Inland Empire Highway

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 10/09/2013
  • Essay 10644
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The Inland Empire Highway was a state highway route through central and eastern Washington, authorized and named in 1913. It linked the small communities of Virden, northeast of Cle Elum in Kittitas County, and Laurier, on the Canadian border in Ferry County, via a circuitous route through Ellensburg, Yakima, Pasco, Walla Walla, Spokane, and Colville. By 1915, it was in wide use and was one of the state's seven Primary Roads. As the highway was improved and new roads constructed, the route changed but it always retained its original purpose of uniting Yakima, Walla Walla, Spokane, Colville, and most other population centers of central and eastern Washington. In 1923, the state's system of named highway routes was changed to a numbered system, and the Inland Empire Highway officially became State Road No. 3. The name Inland Empire Highway persisted for a few decades on maps and in common use, but by the end of the 1930s the roads that made up the route were mostly known by their state or federal highway numbers. However, the old name still lingers in a section of the old route in Benton County and in a brief stretch of U.S. 195 in Spokane.

The Germ of an Idea 

Up until about 1910, Washington's few state highways had been built "primarily from the standpoint of serving horse-drawn vehicles" ("Forty Years ..."). But by 1910, "automobiles had become sufficiently numerous to constitute a transportation factor that could no longer be overlooked" ("Forty Years ..."). Auto owners around the state were clamoring for smoother, wider highways.

The germ of the idea for the Inland Empire Highway route came in 1911 when the Washington State Good Roads Association endorsed a plan for building four new state highways, one of which was a road "east through the Yakima Valley across the Columbia River to Walla Walla and then to Spokane" (Kinsley). The association urged the state legislature to issue bonds to cover the cost.

The name "Inland Empire Highway" was already being bandied about in 1912, a year before the state legislature formally appropriated the funds for the highway. In August 1912, members of the Spangle Commercial Club placed three-foot-wide signs reading "Inland Empire Highway" over 30 miles of the road running north through Spangle to Spokane. The signs were the result of a "friendly controversy" between the commercial clubs of Spangle and Fairfield, located some 10 miles farther east, over which town the proposed route would go through -- Spangle intended to "steal a march" on Fairfield with the signs ("Spangle Boosters ..."). Spangle would eventually emerge the victor in this friendly contest.

The route of the Inland Empire Highway was also a matter of spirited contention in Whitman County. On January 7, 1913, a public meeting of the Good Roads Association of Whitman County in Colfax attracted so many people that the meeting had to be switched from a hotel meeting room to a much larger space at the Whitman County Courthouse.

People descended on the meeting from Pullman, Colton, Uniontown, La Crosse, Winona, Endicott, Tekoa, St. John, Rosalia, Palouse, and Elberton. The meeting turned into a "spirited fight between the delegates from the west side of the county and those from the east" ("Road Route ..."). The east side contingent, centered in Pullman, argued that the route should go through Pullman, Garfield, and Palouse. However, this meant that it would miss Colfax and Rosalia, the route favored by the west-siders. The association eventually agreed on nothing, except to formally endorse no particular route.

 Linking the Cities of the Inland Empire 

By 1913, momentum had built to fund an extensive network of new state highways. The 1913 legislature established a tax levy for two highway funds, one called the Public Highway Fund and another called the Permanent Highway Fund. It also adopted a new system of names, as opposed to numbers, for the state's seven Primary Roads. As a result, the north-south route on the west side of the state was given the name Pacific Highway. The east-west route from Seattle to Spokane via Blewett Pass, Wenatchee, Waterville, and Davenport was called the Sunset Highway. The proposed route through Ellensburg, Pasco, Walla Walla, and Spokane was christened the Inland Empire Highway. Eastern Washington newspaper editors and other boosters of the region had already been using that somewhat grand term for decades to describe their region.

Such a circuitous route -- dipping south almost to the Oregon border, and nearly reaching the Idaho border before angling back westward -- might seem odd to us today. However, it linked most of the cities of any size in central and eastern Washington: Ellensburg, Yakima, Kennewick, Pasco, Walla Walla, Dayton, Colfax, Pullman, Spokane, and Colville.

Work on the Inland Empire Highway began in 1913. Some parts of the route consisted of already-existing roads, which were improved and stitched together under the new route's name. Other parts of the Inland Empire Highway were constructed from scratch. Bids on grading were let out all through 1914. In April 1914, 300 men were working on the road: 120 between Spokane and Spangle, 150 between Spangle and Rosalia, and 30 on a stretch west of Walla Walla.

By 1915, the Inland Empire Highway was well established and was clearly marked out on the state's official road map. In the route's earliest incarnation, it began in Kittitas County at the tiny junction of Virden, a few miles northeast of Cle Elum, because that was the spot where it split off from the Sunset Highway (which continued north over Blewett Pass). From there, the Inland Empire Highway went through Ellensburg and then over a ridge into the Wenas Valley and on to North Yakima (which shortly dropped the "North" to become simply Yakima). From there, the highway followed the Yakima Valley down to Kennewick, where it crossed the Columbia River into Pasco. From there, it went through Burbank, Wallula and Walla Walla. Then it turned northeast to Waitsburg and Dayton, where, in an apparent compromise between Whitman County's two factions, the Inland Empire Highway split into two routes. The eastern route went east to Clarkston, Uniontown, Pullman, and Palouse. The western, and more direct, route went north to the Snake River at Central Ferry and then on to Colfax and Steptoe. The two routes met up again at Rosalia and continued north to Spokane. From there, the Inland Empire Highway turned northwest to Chewelah, Colville, Orient, and finally the Canadian border.

The Route Described 

The entire route was described in a state-produced book titled The Beauties of the State of Washington: A Book for Tourists, written in 1915 by Harry F. Giles, the deputy commissioner of the state's Bureau of Statistics & Immigration. In it Giles lauds the state's "rapidly developing system of roads, which, finally consummated, will rival in skillful engineering and commercial importance the French highways" (Giles, 81). He cited the Inland Empire Highway as one of the five most important of the state's routes. Here is Giles' description of the Inland Empire Highway:

"At Ellensburg, the Sunset Highway connects with the Inland Empire [Highway], a southern route to Spokane via Walla Walla. Following the Wenas Valley to North Yakima, it continues southeast through the Union Gap and along the Sunnyside Canal, the largest irrigation ditch in the state, where a splendid view of the valley, with Mount Hood in the distance, appears. From Prosser, county seat of Benton county and entrance to the Horse Heaven country, the road drops toward the Columbia river and soon reaches Kennewick, the home of early strawberries, and Pasco, county seat of Franklin county.

"The Inland Empire Highway leads on to the beautiful city of Walla Walla; but at Dayton, the quaint county seat of Columbia county, it divides, uniting again near Rosalia, twenty-five miles south of Spokane. The shorter route trends northeast, crosses the Snake … and passes through Colfax, county seat of Whitman county, in the rich Palouse Valley. The other branch penetrates extensive barley and wheat fields, enters Pomeroy, county seat of Garfield county, and Clarkston, on the eastern boundary line, named for the great explorer. Bending northward it transects irrigated lands and wheat fields; enters Pullman, home of the State College, Palouse, Garfield and Oakesdale; joins the other branch at the county boundary line and soon reaches the southern outskirts of Spokane.

"From Spokane this road presses northward through the Colville Valley to the Columbia, and thence to the international boundary line, having previously passed at Deer Park the Arcadia orchard, largest commercial apple orchard in the world; Loon Lake, a summer resort; Chewelah, a mining town surrounded by a dairying country; and Colville, county seat of Stevens county and largest city in this section. A pleasant contrast is this northern extension, regaining the mountains and evergreen forests, the swiftly flowing rivers with glorious waterfalls, and the chains of lakes adorning irrigated vales and green meadows" (Giles, 87-89).

The Giles book includes a 1914 state road map, which shows the route of the Inland Empire Highway. However, this map shows the route turning northeast at Kettle Falls and continuing (along the later route of SR 25) up the Columbia River through Northport, all the way to the Canadian border near the present town of Boundary in Stevens County. Every other official description of the Inland Empire Highway specified that it terminated at Laurier, a Ferry County border town about 20 miles west of Boundary (following the later route of U.S. 395, which the Inland Empire Highway also followed between Spokane and Kettle Falls). In fact, the state's official road map from the next year, 1915, clearly shows the Inland Empire Highway terminating at Laurier.  Until 1925, the Inland Empire Highway also served as part of the route of the Yellowstone Trail, an early auto route from Minnesota to Puget Sound, via Yellowstone National Park.  

Pavement and Bridges 

A photo of the Inland Empire Highway in the Giles book makes it clear that different standards applied to the term "highway" in those days. It shows a stretch of road 10 miles east of Walla Walla -- straight and well-graded, but clearly graveled. Concrete paving was still in the experimental stage and barely existed on the state's highways. Under the state's Permanent Highway Act of 1911, permanent highways were to be "surfaced with macadam, stone, gravel, or some other durable material" ("Forty Years ...").

This changed in the 1920s and 1930s as the route started to be paved, section by section. In late 1931, a crowd of 4,000 people turned out in Colfax to celebrate the "opening of an all hard-surfaced road to Spokane" ("More Than 4,000 ..."). A newspaper noted that the original 1913 appropriation was "only for light gravel" ("More Than 4,000 ..."). The state's official road map of 1931 shows about half the route paved, and about half consisting of "oil macadam," which was broken stone bound with heavy road oil.

Meanwhile new bridges on the route were replacing the old ferry crossings. The Snake River Bridge at Burbank opened in 1921; the Pasco-Kennewick Bridge across the Columbia opened in 1922; and the Central Ferry Bridge opened in 1924. 

New Numbers and New Routes 

In 1923, the state legislature approved a numbering system for the state's highways. The Inland Empire Highway -- except for the portion of the eastern route between Pullman and Rosalia -- became State Road No. 3. Maps began to drop the name Inland Empire Highway in favor of the more concise "3," but people continued to use the names Inland Empire Highway and State Road No. 3 interchangeably. By 1923, the route also included three small spurs of only a few miles each, one from Wallula to the Oregon border, one from Walla Walla to the Oregon line, and one from Clarkston to Asotin. In 1925, the road from Pullman to Colfax was also added to the Inland Empire Highway/State Road No. 3 route. The term State Road No. 3 was changed to Primary State Highway (P.S.H.) No. 3 in 1937.

The route of P.S.H. No. 3/Inland Empire Highway retained its essential configuration over the next decades -- Ellensburg to Walla Walla to Spokane to Laurier. Yet as roads improved and new ones were built, the route was refined and simplified. A 1924 state road map shows that the Inland Empire Highway no longer went through the Wenas Valley from Ellensburg to Yakima. It went directly down the Yakima River Canyon. Also, by 1924 the split between the eastern and western routes took place at Dodge, a small junction about 20 miles north of Dayton.

The western terminus of the Inland Empire Highway also changed between 1931 and 1933. A 1933 state road map shows that a new direct road had linked Cle Elum and Ellensburg. This allowed the route of the Inland Empire Highway to begin at Teanaway, just east of Cle Elum, instead of the old junction at Virden. The stretch down the Yakima River Canyon between Ellensburg and Yakima was paved in 1932, vastly improving that slow and twisting portion of the route. Today, a historical marker on Canyon Road near the entrance to the canyon commemorates that portion of the Inland Empire Highway.

Also, a new northern spur was added when a new road was built in 1937 from Northport, up the Sheep Creek drainage, to Patterson (also spelled Paterson), B.C. The Spokane Daily Chronicle called this the "completion of the Inland Empire Highway, north" ("State Will Complete ..."). Washington State Highway director Lacey V. Murrow (1904-1966) announced the project in 1936, saying, "it will be an easy three-and-a-half hour drive from here [Spokane] to Trail [B.C.] when the highway is completed" ("State Will Complete ..."). However, maps continued to show the main route of P.S.H. No. 3 as leading to Laurier.

By this time, a new federal highway numbering system had come into being, and many parts of the old Inland Empire Highway route were included in the U.S. highway system. By the 1930s, the familiar U.S. highway "shield" became the dominant marker along most of the old route. As of 1939, a driver on the old route, driving west to east, would have been driving U.S. highways 97, 410, 295, 195, and 395. 

The Name Fades 

The term Inland Empire Highway -- which had not been the official name since 1923 -- had vanished from most maps by the 1930s. It was still used by residents, but as the decades went by and as new interstate highways and freeways began to replace many parts of the old route, the term faded away. By the end of the twentieth century, drivers wishing to travel to the cities along the old Inland Empire Highway were doing so via Interstates 90 and 82, and U.S. 12, U.S. 195, and U.S. 395. Most of the old eastern route, through Pullman and Palouse, was now part of state highways 27 and 271.

The term Inland Empire Highway lives on in several places. On some maps, Interstate 82 through the Yakima Valley still retains the informal name Inland Empire Highway. Some 21 miles of roadway from Grandview through North Prosser to Benton City along the north side of the Yakima River is officially named the Old Inland Empire Highway. A stretch of the four-lane U.S. 195 in southwest Spokane is officially called S. Inland Empire Way, an echo of the route's old name.

However, the name has vanished from the vast majority of the route, which now buzzes with high-speed traffic. The auto-driving pioneers who braved the Inland Empire Highway's gravel back in 1915 would be astonished at exactly how fast a driver can now penetrate directly into the heart of this interior "empire."


"Forty Years With the Washington Department of Highways," Washington State Department of Transportation website accessed August 29, 2013 (; Harry F. Giles, The Beauties of the State of Washington: A Book for Tourists (Olympia: Frank M. Lamborne, 1915), available at Project Gutenberg website (; Guy R. Kinsley, "Four New State Roads Are Asked, Bonds to Cover Cost," The Spokesman-Review, October 21, 1911, p. 1; "Spangle Boosters Put Up Road Signs," Spokane Daily Chronicle, July 16, 1912, p. 27; "Road Route is Not Decided On," The Spokesman-Review, January 8, 1913, p. 10; "Road Work Keeps 1,280 Busy," The Spokesman-Review, April 17, 1914, p. 9; "More Than 4,000 Celebrate Road," The Spokesman-Review, November 6, 1931, p. 6; "State Will Complete Highway to Canada," Spokane Daily Chronicle, August 27, 1936, p. 1; "Historical Maps," Washington Secretary of State website accessed September 11, 2013 (; "Automobile Road Map of the State of Washington, Compliments of Shell Oil Co.," 1924, NW Drawer L-13, Northwest Room, Spokane Public Library, Spokane, Washington.
This essay was revised slightly on March 26, 2017.

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