By Jayne Singleton, Valley Historian; Founder & Director, Spokane Valley Heritage Museum
Above, J. Howard Stegner, the blond little boy on the left, is sitting on a tree stump in a family photo from 1891. Photo courtesy of the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum.
J. Howard Stegner has been an invaluable history guide and resource for early Spokane Valley history. He and his family made history as they lived it in the Trent area of Spokane Valley. Although he passed away in 1962, his efforts to preserve early Spokane Valley history and collect artifacts have greatly contributed to our archives and our knowledge of the Spokane Valley as it was in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.
The Stegner family came from Castle Rock, Minnestoa via the Northern Pacific Railroad. Howard was one year old when the family arrived in Spokane in 1889, just after the famous fire. His parents, J.A. and Matilda, moved the family to Trent in the spring of 1890 and operated a store near the railroad tracks west of Pines Road. It was the only store between Spokane Falls and Spokane Bridge. The store became the center of activity, particularly when the post office was located in the store around 1892.
Howard’s father died in 1895. He had had the foresight to take out a life insurance policy for $2,000. Instead of moving back to Minnesota to the safety of her family, Matilda stayed and bought 160 more acres of land with the insurance money. She sold the land for $16,000 to the Inland Empire Electric Railroad. She seems to be the first Spokane Valley business-minded woman, and she was very brave to stay put in a vast undeveloped area without a husband or relatives nearby.
She later married John Narup, and Howard gained two more sisters to add to his four siblings. The Narups built a house rivaling the mansions of Browne’s Addition, west of Pines Road near the tracks. It was torn down in 1958. Howard had in his possession an ornate doorknob saved from the demolition when the estate was settled.
Howard became acquainted with another early Spokane Valley pioneer, Seth Woodard. Seth was just as interested in preserving history, and the two became a team, visiting many historical sites in the Valley and recording their significance in articles and photos.
Aware of the historic events that occurred in and around the Valley and the need to preserve our heritage, they helped form the Spokane Valley Pioneer Association. Howard was acting president of the club in 1959. The pioneer association held monthly meetings for history tours and lectures, and they worked hard to document and celebrate the history of Spokane Valley. He interviewed early pioneer to the region and recorded their shared memories. An annual picnic was held at Liberty Lake to commemorate Valley history and to honor pioneers that were still living.
Howard and Seth located what was left of the post Antoine Plante sometimes used to tie his ferry to. Endeavoring to preserve the site, Howard and Seth installed a cement post at the site to mark it for future generations.
In the 1940s, Howard worked with others to erect monuments at Antoine Plante’s place, the Horse Slaughter site and some of the Mullan Road Markers.
In April of 1954, his series of articles titled “Echoes of Yesterday” débuted in the Spokane Valley Herald. The articles chronicled Spokane Valley history including the whiskey distillery on Trent and Pines, robberies, buried gold, train crashes, family escapades, earlier pioneers, early school houses and more. With the Stegner home and store adjacent to the Northern Pacific Railroad, numerous images were taken of the early trains and the Trent Depot. Using the glass plate negatives that his family had taken, Howard’s stories often included newspaper-quality photos. The collection of glass plate negatives was donated to the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum for preservation.
Howard writes about an early 1882 settler named Mr. Wesley Mahoney. Howard met Mr. Mahoney many times as he was a customer of the Stegner store. Mahoney was a mysterious man, never divulging any personal details and hence became known as the “Hermit of Mahoney’s Eddy.” If not for Howard’s story, we would not have had the information to add to our pioneer archives. Mahoney captivated Howard, not only as a hermit and recluse but Mahoney seemed to have money. Eventually, when Mahoney took sick, a neighbor got him to divulge more of his secret past. Apparently, Mahoney had come up from California and worked on a Northern Pacific Railroad Crew and then homesteaded in the area of Mirabeau Park. Howard himself worked for the NPRR when he came of working age. Mahoney did succumb to another illness and it was discovered he had thousands of dollars. It is possible that he was the first very wealthy man in the Spokane Valley.
The Spokane Valley Heritage Museum has original family photos and scrapbooks preserved and organized by Howard. Howard maintained a “history museum” room in the basement of his home. Some of the relics he displayed included buggy steps from the mail wagon from Spokane Bridge and an old 1910 map of Newman Lake. He also had numerous Indian artifacts, Charlie Russell prints, buffalo skulls, photos of the Great Fire of Spokane and the old time camera his family used to record history making events. He was a natural history buff, locating and preserving historic sites, collecting relics, writing history, photographing it, sharing it and celebrating it.
Howard had a front row seat to the development of Trent, the greater Spokane Valley and a true heart for history. He and his family left their mark on the Spokane Valley. Stegner Road carries the family name.
In honor of their heritage and tie to the Spokane Valley, descendants have held family reunions at the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum. Their recollections are that Howard was a gentle soul and a keeper of their heritage.