Gonzaga History: 1881-89
By Stephanie Plowman
Gonzaga University Special Collections Librarian
SPOKANE, Wash. – The city of Spokane Falls was officially incorporated in 1881 with approximately 600 residents. Recognizing the need for a college, several Spokane civic boosters co-signed a letter to the Society of Jesus, dated Oct. 1, 1881, asking them to start a school for boys.
Some businessmen had pledged funds to help build the school. On Oct. 13, 1881, Father Joseph Cataldo, S.J., paid the Northern Pacific Railroad $2.60 an acre for 320 acres on the north side of the Spokane River in the city. This purchase marked the beginning of a long relationship between Gonzaga and Spokane. Gonzaga, with its Jesuit priests and brothers, grew up with Spokane. They shared a strong interest in seeing each other prosper.
Construction on the original college building began in 1883 under the guidance of Father Urban Grassi, S.J., who worked with local architect Henry Pruesse. The building was 50-by-100-feet with a basement, two stories and a mansard roof. The bricks were made on-site by a Spokane resident to save time and money. The fact that the first building was built of brick demonstrated the Jesuits’ faith in their mission and in the young city’s ability to flourish. The Jesuits expected the school and city to be around for a long time.
Lacking major donations from civic leaders, the Jesuits were able to complete the building with hard work and careful budgeting. Residents such as James Monaghan, M. M. Cowley, Louis Adams, and others supported the Jesuits and Gonzaga as they could. Monaghan’s son Robert was in Gonzaga’s first class of students.
The city recognized the importance of Gonzaga College to its prosperity. In the Spokane Morning Review newspaper, dated Jan. 1, 1887, one full page was devoted to listing and describing the civic improvements by proudly showing its growth. One listing was the College of Gonzaga, which “is a college exclusively for boys and solely under the charge of Jesuit missionary fathers. The building is unquestionably the most commanding and imposing one in the northwest.” The article also noted that the “curriculum will be that used in every large catholic institution of learning, including a commercial course, the classics, the elementary course, literature, philosophy, theology and the natural sciences.”
Gonzaga College opened on Sept. 17, 1887 with seven students. At the time, Spokane Falls included 7,000 residents, 18 churches of various denominations, seven schools, and 25 saloons. Annual tuition plus room and board totaled $250. For the first three years, only boarding students were admitted for the 10-month academic year. By the end of its first year, there were 20 students admitted under the requirements that the male students be able to read and be at least 10-years-old.
Gonzaga College supported Spokane Falls after a catastrophic fire on Aug. 4, 1889. The fire ravaged 40 acres of downtown. Since school was not yet in session, Gonzaga pitched in to house fire victims. Many refugees who had lost everything stayed in the dormitories, halls, and classrooms for a month until classes began for the academic year. Afterward, many of the victims purchased property in the Gonzaga neighborhood.
Concerned about the education of Spokane Falls boys who were not prepared for college-level courses, the Jesuits opened St. Ignatius School in 1889. Under the guidance of Gonzaga’s Jesuit leaders, the school was held in an old carpenter shop that had been converted into a church. St. Ignatius School closed three years later and its students attended Gonzaga in the daytime.
Now, 125 years since it opened, Gonzaga University and the city of Spokane are flourishing together. Both have benefited from each other during these many years. As noted in the Spokesman newspaper on June 30, 1890: “Gonzaga and Spokane are one. They began together, have grown together, and a bright future is in store for each.”
The writer could not have been more correct.
Click the following link to view a historical timeline of Gonzaga University.