Tag Archives: Thomson Expressway

June 1, 1961: “Block the Ditch”

Marchers against I-5 construction, downtown Seattle, June 1, 1961
Photo credit: Museum of History and Industry

What would Seattle look like today without Interstate 5 slicing straight through it?

It’s all too easy these days to take for granted the concrete monstrosity that runs through the heart of our city, dividing Seattle into two absurdly disconnected halves like the result of a brain operation gone horribly awry. But there was in fact early opposition to the unfortunate location of I-5 while it was still in the planning stages.

One demonstration of that opposition occurred on the date in focus here, when a group of roughly 100 Seattle residents staged a protest march against the impending construction of I-5 through the city. Since the new freeway was already a done deal at the time, the march was aimed at persuading the Seattle city government to construct a lid over the portion of I-5 that would run directly through downtown.

The group was comprised mostly of First Hill and downtown neighborhood activists concerned about the negative effects the freeway might have upon the quality of life in the area. Escorted by Seattle police, the group marched along the proposed route of the freeway through a seven-block stretch of downtown, with many carrying placards proclaiming “Block the Ditch” and “Let’s Have a Lid on It,” among other noteworthy slogans.

Among the organizers of the protest were members of the First Hill Improvement Club and architect Paul Thiry (1904-1993). Best known as the primary architect of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, Thiry was also one of the first to propose a lid over I-5 where businesses and apartments could be built. Downtown interests also supported the proposed lid, due to their concerns about the loss of parking spaces and the increase in traffic from the freeway. Among other significant local figures who had publicly opposed the freeway route was former Seattle Mayor George Cotterill (1865-1958), who was concerned about the effects of building the route through a slide-prone area.

This protest was actually an anomaly, and there was in fact minimal opposition to the I-5 route during the early planning stages, since the freeway was mostly planned through quiet bureaucratic process in Olympia until late in the game. The Seattle portion of I-5 began conceptually as the Everett-Seattle-Tacoma Superhighway in 1951, and was approved by the Washington state legislature in 1953. Funds for construction were provided by the Federal Defense Highway Act of 1956, signed by President Eisenhower.

The Seattle portion of I-5 was completed in January 1967. Although the opposition to its construction was minimal and moot, the damage done to Seattle’s quality of life by its location would soon motivate much more fervent efforts against future freeway construction within the city limits — specifically, against the R. H. Thomson Expressway. That story, told elsewhere on this blog, ended in success when Seattle voters rejected that project in 1972. The cap desired by the June 1961 marchers was finally realized when Freeway Park was dedicated on July 4, 1976.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: Don Duncan, “100 Marchers Call For Freeway Lid,” The Seattle Times, June 1, 1961, p. 1; Sam Angeloff, “Freeway Marchers Advocate Landscaping,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 2, 1961, p. 8; Dan Coughlin, “Council OKs Mall Cover On Freeway,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 6, 1961, p. 1; “Council Backs Mall Over Two Downtown Freeway Sections,” The Seattle Times, June 6, 1961, p. 11; Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy, “Building Washington: A History of Washington State Public Works” (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1998); Jeffrey Craig Sanders, “Seattle and the Roots of Urban Sustainability: Inventing Ecotopia” (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010).

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May 4, 1969: Hit the Highway, Freeway

Marchers in the UW Arboretum, May 4, 1969. Photo credit: Museum of History and Industry

The concrete monstrosity that has long divided Seattle into two absurdly disconnected halves like the result of a brain operation gone horribly awry — a.k.a. Interstate 5 — was never a civic inevitability. Long before its official completion in January 1967, citizen activists and elected officials alike fought for a better solution to the city’s emerging need for a major transportation corridor that would connect Seattle with the other major cities on the West Coast. Unfortunately, in 1956 the Washington State Highway Department trumped local desires for a sane solution (such as building the Seattle segment of I-5 on the east side of Lake Washington, still underdeveloped at the time), and we’re still left with the garish results of that dreadful lack of foresight today.

Fortunately, eleven years later, a group of local citizen activists, appalled by the results of the decision to build I-5 in the heart of the city, organized a series of protests against what could have been a much greater infrastructure disaster, namely, the R. H. Thomson Expressway. At the time still under proposal, the Thomson Expressway, if completed, would have followed the Lake Washington shoreline throughout Seattle, running north from Interstate 90 through the Central District, Montlake, and the University of Washington Arboretum, and ominously onward through Lake City to an interchange with an also-proposed Bothell Freeway.

The first of these protests occurred on the date in focus here, when several thousand marched through the Arboretum to protest the expressway’s impending construction. The initial expressway proposal — named for Seattle’s erstwhile city engineer Reginald Heber Thomson (1856-1949) — was approved by Seattle voters in 1960. But when inevitable changes of plan, in which much of Montlake would have been bulldozed, were revealed in 1966, Citizens Against R. H. Thomson organized to oppose the project.

These protests were part of a broader nationwide activist movement against major freeway construction projects that emerged during the 1960s. Citizens concerned with the negative impact such projects would have upon the quality of urban life organized to stop such projects in several major U.S. cities, including New Orleans, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and, last but not least, Seattle.

Unlike the earlier, much less passionate opposition to I-5, these protests were eventually successful, benefiting greatly from the local environmental movement that had emerged since 1965. In February 1972, a special-election ballot referendum was passed in Seattle that withdrew funding for the Thomson project. Finally, in June 1977, the Seattle City Council voted to officially cancel the R. H. Thomson Expressway, thus bringing a joyful closure to a crucial episode of local grassroots activist history.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: Maynard Arsove, “Concrete Dragons,” Helix, April 3, 1969, p. 16; Clayton Van Lydegraf, “CART … Dragonslayer?,” Helix, April 3, 1969, p. 18; Charles Russell, “‘Save, Don’t Pave’,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 5, 1969, p. B; Roger Sale, “Seattle, Past to Present” (University of Washington Press, 1976); Walt Crowley, “Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle” (University of Washington Press, 1995); Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy, “Building Washington: A History of Washington State Public Works” (Tartu Publications, 1998).

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