Snoqualmie Valley Historical Museum
Sunset Highway exhibit at Snoqualmie Valley Museum
 
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Sunset Highway: Foot Path to Freeway

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Journey through the early years of I-90, experiencing its evolution from FOOTPATHS for the Snoqualmie Tribe and early trappers and traders, to TRAILS for explorers to map and troops to guard the Snoqualmie Valley, to the SNOQUALMIE WAGON ROAD for traders and settlers, and, finally, to the SUNSET HIGHWAY, traveled by the first cars to drive from New York to Seattle.

Foot Trails: The paths of the Snoqualmie Indians

Yakima Indian beaded purse
Yakima Indian beaded purse
Indians on both sides of the Cascades used trails across the mountains, traveling the steep paths in single file, by foot and on horseback. Temporary camps of cedar mat shelters moved from place to place as needed to pick huckleberries and hunt mountain goats. Every few years, thousands of Indians from Northwest tribes gathered at Che-ho-lan in the Kittitas Valley to hold council talks and settle disputes. Jewelry, tools, carvings, robes, and blankets were available for trade.

The Snoqualmies and the Yakimas had a close relationship, crossing the Cascades to trade, socialize, and intermarry. Horses were more common on Yakima Pass where there were fewer obstacles, while Snoqualmie Pass was usually used for foot traffic.

Introduction of the horse around the 1740’s allowed for more long-distance travel and increased trade. Simon Plamondon, an independent hunter, trapper, and trader, came from Quebec around 1816 at the age of 16. He worked for the Northwest Trading Company, and then, in 1821, the Hudson’s Bay Company, traveling throughout the Oregon Territory. Early journals cite his extensive use of the Indian trails, traveling by foot and on horseback. Winter journeys were frequent and necessitated use of the lowest pass over the Cascades—Snoqualmie Pass.

The Narrative of Samuel Hancock: 1845-1860
(1849) The Indians told me this oahut or road was an old one that had been traveled ever since the recollection of the oldest people as a thoroughfare for the Indians east and west of the Cascade Mountains when visiting each other, and that if I desired going over into the Yakima country we could reach it in one and a half day’s journey. The terrain around Lake Keechelus made travel difficult, even by foot, so travelers often used dugout canoes for this part of the journey.


Double string of shells and blue beads
Double string of shells and blue beads
Hudson Bay Company Yakima Indian Saddle
Hudson Bay Company
Yakima Indian Saddle
Explorations and the preparations for war

Surveying Compass
Surveying Compass
McClellan regarded the Yakima Indian guide as “unusually intelligent.” Certainly the guide was clever enough to direct the captain from exploring the Indian lands, where he and his people had been living for many generations.

Governor Stevens, doubting McClellan’s report of 25 feet of snow, dispatched Lieutenant A.L. Tinkham. He went over Yakima Pass with snowshoes in 1854. His report was favorable, but was rejected by the government. In 1856, Major J.H.H. Van Bokkelen, of the Washington Territorial Volunteers, scouted both Snoqualmie Pass and Yakima Pass. He then worked with Chief Patkanim to locate cites in the Snoqualmie Valley for military fortifications against possible Indian attacks from the east.

Isaac Stevens, the first Territorial governor, appointed Captain George B. McClellan to survey a railroad route from Puget Sound to Fort Colville over Snoqualmie Pass. McClellan reported that the Indians described it as seldom used, difficult even on foot, and passable only for an active, unencumbered man. On this advice, McClellan ignored Snoqualmie Pass. Fort Tilton was built in February 1856 one mile below Snoqualmie Falls. It was constructed of unpeeled hemlock logs, with a puncheon door, a shake roof, and no floor or windows. Supplies were brought up the river to Fort Tilton, then relayed to the other forts. The Washington Territorial Volunteers were to construct blockhouses on the prairie above and below Snoqualmie Falls. Forts were placed near the Indian villages, and the 25 men housed in the forts joined with 75 men from the tribe to protect the Snoqualmie Valley.

In 1855, hatred of the white settlers grew among the tribes of eastern Washington Territory. Pat Kanim, chief of the Snoqualmie Tribe, worked with the Yakima Tribe and the Washington Territorial Volunteers to prevent hostilities from reaching over Snoqualmie Pass.

Fort Alden, built in the early summer of 1856, stood on the river near the present Meadowbrook Bridge. It was constructed of fir, with a shake roof, a cedar puncheon floor, and a cellar opening to the bank of the river. The log over-hang provided additional protection. Fort Smalley, built in the summer of 1856, was located on the south Fork of the Snoqualmie River, across from North Bend, on what became the Tollgate Farm. It was constructed of fir poles, with a cedar shake roof. Not much is known of the last fort, Fort Patterson, which was built near what is now Fall City, and was at the mouth of Patterson Creek.

The Washington Territorial Volunteers who came to protect Snoqualmie Valley never came under attack from east of the mountains, but they did succumb to the lure of the Valley. Many of them remained and settled the land. Jeremiah Borst, the first white man to settle here made his home in the abandoned Fort Alden, on the bank of the Log structures with their cedar shake roofs were built over and over throughout the Snoqualmie Valley as settlers moved in. They lasted many years and examples can still be seen in the area. As people began to settle in the Snoqualmie Valley, the desire for routes across the Cascade Mountains grew in both east and west.


Ax head
Ax head
Beaver pelt laced to hoop
Beaver pelt laced to hoop
Snoqualmie Wagon Road

Four horse power Buick Roadster over Snoqualmie Pass - 1916
Four horse power Buick Roadster over Snoqualmie Pass - 1916
The road through the pass largely followed the rocky bed of rivers. There were 18 crossings of the river. There were stretches of corduroy, often afloat. When cattle walked across the pass, they would take the first step on it and wait until it settled to take the next step, in 1859. Many times a tree which had fallen across the road would have to be bridged in order to cross it. This was done by cutting smaller logs and piling them parallel on either side until the animals could walk over and pull the wagons across.
(excerpt from “A Trip to Snoqualmie,” Seattle P.I., Sept 9, 1859, by T.A.B.)

These “corduroy” bridges and “puncheon” roads were constructed of slabs of cedar laid like ties across long poles. The poles were laid upon mud and the ties were not fastened to them save by heavier poles laid on top. Sometimes earth was thrown over them. The driver had to exercise care that the horses foot or a wheel did not sink into a hole or that the poles did not fly up under the weight of the wagon. Oxen were more surefooted on these roads than horses. At Lake Keechlus, wagons and horses had to be loaded on a log raft and poled across the water of the lake. Trees laid across the road and snows made spring freshets which washed out bridges and tore away the grades. The road along the lake was merely a shelf, but better than a raft.
(excerpt from “A Trip to Snoqualmie,” Seattle P.I., Sept 9, 1859, by T.A.B.)

In July 1865, John Denny, H.L. Yesler, and J.E. Clark began to solicit funds, while A.A. Denny, J.W. Borst, and William Perkins set out to explore the Indian trail over the pass. Summer after summer the fallen timber was removed from the road and winter after winter the winds blew down other forest giants to again render the way impassable.

In 1869, the first cattle were driven through the pass from Yakima Valley, and for several years the road was used to drive thousands of cattle and sheep to market in Seattle, which became a major west coast meat-shipping point.

In 1870 and 1871, F.M. Thorpe of Yakima County maintained an express line from the east side to Snoqualmie Prairie, making weekly trips during the summer and trips every other week during the winter, proving that all year service was possible.

The Seattle and Walla Walla Train & Wagon Road Company formed in March 1883 with plans to connect Eastern and Western Washington Territory by trains and wagon roads through the Cascade Mountains via Snoqualmie Pass. Included in the plans were cabins and stables not more than five miles apart along the snowy portion of the road.


Vance Wolverton and Stenstrom's auto trip to Summit of Snoqualmie Pass in 1910
Vance Wolverton and Stenstrom's auto trip to Summit of Snoqualmie Pass in 1910
Fred Damburat hauling supplies for Milwalkee Railroad
Fred Damburat hauling supplies for Milwalkee Railroad - October 24, 1906
The Railroads

CM&SP train on trestle possibly over Hansen Creek 1914
CM&SP train on trestle possibly over Hansen Creek 1914
The Northern Pacific Railroad sent surveyors to Snoqualmie Pass in 1867 with the intention of establishing a train route over the pass to Seattle. When the Northern Pacific Railroad chose Stampede Pass in 1881 as the route for their trains, and chose to send them to Tacoma rather than Seattle, the civic leaders proposed their own railroad: The Walla Walla Railroad and Transport Company. Unfortunately, this only reached the coal mines in Renton.

In 1883, the Seattle, Lakeshore and Eastern Railway Company formed, proposing a railway route over Snoqualmie Pass. Tracks reached Squak (Issaquah) in 1888, and extended to Sallal Prairie (Ken’s Truck Town) in 1889.

On March 29, 1909, the last rail was installed on the Chicago, Milwaukee, & Puget Sound Railway at Snoqualmie Pass, just in time to carry passengers to the opening of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition on the University of Washington campus.

The Chicago, Milwaukee & Puget Sound Railway later took the name of its parent company, the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway. The train route over the pass is still followed regularly by hikers and cyclists on the Snoqualmie Valley Trail and the Iron Horse Trail, across trestles and through the railway tunnel.

In July, 1871, M. R. Maxwell and a party of surveyors arrived in Seattle and started at once over the trail to the hills. At the time they would say nothing about the purpose of their trip, but a little later it developed that they were surveying for a tunnel under the pass. A letter report from the surveyors showed they had found this solution: a tunnel one mile in length would greatly reduce the grades and would shorten the line by about six miles.

In May 29, 1911, the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway opened for passenger services between Tacoma/Seattle and Chicago, and this continued until 1961. Freight services continued until 1980.


Hanson Creek CM&SP c1911
Hanson Creek CM&SP c1911
Train passengers leaning out windows of snowbound rail car c1912-1913
Train passengers leaning out windows of snowbound rail car c1912-1913
The Sunset Highway

Preparing Sunset Highway shoulders for ski parking - October 22, 1935
Preparing Sunset Highway shoulders for ski parking - October 22, 1935
Automobile traffic over Snoqualmie Pass first appeared in 1905, and followed a road with changing names, including State Road No. 2, Primary State Highway No. 2, U.S. 10, the Sunset Highway, and, finally, Interstate 90.

In 1914, the real road was begun and finished as a two-lane highway. In 1915, Governor Lister dedicated the new highway at the summit of Snoqualmie Pass, celebrating the completion of the road to Ellensburg. In 1912, one car struggled into the Pacific Northwest from Chicago to Seattle. It was a three month trip. In 1916, some Spokane and Seattle men made the trip from Chicago to Seattle in 33 days. During the same season, some 3,000 tourist cars, about 1,500 from each direction, made the trip in approximately the same length of time.

The first vehicle to cross the newly completed Sunset Highway in April of 1915 described the experience as two days of “grueling work and dogged determination” through mud and snow. The switchbacks that enabled early automobiles to climb the steep mountainsides can still be driven between Denny Creek Campground and Alpental. The slopes at Snoqualmie Pass brought people to the area. In February 1930, the road opened to Snoqualmie Summit for the first ski tournament.

In 1909 ,the Alaska-Yukon-Exposition, was to be held in Seattle. This created a new incentive for improving the road. The officials of the Exposition promoted an auto race from New York to Seattle via the Snoqualmie Pass. Money was raised, improvements were made, and 105 cars came through the Pass. The drivers racing to the finish were covered with mud and one team called Snoqualmie Pass “the worst road we encountered the whole trip.” The winter of 1931 was the first time the snow was cleared to keep the road open throughout the year.


Sunset Highway Lake Keechelus
Sunset Highway Lake Keechelus
Curtis B Miller Photo 1920s
Loop on Sunset Highway - Snoqualmie Pass
Loop on Sunset Highway
Snoqualmie Pass
 
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Snoqualmie Valley Historical Museum
PO Box 179  •  North Bend, WA 98045
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