The landscape of eastern Washington is undeniably defined by Spokane. With a population of over 210,000 it dominates the area, but there was a time when a small town nearby held the county seat for Spokane County. Cheney, Washington is currently considered little more than a college town by many, but Cheney actually has a very rich history of its own.
Cheney was founded in 1878, and it was initially predicted to become the railroad hub of eastern Washington. This plan didn’t pan out however, so Cheney was left looking for something to set them apart from neighboring Spokane. The answer came in the form of an abandoned school building, originally constructed to house the Benjamin P. Cheney Academy in 1882. The Cheney Academy only lasted a few years after construction, and the abandoned school building became the State Normal School at Cheney, which would one day become the Eastern Washington University we know today.
Cheney’s history is interesting in many ways, and is both peculiar and tragic at times. The first interesting incident in the small town’s history involved Cheney stealing the county seat from Spokane Falls in 1881. After a disagreement about the vote count, Spokane Falls claimed the county seat as their own. Cheney didn’t like this, so they snuck into Spokane Falls in the dead of night and stole all of the county books. Spokane Falls didn’t regain the county seat until a reelection 5 years later. Cheney has also been victim of two fires that devastated the city, one in 1891 and one in 1912. These fires both occurred on the school campus, and were devastating blows to the already financially-struggling Cheney.
For Spokane Historical, I am interested in telling the story of the Philena Apartments in Cheney. These apartments are located along the Cheney local bus route, so I have noticed them many times before. The building is currently owned by the fraternity organization Sigma Phi Epsilon, but in the early 1900s was occupied by EWU faculty. I am also interested in telling the story of the Bennett Block in downtown Spokane, constructed in 1890. Bennett Block currently houses locally-owned businesses like Indaba Coffee and Mizuna. I am very interested in telling the story of buildings that I already interact with on a consistent basis.
There are many resources available for researching local history, and the Cheney/Spokane area is no exception. The Washington State Digital Archives and Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture are both great resources for researching eastern Washington. They both house documents and photos in a format that is easily accessible to the public. For more specific information about Cheney, the Eastern Washington University Libraries Digital Collection holds many helpful photographs and diagrams. The Cheney Historic Preservation Commission has also published guides for both the Central Cheney Historic District and the Eastern Washington University Historic District. Some helpful resources for researching the history of Spokane include the Northwest Room, located in the downtown Spokane Public Library, and the Spokane Historic Preservation Office’s website.
People often times look at a small town like Cheney and don’t think that anything interesting has happened in its history. However, if you know the right places to look, small towns often come alive with interesting, tragic, and fascinating stories of their own.