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Seattle’s roadside artifacts whisper of phantom highways

This piece was originally posted on MyNorthwest on September 23, 2015.

With the near constant focus on traffic problems in and around Seattle these days, and with the Chinese president in town this week only adding to the daily headaches, it may help to take a deep breath, and consider how far we’ve come with roads and highways in our region’s history.

It may also help to note that complaints about transportation around here are nothing new. The earliest settlers in the Puget Sound area were focused on improving transportation (beyond canoes and steamers), and some historians argue that one of the main reasons Washington Territory split off from Oregon in the 1850s was to more effectively lobby the federal government to build better roads here.

Even American novelist John Steinbeck complained after visiting Seattle in 1959, when he later wrote, “The highways, eight lanes wide, cut like glaciers through the uneasy land … [t]he traffic rushed with murderous intensity.”

As a result of those settlers and their progeny, there remain all over this region the traces of earlier routes and forgotten roads. There’s the old brick road near Wayne Golf Course in Kenmore from 1913, the rapidly disappearing “ramps to nowhere” along 520 from 1963, the original “high rise” spans on the southernmost I-90 floating bridge from 1940, and the Alaska Way Viaduct (which has not disappeared as quickly as some had hoped) from 1953.

Along with these actual pieces of old roads, three easily accessible roadside artifacts are even more loaded with history, and are some of the best reminders of “phantom highways” of the Pacific Northwest.

World’s First Service Station on East Marginal Way South

It’s tough to get to, and not much to look at once you get there, but a monument to the invention in Seattle of the automobile service station is also a reminder of what served as the pre-Highway 99 main north-south route a century ago: East Marginal Way South. The roadway is still there, nowadays serving mostly container trucks and bicycle commuters, but it was bypassed when Highway 99 was first rerouted in the 1920s.

The service station monument was dedicated in 1947. It was actually 40 years earlier when Standard Oil employee and Seattleite John McLean had the bright idea to offer motorists fuel and oil in one convenient place. Is it any coincidence that the headquarters for another retail liquid revolution that also began in Seattle (this time involving a certain caffeinated drink) is clearly visible from the service station monument?

Blue Star Memorial Highway near Woodland Park

Just north of the Woodland Park Zoo, a roadside monument next to the southbound lanes designates the major pre-Interstate 5 thoroughfare a “Blue Star Memorial Highway: A Tribute to the Nation’s Armed Forces that served in World War II.” That route is known by many names, including as Aurora Avenue, Highway 99 and State Route 99, but it’s the rare soul (perhaps non-existent) who uses this 1951 moniker.

You can thank the Snoqualmie District of the Washington State Federation of Garden Clubs for this sign; similar efforts by other garden clubs named stretches of highways around the U.S., and similar markers were also placed at Washington’s British Columbia and Oregon border crossing on the old highway.

The stretch of Aurora just south of the sign was a controversial project when it was proposed back in 1930. Building it required cutting through the middle of what was then Seattle’s main public park.

Before Seattle Center was built in 1962, Woodland Park functioned as the city’s civic gathering place for big to-dos, including presidential visits and Fourth of July picnics. A vote in November 1930 in favor of the new roadway sealed the deal, and the newly expanded and streamlined highway, including the Aurora Bridge, opened in February 1932.

Highway 99 through Seattle has been rerouted over a number of different paths over the decades. Before the Aurora Bridge (official name: George Washington Memorial Bridge) and the Woodland Park stretch opened in 1932, northbound 99 drivers took Westlake from downtown Seattle, crossed the Fremont Bridge, then headed northeast via Pacific Avenue, Montlake Boulevard and Sand Point Way, connecting with what’s now State Route 522 and then the Bothell-Everett Highway to continue north.

Before the Viaduct opened in 1953, northbound drivers came up East Marginal Way South, cut over to Fourth Avenue way down by Michigan Street, and then took Fourth Avenue all the way to Westlake.

Fourth Avenue wasn’t exactly an expressway in those pre-Viaduct years, and the waterfront concrete structure really opened things up for north-south travel by getting drivers and cars off of the surface streets. The route was pretty scenic, too. Famous Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac, traveling north from Seattle in 1955 to spend a summer as a fire lookout, wrote, “Driving north from Seattle on Highway 99 is an exciting experience because suddenly you see the Cascade Mountains rising on the northeast horizon.”

US 99 Sign at First and Columbia

Back before the federal government created the Interstate Highway System in the mid 1950s, federally-funded “US Highways” crisscrossed America. When the new-fangled Interstates were built, they often used the same routes as the old U.S. Highways, which is true for much of Highway 99 in Washington, particularly outside urban areas. On the stretches of these roads that do still exist, their official “US Highway” names and most of their official signage has changed to state highways.

For some reason, one vintage reminder of when State Route 99 was still known as US 99 remains highly visible, right in the middle of downtown Seattle. On the on-ramp to the southbound Alaska Way Viaduct at the bottom of Columbia Street at First Avenue, a “ghost sign” from the old US Highway days is still prominently displayed.  This sign — complete with vintage glued-on reflector disks — could easily be more than 50 years old.

To properly experience these roadside artifacts and phantom highways, it’s best to get in your car and head first for that most under-appreciated local invention — your favorite service station — and get a full tank of gas. Then you can go to that other place for a cup of coffee.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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