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All Over The Map: Cruising with the ghosts of Sunset Highway

On Mercer Island, just south of Interstate 90, there’s a short little stretch of road that offers a trip back in time. This otherwise unassuming suburban street is likely one of the last remaining bits of the historic old Sunset Highway.

The phantom patch of pavement intersects with 77th Avenue SE right next to a gas station, right on the edge of the urban village that has sprouted on the north side of Mercer Island’s town center in the past 20 years or so.

Saving the home of ‘Boys in the Boat’ and men in the ships

Sunset Highway, you say?

Sunset Highway has a long and glorious history here in Washington. The earliest mention of it that I could find in the Seattle Times archives was May 1912.  It was part of the movement to create three publicly funded “great trunk highways” across the state, originating with the Washington State Good Roads Association, and announced at a meeting in Spokane.

The three highways were:

  • Pacific Highway (later US 99 and Interstate 5): 350 miles from Blaine to Vancouver.
  • Inland Empire Highway: 250 miles from Spokane down to Walla Walla, then up through Pasco and through the Yakima Valley to Ellensburg.
  • Sunset Highway: 400 miles from the Idaho border through Spokane, Davenport, Wilbur, Wenatchee, Blewett Pass, Ellensburg, Snoqualmie Pass to Puget Sound.

The total estimated cost in 1912 was $10 million (or $260 million in 2019 dollars), to be paid for with taxpayer dollars appropriated by the Washington State Legislature.

Sunset Highway is the most interesting of the original three, because it had to cross Snoqualmie Pass.

Snoqualmie Pass had been a footpath for natives for millennia. In the 1850s, future Civil War General George McClellan failed to identify it as a viable railroad route and made Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens very angry. Fortunately, another member of Stevens’ surveying team, Abiel Tinkham, got the job done and mapped a logical passage through the mountains.

The railroad wouldn’t come for decades, but improvements were made to what became a wagon road over Snoqualmie Pass from the 1860s to about 1900. By that time, railroads had become the dominant form of cross-state travel – on Stevens Pass and Stampede Pass – but not for long. The first car went over the wagon road on Snoqualmie Pass in 1905. As their numbers increased rapidly in the ensuing decades, the road was gradually improved to make it more car-friendly. From the early 1920s through the 1930s, curves were straightened, the road was widened, and long stretches were paved.

But crossing a mountain pass wasn’t the only tricky aspect of constructing a highway from Spokane to Seattle.

When the Sunset Highway was first envisioned in 1912, there was no highway across Mercer Island and no Lake Washington Floating Bridge. So, in order to get from Snoqualmie Pass west to Seattle, the route of the Sunset Highway went around the south end of Lake Washington by cutting south at Issaquah over to Renton and then over the south part of Beacon Hill – on what’s now called State Route 900 – to what was originally called Empire Way. Empire Way, a remnant of the ill-fated Bogue Plan, was in the early 1980s renamed Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, and was once the home stretch of westbound cross-state travel.

The Mercer Island portion of the Sunset Highway wouldn’t come until 1940, when the original Lake Washington Floating Bridge opened to vehicle traffic – eliminating the Issaquah-to-Renton-to-Empire-Way stretch, and shortening the route by a full 14 miles.

By then, Sunset Highway had been officially renamed “US Highway 10” by the federal government, but not many people around here called it that. In October 1957, it was announced that many of the old US Highways were to be renamed “Interstates.” US Highway 10 became “Interstate 90” in the early 1960s, but this new name and number didn’t really catch on until the late 1960s.

Why, then, would a stretch of the Sunset Highway still exist on Mercer Island 107 years after it was first envisioned and more than 50 years after the name of the highway had been officially changed?

There are two theories.

Number One: “Sunset Highway” is a pretty cool name for a road. That could also be the title of a hit song by the Eagles or Jimmy Buffet.

Number Two: it’s probably because the transition from the old Sunset Highway to the modern I-90 we have today was gradual, and had to go in stages so that traffic could keep moving through the busy east-west corridor.

The first stage of the major rebuilding of the Mercer Island stretch of I-90 was the opening of a six-lane “interim roadway” 35 years ago this month. This created a temporary route for I-90 across Mercer Island so that a new sunken route, 30 feet below the old road level could be built. This is the roadway that’s still in use today. The theory is that construction of the interim roadway wiped out most of what had been the original 1940 Sunset Highway roadbed. But, one short stretch wasn’t wiped out, and that’s the portion that remains in place today, partly out of happenstance, and perhaps partly out of nostalgia.

Searching for lost clues about the winter of 1861-1862

The City of Mercer Island Engineering Department has nothing in their files that sheds any light on the remaining piece of Sunset Highway. Terry Moreman of the Mercer Island Historical Society isn’t sure why or how the roadway was saved, but she’s glad that it was.

“People like the history here on Mercer Island,” Moreman said by phone Thursday, and, she says, they like named streets better than numbered streets.

Whatever the reason it was saved, feel free to head over to Mercer Island to take a cruise on the old Sunset Highway. Just don’t get too excited. As I said, it’s a pretty short stretch of open road.

By my unofficial calculations, this sentimental stretch of pavement is just 0.2 miles long, with dead ends on the east and on the west.

More from Feliks Banel.

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