All Over The Map: Railroad and ‘Central Washington Highway’ ghosts on US 395

May 27, 2022, 9:03 AM
Detail from a 1908 Highway Department map of Washington showing only the Northern Pacific Railroad ...
Detail from a 1908 Highway Department map of Washington showing only the Northern Pacific Railroad connecting towns where US Highway 395 now runs between Pasco and Spokane. (Courtesy Washington State Archives)
(Courtesy Washington State Archives)

It doesn’t have the cachet of Route 66, and it’s not as scenic as the Pacific Coast Highway – but US 395 in the Evergreen State has its own underappreciated history and a certain amount of distinctive charm.

And while you also can’t get your kicks on it, either, the highway known as US 395 through Eastern Washington’s Big Bend County and Inland Empire is worth the price of gas – at the moment, anyway – to take a drive from Pasco to Spokane, or even all the way to the Canadian Border.

I’ve driven the Pasco to Spokane section a few times at different times of the year, but I haven’t gone all the way north to Laurier on the Canadian border. I want to someday because there’s an airstrip there that straddles the border – you can actually touchdown in one country and taxi into another (but that’s a story for another day).

On the Pasco-to-Spokane section of the drive, you’ll go through or near towns with some of my favorite place names in any part of the state – including Eltopia, which some people say is a variant of the expression “Hell to pay” for some difficulties faced by railroad crews in the area 140 years ago. And you’ll pass the town of Lind – where I read in an old book that the streets are named after the letters in the surname ‘Neilson’ – the family who platted the town in the late 19th century. Sure enough, zooming in on Google Maps you can see ‘N’ Street, ‘E’ Street, ‘I’ Street, ‘L’ Street, ‘S’ Street, and ‘O’ Street.

“But wait,” I said to myself earlier this week. “Where’s ‘N’ Street? It wasn’t the ‘Neilso’ family?!?”

It took me a moment or two, but then I realized that a second ‘N’ Street just six blocks from the first ‘N’ Street would be pretty dumb.

Once you reach Ritzville on the northbound drive, US 395 and Interstate 90 share the same roadbed all the way to Spokane. However, drivers can leave the freeway and go at least part of the way to the Lilac City on old US 10 – just follow the cool retro signs – between Ritzville and Sprague.

What’s really cool about the Pasco-to-Spokane leg of US 395 is that before there was any thought of building a highway, that route was part of the original path of the Northern Pacific Railroad (and still part of the BNSF Railway) between Spokane and Tacoma. The tracks between Spokane and Pasco (technically, Ainsworth) were completed around 1881, and the first iteration of the highway didn’t get built until about 35 years later. Thus, many of the towns along the way began purely as part of the railroad as shipping points for wheat. Accordingly, old Northern Pacific depots remain at Lind, Ritzville, Sprague, and Cheney.

One of the earliest maps where this aspiringly storied road appears was published in 1915 by the Washington State Highway Department. At that point, the route was called the “Central Washington Highway,” and its construction was part of a 1913 statewide, state-funded effort to build “trunk roads” to foster travel and commerce between populated sections of Washington. The Central Washington Highway has the distinction of being the first of the batch to be completed. That happened in late spring or early summer of 1921 when the final 17 miles between Connell (for the record, pronounced ‘kaw-NELL’) and Lind were “improved.”

The total distance between Pasco and Spokane for that 1921 route was 155 miles – and “improved” meant that the highway was graded and then surfaced with gravel and oil. In 2022, the modern route between the same locations on US 395 is listed as 135 miles, because the basic route has remained the same, but bypasses and other realignments mean that portions of the route have been relocated over the decades.

The numerical name “US 395” was first applied around 1930 as part of a federal initiative to standardize highway numbers around the country. A Washington State Highway Department map from 1933 shows the northern portion already called that – at least on paper – and, on the same map, the Pasco-to-Spokane section is called Highway 11. By 1939, much of the entire route (which actually went from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington) was marked on maps as “US 395” and, according to some sources, also with roadside signage as “US 395” – with the now-classic shield design.

However, based on a search of newspaper archives, it appears that public use of the numerical name didn’t catch on for a while, perhaps not until as late as the 1960s. And, if there were ever any signs that read “Central Washington Highway” during those first years of the road’s existence, they’d probably be just as difficult to find nowadays as that second ‘N’ Street in downtown Lind.

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

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All Over The Map: Railroad and ‘Central Washington Highway’ ghosts on US 395