On June 20, 1915, a Seattle Daily Times news crew set out from Seattle in a six-cylinder Buick touring car. Their destination was familiar, but their route was a new one: the Sunset Highway.
This new road, the first direct public automobile route across the Cascades, followed an old wagon trail that itself had been an ancient Indian trail, according to HistoryLink.
The trip that day from the Times’ office in downtown Seattle to Yakima, about 170 miles, took 10 hours. The road through the pass was compacted gravel.
The Times staffers laid out an itinerary for potential “motor enthusiasts and visiting tourists” that noted every twist, turn and fork in the road, down to a tenth of a mile. It started with a drive from Second and Union to Lake Washington, where they caught a ferry to Kirkland. From Redmond, they went to Fall City, Snoqualmie Falls and up to North Bend.
On the most rugged part of the pass, Seattle Daily Times reporter Frederick Wagner wrote, less than a mile of the road was in poor condition. The writer was awed that only one switchback, near the summit, was created on the 5% grade highway.
The trip continued to Laconia (at the summit), and then Keechelus Lake, site of a hotel and gas station. From there, they pushed on to Easton, Cle Elum, Ellensburg, Selah and the final destination.
By 1926 the highway was called U.S. 10. That year, the Washington State Highway Department straightened out the winding stretch west of the summit. East from there, the route shifted to an old road that ran along the north end of Keechelus Lake, following an old train route.
Heavy rain took its toll on the gravel roadway. Winter, however, presented the biggest problem: The pass had to be closed to automobiles until the snow melted. But in 1930, highway workers were able to keep the pass open due to new equipment and completion of an oiled and paved surface, a Times report said. The improvements brought an upswing in skiing.
In the 1940s, the western end of the Sunset Highway was rerouted. No longer did it go south around Lake Washington. Now a tunnel through Seattle’s Mount Baker neighborhood connected motorists to the new floating bridge that led them to Mercer Island, where they then crossed another bridge to arrive south of downtown Bellevue. The highway route was also straightened between Issaquah and North Bend.
The route was continuously changing and being improved. In the ’40s, it turned east after Ellensburg toward Vantage, instead of south toward Yakima.
More people were hitting the road after World War II, so the highway was expanded from two lanes to four in busy parts on both sides of the pass. As sections met federal standards in the 1950s and ’60s, it became part of the Interstate Highway System.
Finally, in September 1993, a new floating bridge was finished and I-90 was complete from Seattle to Boston.
And now on interstates 90 and 82, the 140-mile trip from Seattle to Yakima takes just over two hours — if there’s no traffic.
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