Snoqualmie Pass Becomes a Road

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As soon as people settled in Puget Sound, they knew their needs could not be filled by goods found on the coast. They needed trade from the eastern side of the state.

Long before Snoqualmie Pass on Interstate 90 through Washington State was a highway, it was a migration pathway for the native people of the state. The Snoqualmie tribe lived on the west side of the Cascade Mountains and the Yakima people lived on the east side. The tribes used this mountain pass to visit the other side for trading and hunting. About the middle of the 18th century, these tribes acquired horses by trading with Indians to the south, making travel through the mountains even easier.

Beginning in 1853, the area drew congressional attention. Settlement of the Puget Sound area was difficult because of the mountains. Congress authorized exploration of the area for a wagon route that would connect Puget Sound with Fort Walla Walla on the lower Columbia River. At the same time, money was allocated to explore for a northern railroad route through the North Cascade Range. Captain George B. McLellan led an expedition in 1853. After exploring the region around Lake Keechelus, McLellan concluded that the pass could only be accessed by a fit man on foot.

Territorial governor Isaac Stevens did not accept McLellan’s advice. He hired his own engineer, Abiel Tinkham, to explore the pass. Tinkham traveled the route in January 1854. He surveyed approximately the same area as McLellan, but continued through the pass until he reached Seattle. He was more optimistic about the route being suitable for railroad travel as he had not seen snow over six feet deep along the way. It was two more years before another study of the route took place. Major J. H. H. Van Bokkelen of the Washington Territorial Volunteers scouted the area for places to build military forts to protect the Puget Sound pioneers from raids from eastern Washington tribes. Four forts were built: 1) Fort Tilton one mile below Snoqualmie Falls, 2) Fort Alden near modern-day Meadowbrook, 3) Fort Smalley near North Bend, and 4) Fort Patterson, near modern-day Fall City. The soldiers built a road around Snoqualmie Falls to supply these forts.

Congress was not inclined to give any money for the project though. Puget Sound businessmen took it upon themselves to explore the pass. A. A. Denny, L. V. Wykoff, John Ross, and William Perkins surveyed the area and awarded Perkins a contract to begin a wagon road. He built a road from Ranger’s Prairie (now North Bend) to a point 25 miles east through the roughest terrain. Other travelers wore their way through from the eastern side. Part of the road passed along Lake Keechelus. During dry years, wagons could pass along the bank. Otherwise, wagons rafted or ferried across the lake for the first 40 or so years of the road’s existence. Each spring, the first traveler had to dig their way through the damage caused by rain, snow, and spring runoff. Something had to be done.

In 1866, the King County Commissioners ordered $2,500 be spent on the road. The state allotted $2,000 on the condition that the county raise a matching amount. This was not a problem. By September 1867, the road was improved from Seattle to Ellensburg. This opened up a new market from east-side ranchers and farmers. In 1869, ranchers began driving their cattle over the pass from as far away as southern Idaho.

But the winter of 1869-70 was very severe. It washed away many parts of the road. The road was impassable for the next several years to wheeled traffic. It wasn’t until 1883 that vehicles could use the road again. The road was rebuilt by a company formed in Ellensburg called the Seattle and Walla Walla Trail and Wagon Road Company. The first 40 miles were completed in July 1883. The entire road was open as a toll road in August 1884.

Source:

  1. “Snoqualmie Pass: From Indian Trail to Interstate,” Yvonne Prater, The Mountaineers, Seattle, WA, 1995.