June 1, 1961: “Block the Ditch”

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

What would Seattle resemble 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 one hundred 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 previously 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 protest group consisted mostly of First Hill and downtown neighborhood activists concerned about the negative impacts the freeway might have upon the quality of life in the surrounding area. Escorted by Seattle police, the group marched along the proposed route of the freeway through a seven-block-long 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 local architect Paul Thiry (1904-1993). Best known as the supervising architect of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, Thiry was also among the first Seattle citizens to propose a lid over I-5 where new businesses and residences could be built. Downtown interests also supported the proposed lid, due to their concerns about the loss of parking spaces and the increase in automobile traffic from the freeway. Among other significant local figures who had publicly opposed the freeway route was former Seattle mayor George F. Cotterill (1865-1958), who was concerned about the potential 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 planned mostly 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 Aid Highway Act of 1956, signed by President Eisenhower on June 29 of that year. Why the very heart of Seattle, rather than an alternative route through the then-underdeveloped eastern side of Lake Washington, was chosen for the location of a major interstate freeway is a lengthy bureaucratic story in itself.

The Seattle portion of I-5 was completed near Tukwila on January 31, 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 at Radical Seattle Remembers, ended in success when Seattle voters rejected that project in 1972. The lid desired by the June 1, 1961, marchers was finally realized (albeit only in a limited area) when Freeway Park was dedicated on July 4, 1976.

Sources: Don Duncan, “100 Marchers Call For Freeway Lid,” The Seattle Daily 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 Daily Times, June 6, 1961, p. 11; Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy, Building Washington: A History of Washington State Public Works (Tartu Publications, 1998); Jeffrey Craig Sanders, Seattle and the Roots of Urban Sustainability: Inventing Ecotopia (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010).

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