Olympia is located at the northern end of the “Cowlitz Trail” the original overland route between Puget Sound and the Columbia River. For centuries, local tribes used the trail as a primary trade route. When settlers arrived from Oregon, they too followed this ancient path. They soon made use of other native overland routes, developing them into wagon roads between settlements. These trails were often indirect, following routes that remained above floodwater throughout the year.
With the advent of automobiles came the demand for straighter roads and pavement. By 1915, Washington State dedicated the Pacific Highway as the main north-south route through Western Washington. By 1923, it was paved along its entire length, but still closely followed the historic trails, routing traffic through Olympia’s downtown. Highway-related businesses including service stations, car repair shops, and motels replaced many historic early homes and businesses along the main streets in Olympia.
As traffic increased, so did congestion. After World War II the junction of the Pacific Highway, (US 99), and US 410 at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and Capital Way, created a severe traffic bottleneck. Converting Fourth Avenue and State Avenue to one-way arterials relieved some of the stress, but not much.
By the 1950s, Washington State planned to build a freeway bypass for Olympia. Originally envisioned as a tunnel passing under the city, the revised plan routed the freeway south of town. To bolster support for building freeways, Washington first built freeways in rural areas to connect towns. Drivers began resenting leaving the freeways to inch through congested areas and popular support for building freeways around cities trumped opposition from business owners who feared losing revenue.
In 1958 Olympia’s freeway bypass opened, later redesignated Interstate 5. Since then, most of the numerous service stations that once lined Capitol Way and Fourth Avenue in Olympia have vanished.
“Samuel Hill celebrates international peace and dedicates the Pacific Highway at Blaine on July 4, 1915.” at http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=8074, accessed 8 March 2012.
“Washington receives its first federal highway grant, to pave a portion of Pacific Highway in Thurston County, on April 26, 1917.” at http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=7244, accessed 8 March 2012.
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