Establishing the Pacific Highway South

    By 1904, over 2 million miles of road existed in the United States of which over 90% was unimproved - typically constructed only of dirt.[1] To this point roads had typically been constructed with the needs of relatively slow moving horses and horse-drawn vehicles in mind. Most outside of urban areas were rutted and potholed - winter snows, spring melts and the rainstorms of summer and fall would wreak havoc on them, turning much of their lengths into essential impassible quagmires. The increased popularity of the bicycle, in part created by the invention of the pneumatic tire in the late 1800s, and America’s rapidly evolving and soon to be insatiable lust for the automobile spurred a popular groundswell of support for the continued improvement and maintenance of the nation’s road network. This demand led to the creation of the National Good Roads Association in 1893[2]. 

    Advocating at the national level for infrastructural improvements, the National Good Roads Association was widely mimicked on the state or territorial level. In the Northwest, the call for good roads was championed by the titanic figure Sam Hill. On September 14, 1899 Hill, the son-in-law of railroad magnate James J Hill (CEO of the Great Northern Railway, a line important to the economic development of the Puget Sound region), convened a meeting of interested parties in Spokane that would result in the formation of the Washington Good Roads Association (WGRA)[3]. The group’s primary goals were to construct a system of improved, hard-surfaced roads that would not only connect the towns and cities of Washington and Oregon, but also stretch the entire length of America’s Pacific coast from the Mexican border all the way to Blaine, Washington on the Canadian. By 1905 the WGRA had succeeded in convincing the legislature to establish a state highway department, one of only 13 in the nation. Hill continued his push to entrench the notion of road building in the Northwest by persuading the University of Washington to establish the nation’s fist highway engineering chair in 1907 and organizing the American Congress of Road Builders as part of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909.[4]

                            Samuel HIll (1857 -1931)                                                     Samuel Hill (left) and R.H. Thompson
                       Photo: Oregon Historical Society                                    Photo:  University of Washington Special Collections

Samuel Hill was a devoted to advocating the construction of a function system of roads in Washington and Oregon. He was a founding member of the Washington State Good Roads Association, and persuaded the Washington State Legislature to create a State Highway Department and the University of Washington to establish the United States' first chair in highway engineering


Hill was the motive force behind  the construction of Pacific Highway 1 between the Canadian border and the Siskiyou Mountains in southern Oregon.  This highway would eventually run the length of America's Pacific coast, linking Vancouver, British Columbia with San Diego.  The growth of transportation infrastructure spurred by Hill's efforts had a considerable and lasting impact on the social and economic development of the Pacific North West. 


    Ever the entrepreneur, 1909 saw Hill construct 10 miles of highway, using multiple different techniques, along the Columbia River to his mansion at Maryhill, Oregon. The purpose of this self-financed demonstration project was to support the notion that improved roads were one of the keys to the continued economic development and expansion of the Pacific Northwest. This early demonstration also served as a litmus test for various road surfaces, showing which were or were not suitable to the purpose. Though he would never realize a financial return on the $100,000 he invested in the project, Hill’s exercise ultimately paid off. 1913 saw the initiation of the construction of the Pacific Highway in Washington. Construction was primarily supported by “funds from automobile licenses [and] gasoline”[5], as well as funds made available through the Federal Roads Act of 1916 and the Federal Highway Act of 1921. In October of 1923 the final 36 miles between Kalama and Toledo, towns close to the Oregon border, were completed. Hill’s road building efforts came to fruition as 700 miles of smooth, two lane highway stretching between Vancouver, British Columbia, past his Peace Arch at Blaine, through Seattle and on to the Siskiyou mountains on the Oregon-California border had been constructed, mostly along existing county roads.[6]

Map 1.  Washington State Highways, 1913

Map sourced at Washington State University's Digital Collections and can be found at

This map clearly depicts the routing of the original iteration of Pacific Highway South.  Produced in 1913, it shows Pacific Highway South running through Kent and Auburn before taking a hard north-westerly turn through Puyallup to Tacoma.

    During this first iteration of its construction, the Pacific Highway South ran through the Kent / Green River Valley, east of its current location. This route was designated as Highway 1 in Washington State, and followed a path similar to the modern WA 181 and WA 167, connecting Seattle to Tacoma by a much flatter, though much less direct, route.[See Map 1 Above] We can clearly see that a direct route between Seattle and Tacoma did exist, though it was an earthen road and most likely extremely difficult to navigate during many months of the year due to mud. The need to link these two cities by a more direct route, for reasons of economy and time, was understood nearly as soon as the pavement of the Pacific Highway was dry. A map created in 1924 showing the highways in Washington State that were to be completed by 1936 clearly indicates the rerouting and renaming of the Highway 1. [See Map 2 Below] Its original course through Kent, Auburn and Puyallup was renamed Highway 5 which would continue through Enumclaw and on to the north side of Mt. Rainier National Park. This route appears to be the ancestor of the modern WA 410. More importantly, the map shows the historical direct route between Seattle and Tacoma being improved from dirt to hardened surface, widened to include 2 lanes in each direction and renamed as Highway 1 – also known as the Pacific Highway. Furthermore, a simple visual analysis of this map indicates that the stretch of highway between Seattle and Tacoma, including that which now connects Tukwila and Federal Way, was intended to part of the first four lane highway in the state. In January of 1931, the State Highway Department produced a map of the Washington’s highways that confirmed the realization of this intention. (see map here )

Map 2.  Washington State Highways to be Completed by 1936 (1924)

Map sourced from Washington State University’s Digital Collections and can be found at

Here we see a proposal to straighten and widen Pacific Highway South, ultimately creating a more direct four-lane speedway between Seattle and Tacoma.  This modernization would have an undeniable and lasting impact on the cultural and historical geographies of the area between Federal Way and Tukwila.

    The establishment of the present course of the Pacific Highway South reflects the localization of a national process. The push for the improvement of the nation’s highways was both a result of the growing importance and popularity of the automobile and can also be considered a causal factor in their increased popularity. “Between 1906 and 1916, the number of motor vehicles in Washington increased almost 100 times, to 70,000. Between 1915 and 1920, the number of automobiles in the U.S. quintupled to 10 million.”[7] Because of the possibility of individual mobility, if not created at least spurred onward by the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 and the Federal Road Act of 1924, by the end of the 1920s there were over 24 million automobiles in America.[8] 

    Despite involvement in a global war and the eventual onset of the Great Depression, the manufacture of automobiles and the concomitant expansion of the nation’s network of highways continued, driven at once by the continued desire for territorial infilling, individual mobility and economic growth. America’s nascent love affair with her highways, an evolving expression of our culturally imbedded expansionist desires, would continue unabated through the first half of the 20th century, growing to become an inextricable part of the American identity. This manifestation of tangible and intangible qualities in American life – “The Road” - was entrenched not only through the practicality and convenience of individualized transport, but also through mutually constitutive nature of art and life. Popular literature, film and music became the media through which this national romance was perpetuated.

[1] US Census bureau maintains these statistics. They can be viewed at

[2] More information about both the National and Washington Good Roads Associations can be found at History Link, The Free Online Encyclopedia of Washington State,

[3] A comprehensive history of Hill’s “Good Road” fetish can be found in Thuy, J. (1983). The Prince of Castle Nowhere. Portland, Oregon. Timber Press. “The Long Crusade” and “The Columbia River Highway” chapters of this book are particularly insightful.

[4] ibid
[5] Dorpat, P., & McCoy, G. (1998). Building Washington: a history of Washington State public works. Seattle, WA. Tartu Publications. p. 82.

[6] ibid

[7] This information comes for “Washington Good Roads Association”, an essay at History Link, and can be found at

[8] See Jan Jennings’ Roadside America: the automobile in design and culture, page 1