spokane with ($2), he gained too fast," says Bamonte. "So that was one clue."
Another clue was the presence of another Davenport living in Spokane prior to Louis' arrival. Elijah Davenport was a successful business owner who operated a restaurant and four hotels in and around the downtown core. Exploring possible links between the two men was priority one for the Bamontes.
"Elijah Davenport was in Spokane in the restaurant business and the hotel business before Louis even arrived here, so that too was suspicious. So the thing we did there was to go back to the families and try to tie them in. Once we did that, we tied them in very strongly."
Elijah, as they soon discovered, was Louis' uncle.
"His uncle was a major factor for bringing Louis here," says Bamonte. "I mean, that's probably the only reason he came here, because of his uncle. Elijah set him up in business. There's all these myths about Louis having all this restaurant experience -- he had no restaurant experience whatsoever when he came here. He got all his restaurant experience from his uncle, Elijah. He probably got a little bit of hotel experience that way, too. Plus, the stories that say he just got on a train with X number of dollars and told them, just take me as far as far as I can go, well, Louis' temperament would never have allowed that. He was too much of a businessperson. That would have been a real irresponsible act. He was far more careful, far more responsible than that."
Another significant bit of Davenport lore that quickly disintegrated under the Bamontes' scrutiny was the notion that Louis Davenport himself originally conceived the idea of the hotel, that from the very beginning it was his planned ambition to build and operate such a structure. That was not true. Although Davenport was ultimately responsible for the hotel's design, technological advancements, luxurious appointments and impeccable service, the initial concept was not his. A story from a 1908 edition of the Evening Chronicle touted plans for a new "11-Story Hostelry" to be built in Spokane that would be funded by a group of local businessmen. The story describes plans for the new hotel and continues by naming Louis Davenport as the investor's choice to "undertake the proposition."
"This is significant," says Bamonte. "It shares some of the credit with a few other people and helps us to appreciate what was done. It also shows just how much respect Spokane's community leaders had for Louis Davenport."
Spokane's Legendary Davenport Hotel does much more than clarify the history of Louis Davenport and his world-renowned hotel -- it greatly illuminates both as well. Never before have so many well-researched facts and glorious photos relative to the hotel come together in such a carefully compiled document. In addition to Louis Davenport's professional and family history, the book covers extensively the rise and fall and rebirth of the hotel and the people and events connected with it, including Walt and Karen Worthy's recent efforts to return to hotel to its former stature.
The Bamontes had been compiling information on the Davenport for years. But when the Worthys bought the hotel two years ago, the couple decided to leap into the book project with both feet.
In its completeness, the Bamontes' 280-page Davenport history reflects the great love that the people of Spokane have always had for the hotel, which has always amounted to more than the sum of its rooms, restaurants and shops. On the dedication page, the Bamontes quote one of Spokane's most notable local historians, Nancy Compau, who concisely and elegantly justifies the Davenport's lofty position in the local psyche: "The history of the Davenport Hotel is the history of Spokane."
Bamonte concurs: "When Spokane began its existence as a competing city in this area, anything that was important or significant to the public happened at the Davenport. Every famous person who had anything to do with Spokane stayed there or visited there. We just put the national and world figures in the book, but the fact is all kinds of significant people visited there. So we put that quote from Nancy right in the front, right below the dedication, because as far as I'm concerned, that's probably the most significant statement made in the whole book."
As for the truth behind the man behind the hotel, the new book takes nothing away from the Davenport legend. The personality traits that do surface in the book paint Davenport as a man of great vision and impeccable taste, as a shrewd businessman who was nevertheless kind and generous, as someone who loved Spokane and wanted to contribute something enduring to his community. He believed in Spokane, its people and its potential for greatness.
Still, according to Bamonte, Davenport knew of the misconceptions surrounding his origins but did nothing to dispel them. It's curious, and perhaps the one mystery of the Davenport that will never be completely solved.
"The thing that really threw us off was that Louis himself let this myth go on. We don't know exactly why but there was a little bit of a rift between him and Elijah, and we state that in the book," says Bamonte. "But it might have just been an easy thing to say. He probably just got tired of people asking him stuff and so he went along with it. [The truth] definitely doesn't hurt his reputation any. But it's an amazing discovery, we felt. It's a major part of Spokane's history."
Spokane's Legendary Davenport Hotel will be available in local
bookstores the week after Thanksgiving.