In 1974, a small city in eastern Washington, in the midst of an identity crisis, decided to do the unthinkable: become the smallest city ever to host a World’s Fair. In so doing, the city forever changed itself. This is the story of that event, and of the incredible community that emerged from it. This is the story of Spokane.

Riverfront Park in downtown Spokane, Washington is the very definition of an urban oasis, a green space that seems to whisper to locals and tourists alike, “Come explore. You are welcome here.” Children splash in its inviting fountain, excitedly board the famous Looff Carrousel, and rollerblade loops on the “skate ribbon.” Joggers and bikers take advantage of the riverside path, while walkers meander down the numerous footpaths, stopping to admire the wide variety of locally commissioned art pieces lining them.

This fountain is a really amazing addition to Riverfront Park!

The Great Northern Clocktower stands proudly over them all, a lone – and graceful – icon of what this land was less than fifty years ago: a multi-level train-yard, an urban blight blocking views of the Spokane River.

The Great Northern Clocktower

Spokane began life as a railroad town in 1881, the Northern Pacific routing through the fertile valley on its way westward, soon to be joined by the Union Pacific, Great Northern, and Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific railroads. The coming decade saw immense growth due to two other products: timber, and precious metals mined in nearby northern Idaho. And thus the town was built on this three-legged stool of environmentally unfriendly, but successful, industries. By 1910, the city was home to more than 100,000 residents in an economy reliant on exploitation of local resources.

Growth stagnated over the next few decades, and pollution increased. A once-thriving downtown was now run-down, dirty, and largely unused. Local businesses formed Spokane Unlimited in the 1960s to study the issue of what to do and came up with a pie-in-the-sky idea to revitalize their city: host the 1974 World’s Fair. Even bolder, they decided to have a mining, railroad, and timber town focus the event on environmentalism, in an era in which environmental responsibility was a very new concept in most Western societies.

As plans for the Fair got underway, the old riverside rail yards were targeted as prime real estate for the Fairgrounds, and so the 100 acre Riverfront Park was born, once again bringing the Spokane River to the center of city life, along with a world-class convention center, new hotels, and a revitalized downtown core.

Downtown Spokane is charming and walkable.

One of the highlight attractions of the Fair was a suspended people mover (now called the Skyride) to show visitors the thundering Spokane Falls from overhead. As it delighted fair-goers in 1974, so too is it a must-see for visitors to the city today, soaring over one of the cleanest urban rivers in existence.

The refurbished Skyride

Expo ’74 was a truly transformative experience for the city and its river. Tributaries to the Spokane (which in turn flows to the Columbia and from there to the Pacific Ocean) are from the mined hills of northern Idaho, so special care was taken to ensure that waters are filtered before they pollute the river system. The city is even currently upgrading their runoff storage system, installing another huge tank to collect and filter rain runoff before it enters the river.

Getting onto the river is an incredible way to see all of this in action. Donning my California-styled board shorts, I grabbed a paddle and faced my fear of bashing my head open on a rock, managing to stand on my paddle board as I was guided up parts of the upper river, past Gonzaga University. The water is clear and, despite being about eight feet deep, the rocky riverbed and some of its fin-toting inhabitants are visible. Other pleasure seekers joined us in kayaks and canoes, and signs advertised white water rafting on another part of the river.

The Spokane River tumbles over the upper falls, right in the middle of the city!

The river wasn’t the only thing positively changed due to the environmentally themed Expo ’74 World’s Fair and its 5.5 million attendees (especially notable given the metropolitan Spokane area contained less than 300,000 residents at the time). What had been a mining and timber town transformed over the coming years into a center of sustainable farming – the modern Spokane region is one of the largest producers of wheat and lentils, a healthcare magnet, an outdoor adventure Mecca, and a celebration of local culture.

A visit to the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture illustrates the role of both locals and native peoples in the environmental legacy of Spokane. Here, local tribes have their goods displayed and stories told, much as they did in 1974; the United States Pavilion – the remnants of which stand in Riverfront Park to this day – featured Native American culture as the beacon of stewardship of the land. The collection also includes works by Japanese artist Sayaka Ganz, stunning sculptures created of discarded plastics.

A Sayaka Ganz piece

The 1974 World’s Fair lasted 180 days, during which millions of people visited, attended more than 4500 live performances, and learned about the new concept of environmentalism from a city in transition from being a major polluter to one of the most environmentally friendly communities in the world. This event was not only amazing in its own right, but the true turning point for Spokane itself, moving away from its past and toward a shining future. Its legacy stands today in a people as devoted to the world around them as they are to the place they call home.

Note: I am incredibly grateful to Visit Spokane for hosting me on my trip to the Lilac City. No additional monetary compensation was offered or sought, and all editorial content is my own honest opinion, as always.

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