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All Over The Map: The forgotten controversy behind Washington’s Blewett Pass

A Washington State Highway Department map from the early 1960s shows the proximity of Blewett and Swauk Passes on US Highway 97. (WSDOT)

Unsuspecting motorists crossing Blewett Pass on US Highway 97 are treading ground on a now-forgotten place-naming controversy dating to the 1950s.

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The name “Blewett” was first applied to a gold mining community in the hills north of Cle Elum circa 1892. At least one source says the town was initially called Werner when it was settled in the 1870s; the name change came about when a mining company owned by investor Edward Blewett purchased the nearby mine.

According to a historic resources survey of Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood prepared by Kate Krafft and published in 2010, “[Edward] Blewett was a wealthy businessman from Fremont, Nebraska who had visited Seattle [in the late 1880s] and decided to invest in newly cleared land at the northwest corner of Lake Union.”

And what is that “newly cleared land” known as nowadays?

“Blewett named the community Fremont after his hometown, which commemorated the explorer, John Charles Fremont,” Krafft writes.

The route across what was called Blewett Pass has its origins in a wagon road built from Cle Elum to Werner in 1879; the road all the way through to what’s now US Highway 2 was made passable for vehicles around 1920.

In the 1950s, the old 1920s roadway was realigned and widened, and the point where US Highway 97 crosses over the mountains was moved about four miles east. Parts of the old road that were bypassed were left in place for local use and for hikers and off-road vehicles. And so, technically speaking, the highway no longer crossed Blewett Pass. Instead, it crossed an area known as Swauk Pass.

One place-naming source says that “Swauk” may have meant “deep” in an indigenous language, but other such sources are mute on the origins and possible meaning. The timing of the application of the name “Swauk” to that area is also somewhat vague, but probably dates to the 1870s.

From around 1960 on, the crossing was confusingly referred to in print, and possibly in highway signage, as Swauk-Blewett Pass, or Blewett-Swauk Pass, or sometimes just the name that everyone had grown accustomed two during the previous half-century: Blewett Pass.

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While this wasn’t a full-blown battle, a search of the archives uncovers several letters-to-the-editor of The Seattle Times from the 1960s to the 1980s pointing out the pass name discrepancy.

Finally, in the early 1990s, to end the confusion, WSDOT officially changed the name to Swauk Pass. So, problem solved, right?

That was when the U.S. Board on Geographic Names – the official body managed by the U.S. Department of Interior to keep track of place names – got involved and took formal action in 1992.

Swauk Pass was officially renamed Blewett Pass, and what had been Blewett Pass officially became Old Blewett Pass.

Despite the changing names of the route, the Swauk Pass name lives on in a U.S. Forest Service campground and in a “sno-park” recreation area.

Fortunately, perhaps, the pass’s namesake didn’t live long enough to witness the controversy over the route named in his honor. For the record, Edward Blewett – not Edward Swauk – died in California in 1929 at age 81.

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