‘Cascade Curtain’ Symbol of a State’s Split Personality


Each November, Washington state’s split personality erupts in a ritual of cross-state football rivalry called the Apple Cup.

The contest pits the Seattle-based University of Washington against Washington State University, a land-grant school in Eastern Washington.

But it’s not just a ballgame. It’s also a battle of east vs. west, rural vs. urban--a microcosm of a state firmly divided by the craggy Cascade Range.


Eastern Washington has missed out on the population boom that’s filling up urban counties around Puget Sound. While east-siders don’t miss the crowds, they do envy Western Washington’s prosperity and growing political clout.

So when Washington State loses--as it did again in November, 56-21--it only adds to the abuse that residents of arid Eastern Washington feel they suffer from their smug, rain-soaked neighbors to the west.

“I think we’re two different animals,” said state Sen. Bob McCaslin (R-Spokane). He co-sponsored a proposal last year to split Eastern Washington from the west side and form a new state called Lincoln. The bill didn’t go anywhere, but it made a point.

“I think our interests are best served as separate states. I’ve felt that way for years,” McCaslin said.

The “Cascade Curtain” also splits Oregon, where 12 of 18 counties east of the mountains lost population between 1980 and 1990, while only one county in western Oregon lost residents. A similar imbalance is growing in bottom-heavy Nevada, where booming Las Vegas accounted for most of the state’s 50% growth in population in the 1980s.

The numbers are more than just demographic curiosities. Uneven population distribution can upset the balance of power within a state, leaving the more sparsely populated regions begging for scraps in the Legislature.


Nowhere is this more apparent than in Washington. Of the state’s 39 counties, the 10 fastest-growing during the 1980s all were on the west side. Three-quarters of the state’s residents live in about one-third of its space, and the distribution grows more lopsided each year.

If Washington’s recent population gain wins it another seat in Congress, as appears likely, the new district will be created on the west side. The 1990 Census also prompted an in-state redistricting that will take away a state legislative district from Eastern Washington.

“Over time, the state Legislature becomes skewed toward urban interests in the west side,” said Annabel K. Cook, a rural sociologist. “That makes it more difficult to get through economic developments for the east side.”

The west side is more economically diverse, with the Boeing Co. and software giant Microsoft topping a well-rounded field of manufacturing, retail, timber and fisheries. The east side lives or dies with crop prices, mainly wheat and apples.

“We don’t have all the right characteristics of a town that attracts growth without trying,” said Susan Meyer. She is coordinator of Momentum, a corporately funded group in Spokane that has raised $11 million to promote east-side economic development.

The group’s efforts are starting to pay off.

Boeing has opened a manufacturing plant employing 350 people near Spokane. It’s the first time the company has looked outside the congested Puget Sound corridor when building a new plant. And Seattle-First National Bank two years ago moved its credit card processing division to Spokane, adding several hundred more jobs.

Such expansions show how west-side growth can benefit Eastern Washington. When too many businesses compete for west-side land and workers, the east side’s lower costs become attractive. Also, west-side gains can improve state government’s overall economic health.

Seattle’s jammed highways and sprawling development have made groups like Momentum careful about the industry they seek, Meyer said.

‘We’re trying to learn from other cities that are overgrown that didn’t learn the lessons soon enough,” she said. “We need to be always mindful of the preciousness of quality of life while seeking new growth.”