Environmental History 
of the Spokane River

Early History

Prior to the 19th century, indigenous populations lived within the Hangman Creek watershed. At the confluence where the Spokane River met Hangman Creek, natives tribes would gather, catching hundreds of salmon and trout in weirs, spears, and nets. The water flowing into the confluence was clear and life giving. The banks of the creek were sturdy, unadulterated, and provided biologically diverse riparian habitat for the local flora and fauna. People took from the land, but also respected the natural systems and services it provided.

Yet, the current state of Hangman Creek fails to reflect this. The creek is sediment-ridden, chemically polluted, and is so low in oxygen content it struggles to support the few species that remain in the ecosystem. This degradation, beginning in the early 1800s, holds a story of both cultural and physical transformation. Hangman Creek’s ecological value, as respected by the native tribes, declined as settlement increased. Instead, agricultural and economic gains became the primary focus—reshaping the relationship humans had with both Hangman Creek and the surrounding area.

At first, the influx of homesteaders was but a trickle. But it soon grew, and resource and land conflicts with the local Indian tribes became inevitable. By 1858, hostilities between Spokane-area tribes and whites had reached their peak. As a result, the Army dispatched Colonel George Wright. Hanging tribal representatives, Col. Wright brought a gory end to the tribes’ resistance.

Hangman Creek in 2014, showcasing the lack of a riparian buffer next to farmland.

The Indian Appropriation Act of 1871 allowed the federal government to convert traditional indigenous lands into cropland. Forests were logged, roads were built, and farmers plowed relentlessly into Hangman Creek’s riparian buffers. The Army Corps channelized the creek—destroying its natural formations and functions in the race to increase economic gains and feed Spokane’s development. Rather than serve as a source of fish and biodiversity—as it did for the indigenous population—Hangman Creek began to serve as a dumping ground, both for the concrete remnants of the Spokane fire in 1889, and the city’s municipal waste.

Lorenz Vinegar Works factory -- contributed to pollution in Hangman Creek

Construction of Latah/Hangman Creek Bridge (1913)

By the early 1900s, the waterway was deeply scarred by population growth and development; trash, paint, raw sewage, and other chemical solvents leached into its currents, rendering it unfishable and hindering recreational use. In 1913, the Latah Bridge, now Sunset Boulevard, further established Spokane’s transportation network— spanning the Latah Valley, over Hangman Creek, and linking downtown to the West Plains.

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