All Over The Map: Ghosts of the Roosevelt Highway in Washington state

Oct 8, 2021, 10:28 AM | Updated: 5:23 pm
Roosevelt Highway...
A 1920s road map of Washington, annotated in red, shows portions of the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway through southeastern and south central sections of the Evergreen State. (Courtesy Feliks Banel)
(Courtesy Feliks Banel)

The “Theodore Roosevelt International Highway” – or “Roosevelt Highway,” for short – once connected Portland, Maine, and Portland, Oregon. For most of the 1920s and well into the 1930s, part of this forgotten route traveled through the Evergreen State.

Before there were federal highways – like US 10 across Washington in the 1920s or the interstate freeways that began to appear in the 1950s – there was a series of “national trails” or “marked trails” that were created and promoted by private groups with interests in tourism and the automobile industry.

There were roads like the “National Parks Highway” from Seattle to Chicago created in 1916, or the “Yellowstone Trail” from Seattle to Boston created in 1912. These efforts didn’t really involve construction of new roads or improvements to existing roads; it was more about printing maps and marking the route and key intersections with directional signage.

World War I ended in late 1918, and the private automobile began taking off as a requisite accessory for the middle class. America’s now-famous car culture was in its infancy, and state governments were addressing necessary infrastructure improvements for vehicles, including paved highways, tunnels, and bridges.

When mostly beloved former president Teddy Roosevelt died on Jan. 6, 1919 – in the middle of the Spanish Flu pandemic – a national movement emerged almost right away to name a cross-country highway in his honor. The Tacoma News Tribune published an editorial favoring such a road just nine days after Roosevelt died.

“The need of good highways is recognized more today than ever before,” said the editorial from Jan. 15, 1919. “We have got rid of the old notion that a road was something of little more than local interest and value. The growth of transportation needs and the development of the automobile and the motor truck have raised the country highway to a place of dignity comparable with that of the railroad.”

“We are learning to think of roads in terms not of the township and the county, but of the state and nation,” it added.

A national organization was founded in Duluth, Minnesota, and began promoting what was called the “Theodore Roosevelt International Highway.” The proposed route stretched from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon – more than 4,000 miles – across the northern part of the country. It went through 12 states, as well as part of Ontario, Canada.

Around the same time, the United States military was in the midst of post-World War I demobilization and studying domestic preparedness and the need for good cross-country highways.

A big convoy of nearly 100 trucks and other military vehicles left Washington, D.C., in July 1919 and headed to San Francisco. The mix of paved roads, gravel roads, and unimproved dirt roads, plus multiple underbuilt roadway structures, proved a formidable foe for the convoy. The trip to California took two months.

A young Dwight Eisenhower was along for that ride, which damaged or destroyed almost 100 bridges – and which made Eisenhower a lifelong fan of good roads. After witnessing the German highway system firsthand in World War II, Eisenhower was reportedly all too happy to sign the legislation creating the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s.

But that was still a few decades – and thousands of slow and dusty miles – in the future.

While development of the Roosevelt Highway in the early 1920s was a non-governmental initiative, the national organization did work with the individual states and communities and private groups to designate routes and seek funding for roadway improvements. In this manner, this private system could actually be understood as something of an influential precursor of the federal highway system, with centralized government funding that supported state-driven roadbuilding and other construction efforts.

And even though the Duluth-based effort was a private project, federal dollars did begin to flow to segments of the Roosevelt Highway as the government recognized the need to be able to efficiently move troops and equipment, and began to prioritize certain corridors as military or defense highways.

For communities in the 12 states where it ran, getting the Roosevelt Highway to route through your town was a desirable thing. It was not as game-changing as the railroads 50 years earlier, but the Roosevelt Highway – and other “trails” – were definitely considered a plum and a tool of economic development.  That’s why the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and other Puget Sound civic and business leaders tried to convince the national organization to route the Roosevelt Highway over the Cascades and through Seattle – and then down to Portland through Tacoma and much of what’s now the I-5 corridor.

The Seattle Times was not happy with the Beaver State’s objections to routing the highway through the region’s dominant (and domineering?) metropolis. An anonymous reporter even included a thinly veiled damning of Oregon right in the middle of a news story – not an editorial – about future highways and the Washington legislature.

“The plan to exclude the greater part of Washington, including the populous centers of the Puget Sound country such as Seattle and Tacoma, from the benefits of such a route has been characterized as another effort on the part of Oregon interests to profit at the expense of Washington,” said the Seattle Times story, which was published on Feb. 6, 1921.

Those “Oregon interests” prevailed, and the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway (and its gas-buying, restaurant-eating, hotel-staying motorists) stayed far east of Puget Sound, though the exact turn-by-turn route is lost to the mists of time and newer highways.

In fact, the route in Washington changed over the years for reasons that are not exactly clear. However, for the westbound traveler, the Roosevelt Highway always crossed into Washington from Idaho northeast of Spokane.

One version of the route went from Spokane down to Colfax, then over to Dusty, and then down to Walla Walla and into Oregon, where it then headed west along the south side of the Columbia River. Another version went farther west in Washington, through Mabton in Yakima County, and then down to Bickleton in Klickitat County. This second route is visible on a 1920s Washington road map distributed in that decade by Western Auto Supply Company.

But those old maps can actually be a little confusing, because there was more than one Roosevelt Highway created in the wake of the former president’s death.

In 1919, the Washington Legislature designated what’s now part of the route of the North Cascades Highway – from roughly Marblemount on the Skagit River to Pateros on the Columbia River – as the Roosevelt Highway.

There was also a Roosevelt Highway along the Pacific Coast, from southern California to Astoria, Oregon, which was later extended to the Olympic Peninsula. As early as the early 1920s, there was talk of connecting all of these Roosevelt Highways together, via Anacortes, Fidalgo Island, and Whidbey Island – and a ferry to Port Townsend – forming a waterlink in a highway that would connect southern California to Portland, Maine. While those roads and waterlinks eventually did form a drivable route – and still do – it doesn’t appear that the Roosevelt Highway name ever properly stuck.

Dr. Max Skidmore, who 15 years ago wrote a book about the Roosevelt Highway, once envisioned leading a personal campaign to bring the name back and restore the route as a monument to Theodore Roosevelt. He discovered some of the highway’s history on a trip to Montana in 1996, and then spent the next several years researching in archives and driving the entire route twice – all part of what he describes as a “labor or love.”

Dr. Skidmore says that reasons for why the Roosevelt Highway faded from public consciousness by the time of World War II are complex, and include the new federal highway numbering system of 1925, as well as changes in perception of the 26th president.

“The allegations were, and I think they were true allegations from the partisans of the [Roosevelt] Highway and the Lincoln Highway, and so forth, that the state officials and the federal officials deliberately broke up the new routes so that they didn’t follow the old routes,” Dr. Skidmore told KIRO Radio earlier this week. “They wanted the efficiency of a numbered system, and they did what they could to cause the memories of the old named highways to fade away.”

Also contributing specifically to the decline in esteem for Theodore Roosevelt, and maybe for his highway, was a less-than-flattering biography by Henry Pringle that was published in 1931, says Dr. Skidmore.

Though the name faded, a few communities along the national route retain some aspects of the Roosevelt Highway, says Dr. Skidmore, with streets named for Roosevelt where the route once ran, and a significant monument at Marias Pass in Montana that commemorates construction of the final stretch of the Roosevelt Highway in 1930.

In the Evergreen State, there is apparently no evidence of the old route and no commemoration of any segments of the old highway anywhere along any of the various routes. And there’s not much in the way of photographs, or of old signage.

“I was hunting to find a an intact sign,” Dr. Skidmore described. “I never did find one, except for markings on the sides of buildings and that kind of thing.”

“I suspect that [the route] was pretty well marked every mile or so, because there were no road maps at the time,” he continued. “The main purpose of the road markings was to ensure that you were still on the route, and to identify turns where you were likely to go astray.”

“And certainly you did go astray,” Dr. Skidmore added, chuckling about the primitive safety conditions along many highways in the 1930s, which, at age 87, he’s old enough to remember.

“I do remember terrible conditions — I lived on famous Route 66, and Missouri had no speed limit at the time, but it does have lots of hills and curves.”

“You can imagine the carnage on Route 66, which is not the romantic highway that it was in song and poetry,” Dr. Skidmore said.

Special thanks to Larry Ganders, native Bickletonian, for the inquiry which inspired this story; to Benjamin Helle at the Washington State Archives for help tracking down legislative records; and to Dr. Max Skidmore, University of Missouri Curator’s Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science, and author of Moose Crossing: Portland to Portland on the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway.

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.

Washington State Theodore Roosevelt International Highway Directions:

Adapted from directions for following the old route via current roads and highways, as prepared and shared with KIRO Radio by Dr. Max Skidmore

  • From the Idaho state line, take Washington 290 westbound into Spokane.
  • From Spokane, take U.S. 195 south to Colfax, and turn right on Washington 26. Turn left on Washington 127 at Dusty, and follow it to U.S. 12. Take U.S. 12 to Walla Walla, and pick up Washington 125 south.
  • After only about six miles, the road crosses into Oregon and becomes Oregon 11. At Pendleton, proceed west on Interstate 84, taking U.S. 30 where it is available.
  • Follow Business 30 into Portland on Sandy, turn right on Morrison, proceed across the Morrison Bridge and straight onto Washington to Broadway. Turn left on Broadway to Jefferson to Park, and turn right on Park. Ahead is where the “The Rough Rider” statue of Theodore Roosevelt stood from November 1922 until October 11, 2020, when it was damaged and torn down by demonstrators. For almost 100 years, it was a fitting terminus for the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway.

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All Over The Map: Ghosts of the Roosevelt Highway in Washington state