Spokane Before the War

Click to expand. Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Digital ID ppmsca 55686.

In the early 1910s, as European empires prepared for war, the city of Spokane enjoyed great prosperity.  Between 1900 and 1910, Spokane’s population more than doubled from 57,542 to 139,404 people.1 Spokane displaced Walla Walla as the economic hub for the Inland Empire, enjoying great mineral, financial, and industrial wealth. The 1915 Spokane City directory boasted about the regions impressive material output: 1/9 of the US’s yearly total wheat crop, $50 million of manufacturing output, and 1/5 of the worlds yearly lead output came from the Inland Empire. 2  The region’s abundance of agricultural wealth was due in part to the Volga Deutsch, who helped introduce dryland wheat farming into the region. These Germans immigrated from Russia, but as tensions with the German Empire increased, their ethnic background caused controversy in the region.  World War one provided these hard working farmers a chance to prove their loyalty to their new nation. 3 4

Though separated by vast distances from the blood-soaked battlefields of Europe, Spokanites took a great interest in the war.  In the beginning of the conflict, opinions about the war varied widely.  Ethnic loyalties from Europe sometimes carried over into America.  German and Anglo Americans found themselves at odds at times about their former nations in the conflict.   A diverse range of these opinions appeared to threaten civil order in Spokane, according to the Mayor W.J. Hindley.  Fearing riots and civil disobedience, the the mayor banned motion pictures from Europe reporting the war in early September of 1914.  He received unanimous support on from the other city commissioners and stated:

“In one of the motion picture houses showing some views of the British fleet a few days ago there was an outburst for a time that was hard to control.  Were this given in a house in which an audience of mixed views as to the war held forth there might have been trouble.  In another house a few days ago some war pictures were shown that called out a large attendance from men of foreign birth who showed considerable animation at times.  I have discussed this matter with the theater managers and they offer no particular opposition, saying that they take on the war pictures as a matter of competition” 5 6

Although motion pictures were censored, the newspapers continued with combat reports from Europe received via telegram.  In addition to large scale land campaigns, the people of Spokane were also informed on the volatile nature of the Battle of the Atlantic.  Unable to confidently and consistently deploy their surface fleet, the Germans adapted to naval combat with a new plan. The introduction of submarines allowed Germany to effectively engage allied shipping lines with small but highly effective underwater vessels armed with torpedoes.  Stories of massive allied shipping losses at the hands of German raiders became a regular occurrence in Spokane newspapers.  Although the US was technically neutral in the conflict, it supplied tons of war materials to the Allied powers.  As late as February of 1917 Spokane papers were publishing military reports on the possibility of English capitulation due to losses at the hands of u-boats.7

A front page excerpt of Mary Hoy, who died with her daughter Elizabeth after their ship was struck by a German torpedo. From the Spokane Daily Chronicle, March 2, 1917.

Warfare like this, where even civilian shipping merchants faced danger, damaged German-American relations.  Allied demand for American product, especially food, only increased as the conflict dragged on.

Facing a nightmarish two-front war, with Anglo-French forces to their west and Russia to their east, Germany increasingly relied on the Battle of the Atlantic as a means of victory.  In a bold move Germany announced plans for unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917, putting American trade vessels, regardless of their neutrality, at risk.  The sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and the announcement of unrestricted naval warfare two years later put tensions between Germany and America at an all-time high.  The Lusitania, a civilian ocean liner, probably carried war materials that violated America’s neutrality.  With much of the nation having already sided against the German Empire however, Americas questionable neutrality in smuggling arms to Britain made little difference in public perception.  Spokane newspapers eventually headlined portions of diplomatic banter between the Woodrow Wilson and Kaiser Wilhelm II.  “Kaiser gives divers free hand” reads one headline about the submarines relaxed rules of engagement from the Spokane Daily Chronicle on January, 31 1917, while the very next day the headline reads “Break with Kaiser inevitable”.

The distant war began to effect Spokane in ways that were more personal.  On February 25 1917, the ocean liner turned merchant cruiser, Laconia, was sunk near Ireland.  Two of the passengers, Mrs. Mary E. Hoy and her daughter, both former residents of Spokane, died.  “Submarine Kills Two Spokane Women”, read the top of Daily Chronicle on February 27.8  In the subsequent days photographs of the women appeared on the front pages of newspapers.  The Daily Chronicle published a harrowing front page story titled “Spokane Women fought waves for hours before dying in Laconia Boat” on the 28th of February. The mother and daughter were recalled struggling to stay on the sinking vessel until exhaustion from the sea carried one off, and then finally the other. Strategically placed right next to the disturbing story, Austin Hoy, the son and brother of the victims from Spokane swore vengeance for his family and tells President Wilson he will fight.9



  1. Forstall, Richard L. “Washington, Population of Counties by Decennial Census: 1900 to 1990.” Census.gov. March 27, 1995. Accessed January 4, 2018. https://www.census.gov/population/cencounts/wa190090.txt.
  2. The Spokane City Directory . Vol. 23, R.L. Polk & Co, 1915. Page 42, 43
  3. Pearson, Karen, and Elizabeth Holmes. “German Influence on the Northwest.” German Heritage in the Pacific Northwest. Accessed January 4, 2018. http://depts.washington.edu/heritage/Immigration/immigration.htm.
  4. Becker, Paula. “Volga Germans Led by Johann Frederich Rosenoff Settle near Ritzville in 1883.” History Link. July 16, 2006. Accessed January 4, 2018. http://www.historylink.org/File/7837.
  5. Spokesman Review, September 9, 1914. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=sOBVAAAAIBAJ&sjid=hOADAAAAIBAJ&pg=6624%2C1432318. Page 7, Column 3.
  6. Spokane Daily Chronicle, September 9, 1914. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=Hr9XAAAAIBAJ&sjid=KfQDAAAAIBAJ&pg=1055%2C4939634. Page 1, Column 3.
  7. Spokesman Review, February 2, 1917. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=ybBXAAAAIBAJ&sjid=r_MDAAAAIBAJ&pg=5787%2C963399. Page 1, Column 5.
  8. Spokesman Review, February 27, 1917. https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=ddB7do2jUx8C&dat=19170227&printsec=frontpage&hl=en. Page 1, Column 1.
  9. Spokane Daily Chronicle, February 28, 1917. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=ksZXAAAAIBAJ&sjid=NPQDAAAAIBAJ&pg=2566%2C2518402. Page 1, Column 6.