Tag Archives: Thomson Expressway

June 1, 1961: “Block the Ditch”

Marchers against I-5 construction, downtown Seattle, June 1, 1961
Museum of History & 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 under construction.

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, having been approved by the Washington state legislature, 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 consisted 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 Seattle citizens to propose a lid over I-5 where new businesses and apartments could be built. Downtown interests also supported the proposed lid, due mainly 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 dangers of building the freeway 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 at this blog, ended in success when Seattle voters rejected that project in 1972. The cap desired by the June 1961 marchers was finally realized (although only in a limited area) 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 Arboretum, May 4, 1969 Museum of History & Industry

Marchers in the Arboretum, May 4, 1969
Museum of History & 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 public 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 1953 the Washington State Legislature trumped local desires for a sane solution (such as locating the Seattle segment of I-5 on the eastern side of Lake Washington, still underdeveloped at the time), and we’re still stuck with the garish results of that dreadful lack of foresight today.

Fortunately, sixteen years later, a group of local citizen activists, appalled by the results of the decision to build I-5 through the heart of the city, organized a series of protests against what could have been an equally atrocious local infrastructure disaster: namely, the R. H. Thomson Expressway. At the time still under proposal, the Thomson Expressway, if completed, would have stretched along the full length of Seattle’s eastern edge, from Interstate 90 in South Seattle through the Central District, Montlake, and the Washington Park Arboretum, and onward through Lake City towards a northern interchange with an also-proposed Bothell Freeway.

The first of these protests occurred on the date in focus here, when several thousand Seattleites 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. However, 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, commonly called the Freeway Revolts. 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’s location through Seattle, these protests were eventually successful, benefiting greatly from the local environmental movement that had recently emerged circa 1969. Wisely recognizing grassroots pressure, Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman and the Seattle City Council effectively abandoned the R. H. Thomson Expressway in June 1970 and submitted the project to a referendum. That referendum was finally presented to Seattle voters in a special election on February 8, 1972. It passed dramatically by a two-to-one margin, thus revoking authorization for $11.1 million in bonds for the project.

Construction of the Thomson Expressway was already in the starting stages when it was canceled, whence the “ramps to nowhere” that still today remain in the northern end of the Arboretum, making a most curious local landmark — as well as a lasting testament to the power of grassroots citizen activism.

–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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