Saturday, July 3, 2010

North-Cross State Highway over the North Cascade Mountains

That would be a picture of me, from a few years ago, standing on a rock on Washington Pass Overlook, looking down on the steep section of Highway 20 that descends east of Washington Pass on the North-Cross State Highway.

The most recent pass over Washington's Cascade Mountains was a long time in the making.

Way back in 1895 the state funded the exploration of a possible route over the North Cascades. After a year of surveying, the State Road Commission decided that the Skagit Gorge was not a practical route for a highway.

This would have been long before Seattle City Light built hydroelectric dams in the Skagit Gorge. Before the dams and their reservoirs, the Skagit Gorge likely looked quite daunting, road building wise.

It was then decided that Cascade Pass presented the best route. This is to the south of the Skagit Gorge. By 1897 the Cascade Pass route was marked out and designated as State Highway 1 or the Cascade Wagon Road.

Floods soon destroyed most of the road work done on the Cascade Wagon Road. By 1905 Washington's first State Highway Commissioner declared the money spent was a waste. The Cascade Pass route was abandoned.

However, in 2010, you can exit Highway 20 (North-Cross State Highway) at Marblemount and take the Cascade River Road along the route of what was abandoned so long ago. Eventually you will enter North Cascades National Park. The road will end at a big parking lot. From there you can hike the Cascade Pass Trail.

You will see that it is really obvious what an incredible feat of highway engineering this would have been, had that road been built. You can hike over Cascade Pass to Eastern Washington. I don't know if the road has been repaired from floods a few years ago. But, previous to the floods a bus would pick up hikers and take them down the Stehekin Valley to Stehekin or Courtney Ranch.

In the picture you are looking at me, on the Cascade Pass Trail, looking at Mount El Dorado.

By 1936 Seattle City Light had built Gorge and Diablo Dams in the Skagit Gorge. To build the dams a highway had to build in the previously rejected as highway-doable, Skagit Gorge.

Workers moved into the company towns of Newhalem and Diablo. Tourists began to visit. By 1940 Ross Dam was under construction.

Once more the idea of building a pass over the North Cascades grew momentum. The idea of the Cascade Pass route was abandoned forever, with agreement reached that a route over Rainy and Washington Pass would work.

In the early 1950s the North Cascades Highway Association was born and began lobbying Olympia to get onboard with the North Cascades Pass Plan. In 1958 Washington funded the building of a highway from Diablo to Thunder Arm.

Thunder Arm marked the end of the North Cross State Highway, while, over the next 9 years road construction continued from both sides of the mountains.

In 1968 President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the bill that created North Cascades National Park.

Meanwhile, in the sleepy isolated Methow Valley, the town of Winthrop was turning itself into a Western Theme Town in anticipation of tourists having easy access to their section of Eastern Washington for the first time.

Finally, in 1972, Western Washington was connected to Eastern Washington, with Highway 20 crossing the Cascades, on September 2, 1972. It was a big deal. After the ribbon cutting opened the highway a lot of dignataries took the roadtrip over the new pass, including President Nixon's brother, Donald.

I made my first trip over the new highway, driving my now antique 65 Fastback Mustang, 3 weeks later. I have lost track of how many times I've been over Rainy and Washington Pass since. I remember being totally awed to see what had been built, after so many years of it being worked on.

If you are ever being a tourist in Washington, you don't want to miss driving over the North-Cross State Highway and North Cascades National Park.


Steve A said...

Does City Light still offer tours of the dams? That was great fun and things wrapped up with a family-style dinner.

Durango Northwest said...

I assume the tours still take place. I think I remember reading that the incline railway thing in Diablo was either no longer available, or needed work. But that was such a popular, free, attraction, I'm assuming it's back working. I remember the Seattle City Light tour was a field trip when I was in 8th grade. We got the dinner deal in Newhalem and a boat ride to Ross Dam. The City Light trail by the Gorge Dam Powerhouse in Newhalem is a real good thing. You used to be able to go in the Powerhouse. I wonder, post 9/11, if that is no longer allowed.