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New biography explores the life of an early Spokane leader

Byron Riblet laid out much of the city of Spokane before becoming a developer of air trams.

Historian and author Ty Brown has just published a new book about a man who played a big role in how the city of Spokane developed during its earliest days and then he went to make a name for himself in the skiing and mining industries. His name is Byron Riblet.

Ty Brown: “He was a train engineer. He went to the University of Minnesota and then, like so many people, he came to Spokane via the railroad, Northern Pacific Railroad, actually. He came into the Northwest and he did a lot of railroad work here, throughout the Palouse and then he was part of the engineering survey crew that lined up the railroad going into the Silver Valley, so from the old Cataldo Mission there, into the Silver Valley. He was part of that crew. And then, ultimately, I guess about 1888, he made his way to Spokane and started a civil engineering. He got together with a couple of other fellows. One guy, John Strack, they had Strack and Riblet Engineering. Their main job was to plat out most of the city additions here in Spokane. He was responsible for the Twickenham addition which later became Natatorium Park in the west side here. Havermale Island. At one point they said they platted out pretty much half of the town of Spokane and a lot of small towns around, the town of Mead. And then he got in line with the Washington Water Power and the Ross Park electric tram lines, train lines. He basically designed the power station and the rail lines for the Ross Park rail line, got hired on ultimately with Washington Water Power and then was responsible for basically platting out and designing and organizing and engineering most of their rail lines here in Spokane.”

Brown says Riblet got a call from a mining company in Nelson, British Columbia, which wanted him to create a tram line for them.

Ty Brown: “They were actually looking for an aerial tramway to get the ore out of the steep, rugged mountains down to the railroad tracks of the town so they could haul it out of there. And, at first, he was saying that I don’t know anything about aerial tramways. Aerial trams were in existence. A lot of people have that misconception that these guys invented the aerial tram. They were in existence. This company needed them to build the aerial tram. Byron said I don’t think I can do it and then they basically talked him into it. That was probably the best thing they could do because that’s ultimately how he got his start in aerial tramways. Then, if you fast forward through the years, that parlayed into ski chair lifts, which a lot of people know the Riblet Tramway Company for designing and constructing and being the world’s leader in aerial ski chair lifts.”

Brown’s book celebrates Byron Riblet’s professional accomplishments. But it also tells the story about Riblet’s relationship with his brother Royal.

Ty Brown: “I kind of refer to him as kind of a scoundrel, to be honest. The book is kind of him, in some regards. He was kind of an interesting individual, but he also came across as a little bit, like I say, as a scoundrel.”

Brown says Royal Riblet came to Spokane to work for his brother’s tramway company.

Ty Brown: “He was a salesman and he was very good at what he did in terms of selling tramways to mining companies. He did an excellent job at that and he got a lot of big contracts for the Riblet Tramway Company. Byron would engineer the trams. Sometimes they’d install them themselves. Sometimes they’d hire it out. Royal was responsible for getting the jobs as a salesman.”

But then something happened that fractured the brothers’ relationship.

Ty Brown: “Royal is still working for his brother Byron during the Depression, but there’s an episode where Royal is selling parts, tramway parts, on his own outside the company and trying to get contracts on his own to build tramways, basically behind his brother’s back and Byron finds out about this and he fires him.”

The two apparently never spoke again. Byron Riblet died about 20 years later.

Learn more about Royal Riblet here.

One of the Northwest's most seasoned reporters is returning to his SPR roots. Doug Nadvornick will be heard frequently on KPBX and KSFC reporting on local news.