The Telling of Cheney

Cheney Washington has had a difficult lot in life. Starting with the fight for the county seat, the damage of multiple fires in its early years and the underwhelming boom of the railroad. Cheney and its residents had for many years struggled to keep the city afloat. Though with almost as many identity changes as name changes, the city has flourished as a college town.


A map of Cheney, WA from January of 1890

Trouble started early for Cheney. In 1880 the town had a boom in population due to speculations about the railroads. Because of the increase in population Cheney vied with Spokane Falls for the county seat. Upon first counts, it seemed that Cheney had beat out Spokane Falls, however, there was a voting dispute and Spokane Falls kept the seat. Several citizens of Cheney snuck at night into Spokane Falls and stole their county records. Guarding the records at gunpoint, the seat was Cheney’s until Spokane took it in a landslide vote six years later. Cheney’s power and population would never again surpass that of Spokane’s. Because though the railroad did pass through Cheney, it never provided the economic boost that town had anticipated.

The legacy of the town, Eastern Washington University, is here today thanks in part to the town’s name sake, Benjamin P. Cheney. Cheney was a director of the Northern Pacific railroad and gave the town 10,000 dollars and eight acres to build an academy. The academy did not prosper in the way the town had hoped. However, the building and the land it stood on attracted the attention of the State. The State of Washington was building three normal schools (school to train teachers) and they picked Cheney to be the sight for the Eastern Washington school. The normal school opened in 1890, and in its first year had just 16 students. The school has gone through many transformations over the years, but today is Eastern Washington University with a student population of just over 13,000.

Cheney, being a college town, has a great number of research sources within the town itself. The town is home to the Washington State Digital Archives, the Eastern Regional Branch of the State Archives (which are housed in the same building) and the Eastern Washington University Archives. You can also conduct research in Spokane at the Joel E. Ferris Archives or the Northwest Room at the Spokane Public Library’s downtown branch. There are also great stories about Cheney on Spokane Historical. One of my favorite stories from Spokane Historical is about the Cheney Lynchings. The story details the dark mentalities and prejudices that were common of many at the time, including Cheney’s early citizens.

For my own Spokane Historical article, I would like to write on either Dicks Hamburgers, or I-90 through the East Central district of Spokane. As a child growing up in Spokane, the colorful signage featuring a neon rooster pecking at a panda’s hamburger sparked my love of Googie architecture. There is also a great video here about the way that building highways changes neighborhoods. East Central Spokane was once a flourishing district, but now with I-90 running through it, it is unfortunately rundown and lacking in funding. There is a 50 million dollar revitalization project happening that is planned to be finished in 2018. The investment will focus on roads and local infrastructure.


The Dicks Hamburgers Sign. Picture by: Paul S.


Cheney has a lot more history than people expect it to have. There are a multitude of research facilities to research the town’s history; and a platform like Spokane Historical provides a great place to make the town’s stories heard.


2 thoughts on “The Telling of Cheney

  1. Hey Alex,
    Yes! Please write your Spokane Historical article on Dicks Hamburgers! I would be so interested to know the history behind such an iconic Spokane location. Your overview of Cheney was great; I still can’t get over the fact that what is now EWU started out with only 16 students.
    Great post, as always! 🙂


  2. I really liked how you started the post with Cheney’s hardships, but then you also talked about how it has become a successful college town. Also, may family is very found of Dick’s, with may dad having grown up here and that being a popular spot for him as a teenager. So, it will be interesting to read that history if you follow through with the idea. Great job on the post! -Lauren K.


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