By: Chip Roe
Manito Park is one of my favorite places in Spokane to visit any time of year. Fall is no exception. This 90 acre park is located on Spokane’s South hill and includes spacious manicured lawns, playgrounds, walking and biking paths, Japanese garden, flowers, duck pond, topiary shrubs, a greenhouse conservatory and multiple picturesque gardens.
The fall colors on the South hill and at Manito Park are gorgeous this time of year.
The area is rich with history and you might not notice at first because of the highly manicured appearance but if you look closely you can see tell tale traces of the parks past hidden among the rocks and plants. Originally named Montrose park the name was changed in 1903 to ‘Manito’ meaning ‘a supernatural force that pervades nature’ in the dialect of a local Native American tribe. The parks duck pond at times also called the mirror pond used to be much larger, had a pavilion on an island and you could rent canoes. A dance hall was located on the bank of the lake and open air motion pictures were shown nearby from 1905-1907. You could get to the park in those days via trolley car and the remains of the tracks can be seen on Manito Place off of Grand Blvd. There used to be huge skating parties and also hockey games on the winter ice.
In 1902 Charles Balzer, from the St. Louis, Missouri area, became superintendent of the park and his family lived in a house in the middle of the park. the city did not provide money for playground equipment so Charles built it himself.
Until 1932 there was a zoo at Manito park. Nothing remains now except the Park Bench Café, then known as the Peanut Shack, where zoo-goers bought peanuts to feed the monkeys. A visitor today can walk behind the Park Bench to the rock outcrop, and see an old rusted iron ring embedded in the jagged basalt wall. That’s the only remnant of the bear cages.
The zoo began almost by accident, when Balzer found some beavers working in one of Manito’s spring-fed ponds, one of which was right next to the present Park Bench Café. He fenced the beavers off and visitors gathered to watch. Gradually, the zoo acquired other animals, including grizzlies from Yellowstone National Park, emus from an Australian dealer, and two polar bear cubs from a soldier who brought them back from Army duty in Alaska (his parents got tired of having them in the back yard).
Manito Park was not an ideal place for a zoo. It was too small, too crowded and surrounded by city residents who didn’t necessarily want to hear the snarling of bobcats at night.
Occasionally, the buffalo would rip through their fence and roam the neighborhood.
The most notorious accident occurred in 1923 when 9-year-old girl ducked under the guard rail at the polar bear enclosure and began tossing food into the cage. One of the polar bears grabbed her arm, pulled it inside the bars and tore it off. The little girl survived. She insisted that the bears not be punished, because she said it was her fault.
In August 1932, the city’s park board voted to shut down the zoo at the end of the year.
But what to do about the animals? The final inventory included 178 animals. Park officials gave away as many critters as they could, but when the deadline approached on New Year’s Eve, shots rang out. A game warden shot a polar bear, two grizzlies and three buffalo. They were stuffed and displayed at the Cheney Cowles Museum (now the MAC). There is much more to learn and see about Manito Park so if you get the chance