May 4, 1969: Hit the Highway, Freeway

Seattle's "ramps to nowhere," photographed in July 2014 Omar Willey
Seattle’s “ramps to nowhere,” photographed in July 2014
Omar Willey

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 here on January 31, 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 port cities along the American 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, thirteen 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 absolute length of Seattle’s eastern edge, from Interstate 90 in South Seattle through the Central Area, Montlake, and the Washington Park Arboretum, and onward through Lake City towards a northern interchange with an also-proposed Bothell Freeway.

Marchers in the Arboretum, May 4, 1969 Museum of History & Industry
Marchers in the Arboretum, May 4, 1969
Museum of History & Industry

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 on March 8, 1960. However, when inevitable changes of plan — in which much of the Central Area and Montlake would have been bulldozed — were revealed in 1966, Citizens Against the 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 about 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 Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New Orleans, San Francisco, 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’s final fate to a referendum. That referendum was finally presented to Seattle voters in a special municipal election on February 8, 1972. It passed overwhelmingly 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 circa 2016 still remained in the northern end of the Arboretum, making a most curious local landmark — as well as a lasting local testament to the power of grassroots citizen activism.

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, 2019); 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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