Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Richest Woman in Spokane

By Kris Krell

The Richest Woman in Spokane

I thought that the electric car trend that we have going on today was all new.  I didn’t realize that electric cars were available as far back as the 1800s with inventors from Hungary, the Netherlands, and the United States competing to be first.  By the mid 1850’s practical electric cars were being built by France and Britain. The first successful US electric car was in 1890 by William Morrison from Des Moines, Iowa, a chemist by trade. It is said that his car was more like an electrified wagon able to go 14 miles per hour, but the electric car “spark” had gone off.  By 1900, New York City had a fleet of 60 electric taxis! About 1/3 of all vehicles on the road were electric.  By 1912, the electric car had attained its peak.  When Henry Ford introduced the mass produced, gasoline car, the cost of his cars cost $650; the electric car averaged $1,750.

So, how does the history of the electric car bring us to Spokane, Washington?  

Agnes McDonald, in 1904, was considered to be the richest woman in Spokane. By the 1920’s she was zipping around Spokane in her vintage 1916 Rauch brougham (an automobile with an open driver's seat) vintage electric car at a top speed of 23 miles per hour.  It was reported that this car cost her $3,500 in 1918.  In 1945, she was an elderly, grey-haired woman, and during WWII soldiers stationed in Spokane, would shout, whistle, and cheer as she drove by.  When she parked, photos were taken and car rides given in her ancient but well-maintained car.  Agnes noted that she paid $2.50 a month for electricity, and $500 every five years for a new battery. Agnes finally gave the car to the Cheney Cowles Museum because her slower driving car caused problems with the police—after WWII, speed limits had increased. 

Agnes Janes Smith was born December 5, 1866, in Le Sueur, Minnesota.  As an adult, Agnes moved west and met Scott McDonald; they married in 1892, had two children, Ruth and Bruce.  Scott and his sisters had moved to Butte, Montana, when he was 18 years old.  He worked in the mines, became superintendent of the Lexington Mine in Butte, and began to develop mines of his own. He was one of the first people to open a mine in the Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho, district.  He also developed mines in British Columbia.

Scott and Agnes left Wallace, Idaho, in 1898 and moved to Spokane.  They purchased a large, granite home on West First Avenue (now demolished) designed by W.A. Ritchie who was the architect of the Spokane County Courthouse that still stands today.

Two years later, Scott died of consumption.  His estate was said to be, at the time, the largest estate ever probated in Spokane.  After her husband’s death, Agnes became involved in numerous endeavors:

·      She was involved in many large real estate transactions--one such sale was the Germond Block at the northeast corner of Sprague and Post sold in 1907 for $150,000.  
·      She was one of the founders of the Grace Campbell Museum.
·      She provided a number of memorials to St John’s Cathedral to honor family members to include a beautiful window to memorialize her daughter, Ruth, who died in 1929.  
·      Agnes was a founder of Spokane Humane Society and served as president for many years.

Agnes had remarried in 1904, marrying Scott’s brother, Dennis. Dennis ran a steamship lines on Lake Coeur d’ Alene and the St. Joe’s River.  They continued to live in the home on West First Avenue.  Dennis died of a heart attack in 1932.

Agnes was known as a decisive, very dominant person, but she had a kind heart toward others.  She outlived both of her children.  Her son, Bruce, died in 1944; her daughter, Ruth, in 1929.  Agnes died at her West First Avenue home on October 27, 1961. 

Sources:  Wikipedia, Agnes McDonald, By the Falls Women of Determination, American Association of University Women, Spokane Branch, Washington State Centennial Project

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