Spokane’s Fight for the County Seat

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In 1879, Spokane and Cheney, Washington, neighboring cummunities contended for the location of the county seat, using elections and the business end of a gun.

In 1879, J. N. Glover, often referred to as Spokane’s founding father, traveled to Olympia and took the legislature out to dinner at Doane’s Oyster’s House for food, drinks and cigars to convince them to authorize the creation of a second county in eastern Washington, separating Steven’s county into two counties. The legislature approved the creation of Spokane County consisting of present day Spokane, Lincoln and Douglas counties. Spokane Falls was named as the temporary county seat and county officials were appointed until elections could be held to elect permanent officials and establish the permanent location of the county seat. An attorney, James Nosley, was appointed Auditor until the election. Most of the citizens of Spokane Falls wanted the county seat located there to increase land values while Northern Pacific Railroad and most of the rural residents wanted the county seat at Cheney, Washington.

Election for the County Seat

An election was held in November, 1880. The results were disputed from the beginning. Auditor Nosley and the Justice of the Peace and one other county official constituted the canvassing board authorized to certify the election. Nosley was also running for Auditor as was W. H. Bishop. Nosley threw out some of the ballots which he felt did not have a proper oath attached to them which resulted in his own election over Bishop as well as the election of Spokane Falls as the County seat by 7 votes.

Lawsuit for the County Seat

In December, 1880, there was a lawsuit between Cheney and Spokane Falls over the results of the election for both County Auditor and the location of the county seat. John B. Allen and Thomas H. Caton, two well known pioneer lawyers, represented Cheney while J. J. Brown, Colonel Jenkins, and Judge L. B. Nash, all of Spokane Falls represented Spokane Falls. U. S. District Court Judge Wingard, sitting at Walla Walla, heard the case in a courtroom filled with men with loaded handguns and ordered a recount. Meanwhile pressure was building over Nosley’s handling of the first count and in January he resigned as Auditor and refused to contest the election for Auditor, although he continued the appeal of Judge Wingard’s decision in order, he said in his diary, to vindicate himself and reestablish his honor. In March, 1881, the Court of Appeals overruled Wingard, declaring the original count the valid count.

Pioneer Justice

Pioneer justice was now to take over. The night of March 21, 1881, while the entire city of Spokane Falls was at a wedding dance, Bishop took possession of the ballots at the courthouse, which at that time was located in a building at Main and Howard. At 1 a.m. Avery A. Smith, the Probate Judge, John Still, the Cheney Justice of the Peace, and Deputy Sheriff Hatton with six other men stormed the courthouse and at gunpoint took possession of the ballets from Bishop. As they were leaving Spokane Falls the dogs started to bark and the night watchman fired his revolver but did not try to stop them and did not report the incident. The men took the ballets to Cheney. The next morning the Spokane Falls townspeople discovered the theft. At the time it was assumed that Bishop as well as the ballots had been kidnapped. Spokane Falls sent out a scout to find the ballets. On March 22, 1881, he reported back that the ballets were being guarded in Cheney by armed guards. Bishops then certified his own election as County Auditor and the selection of Cheney as the county seat.

The County Seat Remains in Cheney and then is Returned to Spokane

In 1914 Bishop, now 71 years old, admitted in an article published in the Spokane Daily Chronicle that he had conspired with the men who stole the ballots because he believed that Cheney had legitimately won the election and he wanted to avoid a long contested court battle. We can assume that he also sided with Cheney because the ballots that gave Cheney the county seat also gave him the Auditor’s office. Spokane Falls backed down and Cheney was declared the county seat by a final vote of 680 to 563 with 34 votes distributed between Marshall, Sprague, Medical Lake and Spangle. Spokane Falls grew more quickly than Cheney and in 1886, a revote changed the county seat to Spokane Falls, now renamed Spokane.

Sources:

  1. Original court pleadings and the Diary of John Mosley which are located at the Washington Archives in Cheney, Washington
  2. Interview of Bishop in 1914 by Herbert Gaston, published in the Spokesman Review