From Pioneers to Present Day

College Avenue, circa 1898. Photo courtesy Cheney Historical Museum.
Cheney developed into the city we know today because of its strong ties to education, rail, and agriculture. This provided a strong economic base for the community and was the result of much larger events that took place in the United States.

In 1858, the last Indian uprising occurred in Eastern Washington. Because isolated Eastern Washington was an area of this Indian unrest during the early part of the territorial period, it was not until the late 1860s and early 1870s that settlers made homes in the area.

In the latter part of that decade, settlers attracted by plentiful water and timber and the promise of a railway line made their homes near a group of springs bubbling through a willow copse from the bank where the Burlington Northern Depot now stands.

What's in a Name?

The name of the little community, originally Section Thirteen became Willow Springs, then became Depot Springs, because of its ties to the railroad, then Billings, in honor of a president of the Northern Pacific Company, and finally Cheney, in honor of Benjamin P. Cheney, a Director of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Benjamin P. Cheney was the eldest son of a blacksmith who was born in 1815 at Hillsborough, New Hampshire. Mr. Cheney, a director of the Northern Pacific Railroad, donated $10,000 to establish the Benjamin P. Cheney Academy in the town. And the railroad donated 8 acres of land so that the educational facility could be built.

In 1880 the railroad was graded through the town, and in 1883 the town was incorporated with the streets laid out in the shape of a triangle with the base parallel to the tracks. The railroad tracks were not in a true east-west line, however, so the original town is askew with the map; the newer part of Cheney was built more to the compass.

The only time Cheney actually visited the town of Cheney was on September 18, 1883 following the "Last Spike Ceremony" which was the joining of the eastern and western divisions of the railroad.

The County Seat

After a stormy series of boundary changes caused by legislative acts, Spokane County was created with a permanent County seat still to be selected. Contenders for the honor were Cheney and Spokane Falls (now Spokane). Cheney received a majority of the votes, but because of alleged irregularities at the polls the election was won by Spokane Falls. When this was taken to court, a circuit court judge agreed to a ballot recount. Such recount failed to materialize, however, and the citizens of Cheney took matters into their own hands.

The Grand Steal

On a night when most of the residents of Spokane Falls were at a gala wedding celebration, a delegation of armed "Cheneyites" invaded the Auditor's office, took possession of the books, did their own ballot recount which showed Cheney the victor, and made off into the darkness with the records - and the auditor, who may have been sympathetic to their position. The "Grand Steal" was not contested and was confirmed by a court decision in 1881.

Cheney remained the county seat until 1886 when the faster growing Spokane Falls again brought the issue to a vote and regained the seat. From this point on, the history of Cheney revolves around the growth of the State Normal School, later Eastern Washington College of Education, later Eastern Washington State College and finally Eastern Washington University. The fierce determination of Cheney to build and promote its college was largely to regain its lost prestige over the county seat.

EWU's Roots: the Benjamin P. Cheney Academy

When Washington became a state in 1889, Cheney was able to obtain legislation establishing one of the state normal schools, mandatory under the Enabling Act, in Cheney. Its most convincing argument was that it already had the physical beginnings of a normal school in the Benjamin P. Cheney Academy.

Disagreement between legislators and governors resulted in three appropriation vetoes for the normal school in the next 25 years, but in each case, the citizens of Cheney somehow raised the funds to keep the college going until the next legislative session. The growth of the Cheney Normal School and the transformation of the frontier land into a thriving community were the basis for the changing attitudes in this area.

Shaping a Community

The innovators who created the small community atmosphere were the women of the frontier. All of the energies that were once focused into making the west a home for their families were transformed into creating a vision of preferred lifestyle choices for the youth.

The creation of "Special Interest Groups" was an increasing interest in the social circle. Participating in "proper" social activities became the forefront in Cheney for creating a character all its own. In the past, keeping the small town characteristic was an important issue, and today we find that the citizens of Cheney still share that same ideal and vision for Cheney's future.