This Week Then: I-5 Turns 50

The new freeway helped boost the development of Washington cities along its route
| Updated: May 9, 2019

This story was originally published at HistoryLink.orgSubscribe to their weekly newsletter.

Interstate 5

Fifty years ago this week, on May 14, 1969, the final segment of Interstate 5 in Washington opened for traffic between Marysville and Everett, allowing motorists to travel without interruption from the Canadian border to the California state line. The new freeway also helped boost the development of Washington cities along its route, including Bellingham, Mount Vernon, Arlington, Marysville, Everett, Lynnwood, Seattle, Federal Way, Tacoma, Olympia, Centralia, Chehalis, Longview, and Vancouver.

In the early 1900s, businessman and philanthropist Sam Hill -- who had taken a keen interest in good roads -- promoted a coastal highway stretching from Vancouver B.C. to Tijuana, Mexico. In 1921 he dedicated his Peace Arch on the Canadian border at Blaine, even though the road's point of entry had not yet been decided. Five years later the Pacific Highway -- now designated as U.S. Route 99 -- was built nearby and was effectively completed through Washington in the 1930s with the opening of the Aurora "speedway" and bridge in Seattle.

By the start of World War II, US 99 was the busiest roadway through the state, and the war effort brought even more traffic as thousands of workers moved to the Puget Sound region to build and repair aircraft and naval vessels. Even though the highway had been widened to four lanes in some urban areas, state planners looked for ways to improve, or even replace, the route.

Out for a Drive

Plans for a "toll superhighway" connecting Everett, Seattle, and Tacoma were first drawn up in 1953, but three years later the Washington State Supreme Court declared the toll-road idea unconstitutional. Around the same time, the federal Defense Highways Act became law, which helped solve the financial issues. By the end of 1957, the state highway board had chosen a route and secured federal funding. Most of the new interstate highway would replace US 99, except in the Snohomish/King/Pierce County corridor.

Not everyone was happy. The new route gouged through much of Seattle -- including downtown -- and some Seattleites voiced their concerns at protests and public meetings. Victor Steinbrueck, who would later lead the movement to save Seattle's Pike Place Market, argued that the city would lose some of its historic buildings to demolition. Meanwhile, architect Paul Thiry advocated a lid over the downtown portion for aesthetic reasons, and Seattle Mayor Gordon Clinton stressed the need to put light rail between the highway lanes. Many of these suggestions fell by the wayside for the sake of progress.

After the highway opened, traffic flowed smoothly at first -- in part because there were fewer commuters then -- but by century's end the number of vehicles on the roadway had greatly increased, especially in the Puget Sound region. In recent years, work has been needed on aging spans and interchanges throughout its length, and in Seattle gridlock has increased while improvements are being made to the remnants of US 99. It's hard to predict what the next 50 years will bring to Washington's busiest highway, but it's safe to say that the need for ongoing maintenance will be substantial.


Come as You Are

Aberdeen, which was homesteaded in the 1860s, incorporated on May 12, 1890. Located on Grays Harbor with its twin city Hoquiam, the town quickly grew to become a hub of the lumber, fishing, and shipbuilding industries. In more recent times, Aberdeen achieved fame as the hometown of Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic.

Underground Scar

Roslyn was founded in 1886 after surveyors from the Northern Pacific Railroad discovered rich seams of coal nearby. But mining the coal came with a price. On May 10, 1892, in the worst coalmine disaster in Washington history, 45 men lost their lives in an explosion and fire at the Roslyn mine.

Closing the Bar

On May 9, 1910, Friday Harbor residents were exhorted by renowned evangelist preacher Billy Sunday to renounce the multiple evils caused by liquor and the saloons that supplied it. One day later, San Juan County voted to go "dry." Months earlier, Sunday had evangelized in Spokane, but he would later find his crusade co-opted in Everett by a campaigner for woman suffrage.

Related Content

The West Seattle Bridge may not be open until 2021; the Farmers Markets are starting to come back, and the Tulip festival would like you to stay home, please. All the news you missed in between reading about coronavirus.

"There’s no pride in doing the bare minimum, and there’s no pride in standing in the center when there are two clear sides: life or death.”

Leah Griffin helps guide the creation of laws that intimately impact rape survivors in Washington state

Plus: The trial of the Seattle Seven