It has been barely more than 40 years since I stood on a bridge over the Spokane River as a newly-minted community marketing executive watching President Nixon officially open the six month “environmental” World’s Fair.
My boss suggested I steer clear of the floating stage due to my “way below the ears” hairstyle and the outrage I had expressed as the Watergate cover-up dissolved.
In observance, I recently replayed an incredible 58-minute documentary produced twenty years later by KSPS public television for the Expo ‘74 anniversary.
It includes rare footage of that opening ceremony (if you look you can see me on the bridge – not.)
It also captures interviews with many of the primary movers, many of whom have passed on, using exclusive footage by an amateur historian of what the 100-acre site looked like before, during and after demolition.
This included 15-acres of marshaling yards for what had been six transcontinental railroads, by then four, using Spokane as a hub.
Behind me in that footage is the symbolic Great Northern clock tower, shown in this link a year before counting down to the opening. It remains an artifact in the incredible park created when the fair’s structures were sold off and repurposed.
For Spokane, the smallest city (170,000 at the time) to ever host a World’s Fair, that had been the objective anyway.
In 1974 I had finished my first year of law school across the river at Gonzaga University, taking classes at night and using the experience I had gleaned from a part time job at BYU during the days to help organize a destination marketing organization to carry on after the Expo.
Already I had begun to sense that I was backing into another career, one that stretched until I retired at the end of 2009.
I had supported Nixon in 1968, although too young to vote, but not because all of my extended family except my great-grandfather were conservative (for that time) Republicans.
When anti-war Republican hopeful Governor George Romney dropped out and Democratic hopeful Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, Nixon just seemed the best option for ending the futile Viet Nam War.
When he didn’t come through, I turned to Senator George McGovern in 1972, a South Dakota liberal and WWII hero.
I’m a native of Idaho, where before it was even a territory my ancestors helped establish the first permanent settlement in 1860. They thought they were in the upper Cache Valley in Utah, until more than a decade later when surveyors marked the 42nd parallel.
My Mormon ancestors took time away from their ranching to mill railroad ties, haul gravel and lay tracks up through southeastern Idaho Territory.
From what they saw, and encouraged by railroad promotions, my paternal great-grandparents and grandparents eventually homesteaded ranchland up in the nook that points into the Tetons and Yellowstone Park.
But back then Mormons were Democrats, and that was a problem.
Idaho has always had three “state capitals,” and still does today. For the north, it is Spokane just across the Washington line. For the southwest, settled by Midwest Republicans, it is Boise. For Southeastern Idaho, it is Salt Lake City in neighboring Utah.
At its narrowest, Idaho’s panhandle is only 50 miles wide because the mountainous third of what is now Montana conspired with Congress to lop it off on the pretense that it would be too difficult for Idaho officials such as circuit judges to travel through the Bitterroots.
Miffed when the territorial capital was soon “stolen” away by Boise in the years before Idaho became a state, Northern Idaho lobbied Congress to annex it to Washington instead, a move that made it through one house of Congress, but stalled in the other.
To appease northern interests, the territorial legislature relocated the University of Idaho from what is now Idaho Falls in the southeast up to Moscow, Idaho in the north.
Had it stayed it Idaho Falls, I’m certain that is where I would have attended college.
But there was a much bigger hurdle to statehood: the Mormons. Back then Congress took a partisan approach to granting statehood. Let’s call it macro-gerrymandering.
Republicans didn’t want to lose control by granting statehood where divided political affiliations might shift the balance of power.
So threatened with disenfranchisement as subterfuge, Mormons converted to Republicans in Idaho (page 419.)
That “reddest” of states today belies a much more diverse political and ideological heritage.
Spokane always identified more with the Northern Rockies than the much further west Cascades, and eventually this “Inland Empire” came to describe its market area including parts of three states and a slice of Canadian province.
During my time there, I created a winter ski promotion called “Ski The 51st State,” incorporating four nearby ski areas including two in Idaho.
Today, “Inland Empire” in Spokane has given way to “Inland Northwest,” a nod to a region in California, although with later claim.
People rightfully feared the transcontinental railroads would become monopolies. The Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway was largely created as a Great Northern and Northern Pacific joint venture to work around President Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting.
By the time Spokane leaders hatched Expo ‘74, these smaller railroads, if even in name only, had merged into their parents, collapsing the remaining four Transcontinental's whose blight had alienated its river from downtown.
To their credit, the railroads agreed to donate land, reroute tracks, construct new bridges, and clear what is now Spokane Riverfront Park.
The year these mergers commenced, Congress created Amtrak, or the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, in 1970 which relieved private railroads to focus on freight.
It wasn’t to save passenger rail travel, it was to save the railroads.
Amtrak began service in 1971 as passenger rail miles bottomed from their high in 1944. By the time I started grade school in 1955, passenger train travel was lower than the pre-war 1920s peak (page 18.)
In 1974, not only did nearly a fifth of the Expo’s 5.2 million attendees go through the Amtrak exhibit, but greeting the arrival of its uber-scenic Empire Builder is how I first connected with two career mentors.
Still its most popular long-haul route today, back then the nation’s tourism leaders took the Empire Builder (the founders nickname) to simultaneously promote both Spokane’s World’s Fair and Amtrak.
First to step down from the train was Charlie Gillette, a WWII hero who had worked for the New York City DMO since when I was born, becoming CEO the year before the World’s Fair there a decade earlier.
Having retired the year before I arrived in Durham, I treasure his last letter congratulating me.
I’ll always be grateful for that Spokane start to my career. My daughter was born there and I still hear from friends from those days.
Occasionally, I drive past Riverfront Park as I shuttle to and from the airport during annual family rendezvous' at lakes along the Idaho border near there.
No one listened then, but 50 years later civic leaders began thinking of ways to reclaim the area from blight.
Looking back today, I am particularly impressed that conservative business leaders had the sense to embrace the environmental movement as a means.
Unheard of, not only did the private sector volunteer a temporary business and occupation tax (B&O) to help pay for the World’s Fair, but the private organizers were among the very first in the nation to conduct an environmental impact statement.
This preceded studies by the EPA.