Today in History: I-5 in Washington is completed in 1969

Traffic on I-5 in Seattle in 1969 via the Seattle Municipal Archives. 

Thursday marks 51 years since the final section of I-5 in Washington state opened to drivers.

The following is a recap of the event in a historylink essay written by Phil Dougherty

On May 14, 1969, the final segment of Interstate 5 in Washington opens for traffic. The $9.8 million section of freeway runs four miles between Marysville and Everett (Snohomish County), and includes 11 bridges. With its opening, motorists can travel without stopping from the Canadian border to the northern California state line.

The Final Piece

As the automobile gained traction in America during the early twentieth century, so did a network of expanding highways across the country. Individual states handled road construction, and though the federal government provided matching funds in many cases, it still was not enough to fund sufficient construction to keep up with the soaring numbers of automobiles. By the 1950s bigger and better highways were needed, and in 1956 the federal government became more actively involved in funding them when it passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which provided 90 percent funding for a nationwide network of high-speed, limited access roads. This led to the beginning of Interstate 5 (I-5) in Washington.

The first segment of I-5 formally opened in Tacoma in December 1960, and despite some protests, construction proceeded apace through the decade. In January 1967 the final freeway section from Everett to Tacoma was completed, linking the greater Seattle metropolitan area. But just north of Everett, another segment of I-5 remained incomplete, and would turn out to be the last piece of the freeway to be finished in Washington.

This last segment stretched four miles, from the southern end of Marysville to the northern edge of Everett at the Snohomish River. The four-mile section cost $9.8 million (approximately $58 million in 2010 dollars) to build, and included 11 bridges in its short stretch. More than 1.7 million cubic yards of dirt was moved during its construction. In April 1969 the northbound lanes of this section opened to traffic. The southbound lanes opened on May 14, 1969.

Happy Trails

This marked the completion of I-5 in Washington -- and indeed in the Pacific Northwest (the nearest stoplight was on the California side of the state line with Oregon) -- and the occasion was marked with a ceremony that was fairly typical for freeway openings during the 1960s. Various dignitaries came to the late-morning ceremony, which was held on the new Steamboat Slough Bridge just south of Marysville. State highway commissioner Harold Walsh of Everett served as the master of ceremonies, and there was the requisite bevy of beauties participating too; Miss Everett of 1968, Debbie Herivel, and Miss Marysville of 1968, Katherine Smith, snipped the ceremonial ribbon while the 1969 “royal court” from both cities looked on. Everyone was all smiles.

The last traffic light on the freeway (located on temporary I-5 at Walnut Street in Everett) between Canada and California was symbolically taken down when the new segment of freeway opened at 11 a.m. District Engineer Bob Roberts, representing the state highway department employees, presented Highway Director Charles Prahl with the light at a luncheon at the Everett Elks Club after the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Prahl, who was resigning his position effective June 1, 1969, used the occasion to slam those who had criticized the department’s freeway construction, arguing in his speech:

“We all recognize that cities need rapid transit, but people are not going to give up their automobiles, at least not for the next 15 or 20 years ... . The anti-highway people in the Seattle area are enjoying the freeways we have built but at the same time are complaining we shouldn’t build any more” (Seattle P-I).

Click here to read the essay from Phil Dougherty on historylink.org.


Sources: HistoryLink.org, The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Eisenhower signs National System of Interstate and Defense Highways Act on June 29, 1956” (by Paula Becker), “Interstate 5 is completed from Everett to Seattle on February 3, 1965” (by Phil Dougherty), “Interstate 5 is completed from Everett to Tacoma on January 31, 1967” (by David Wilma), http://www.historylink.org (accessed March 20, 2010); Washington State Department of Transportation, “Highway Map: 50th Anniversary of the Interstate,” website accessed March 23, 2008 (http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/publications/highwaymap); “CPI Inflation Calculator,” Bureau of Labor Statistics website accessed March 24, 2010 (http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl); “Freeway Link To Open,” Everett Herald, May 13, 1969, p. 1-A; Tom Mansfield, “I-5 Opened Today,” Ibid., May 14, 1969, p. 1-A; “Freeway Ribbon Snipped,” Ibid., May 14, 1969, p. 2-A; Fred Ross, “Prahl Attacks Freeway Critics At Everett Event,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 15, 1969, p. 3-A.