Spokane’s First Christmas

Publisher's Note

What do you think about in that small moment just before you dig into your holiday meal? Right after dad blesses the spread with a prayer and grandpa tears into the turkey, are you just thankful for the food, the family and the respite? Just wondering how tall a pile of mom’s mashed potatoes you can take without getting that look? Maybe you’re dreaming of audacious plans and new beginnings?

It’s OK to dream big. That’s the lesson of Spokane’s first Christmas.

Let’s travel way back, to an out-of-the-way patch of prairie — just a field of bunchgrass and basalt above a rocky river gorge. There are a few freshly painted shops and homes scattered around a muddy pit that could be mistaken for a road. The windows of one are lit up; inside, two dozen people warm by the fire, serenaded by the outpost’s one cultural treasure — an organ hauled 100 miles by horse-drawn wagon. The room is strong with the smell of fresh-cut pine — not from a Christmas tree, but from the wallboards just cut at the nearby mill owned by one James Glover, who sits at the head of the table as Christmas dinner is served.

Noted local historian and Jesuit priest Wilfred Schoenberg liked to tell the tale of how that first Christmas was celebrated by every single settler — all 23 of them — in what would later become Spokane.

Just a few months before, Glover had arrived by night. After a restless night under the stars trying to sleep despite the roar of the river, at morning’s light he found the falls in full spring bloom. It was May 11, 1873, and Glover — just a child when he crossed the continent with his family over the Oregon Trail — was 36 years old. He was about to become a father.

Glover sat on the banks, “gazing, wondering and admiring” for two hours, the spray bathing his face. He handed over his life’s savings to the squatters who held the claim, and for $2,000 he bought the 160 acres that is now downtown Spokane.

After a quick trip to Portland, he imported a few brave pioneers along with enough supplies to build a proper sawmill. They ran enough timber to throw up a handful of buildings. Then they waited for a city to break out.

Nothing happened.

They had a store, but no one to buy anything; a sawmill, but nothing to build. On Dec. 20, 1873, it was snowing lightly when word hit: “Customers!” A handful of men, women and children of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe appeared; Glover lit a fire, welcomed them in and forged a bond that would sustain his fledgling town during its tentative first years. It was a start.

Maybe Glover dreamed it all right there before that first Christmas dinner. That the little tin cash box he kept in the drawer would become Spokane’s first bank. That he’d broker a peace after settlers from all around came to hide out on Havermale Island when the Nez Perce were on the march. That silver would be discovered in the Coeur d’Alenes. That the Northern Pacific would come through, and those 23 would multiply many times, with farmers, newspapermen, doctors, architects and immigrants from all over the world climbing down onto the platform, hearing that roar and falling under the same spell that bewitched him on that glorious May day.

So there’s one more person to be thankful for this Christmas — the Father of Spokane, James Glover, whose silent little prayer that night all those years ago proves, again, the power of dreaming big.