On September 2, 1972, the final section of the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20) opens, completing a project nearly 80 years in the making. The road was originally begun in the 1890s with plans to follow a route through Cascade Pass and Stehekin, but it didn't get far. By the 1940s planners realized a more northerly route was the answer, and construction began in 1959. A rough draft of the road was finished in 1968, and it fully opened to traffic four years later. The highway stretches across Northern Washington from Skagit County to Okanogan County, and is a dazzling drive through pristine mountain scenery.
The Cascade Wagon Road
There was talk of building a road across the North Cascades even before Washington became a state in 1889. There was timber, gold, and other minerals locked away in the mountains, but no easy way to get to them. Additionally, increasing settlement in the region made a road across the North Cascades desirable to shorten journeys between communities in Whatcom or Skagit counties on the west and those in Okanogan County on the east.
In 1893 the Washington State Legislature appropriated $20,000 to build a road from the North Fork of the Nooksack River and Glacier Creek (near what is today the tiny hamlet of Glacier on the Mount Baker Highway) to Marcus (Stevens County), on the eastern shore of the Columbia River a few miles north of Kettle Falls. Surveyors soon concluded that the Mount Baker route was impractical. Several alternatives were considered, and by September 1895 the State Road Commission had chosen one. It led east from Marblemount (located at the conjunction of the Skagit and Cascade rivers in Skagit County) along the Cascade River to Cascade Pass, over the pass to Stehekin, then east to Twisp. It was named the Cascade Wagon Road, and work began in earnest in 1896.
Considerable progress was made on the road that year, but floods along the Cascade River the following year took much of it out. Workers east of the pass similarly struggled with flood damage to the road along the Twisp River. And steep grades on Cascade Pass's southeastern face presented a major construction challenge. Work on the road stopped in 1899, and eventually all that came of it was a nice pack trail over the pass. Its beginnings can still be seen in local roads that lead east from Marblemount and west from Twisp before dead-ending miles into the mountains.
A New Direction
During the 1920s there were efforts to resurrect the road. A group of businessmen from Skagit and Okanogan counties formed the Cascade Pass Pilgrims to bring attention back to what they hoped would now be a highway. The group staged creative promotional trips into the mountains on horseback for legislators and the media, and it worked to some extent. The legislature appropriated approximately a quarter-million dollars for construction in the mid-1920s, but this didn't go far. The Great Depression of the 1930s intervened and stopped further appropriations, and the hiatus continued through the 1940s.
In the meantime, highway promoters and dreamers had abandoned the Cascade Pass route, recognizing it would be particularly difficult and costly to build and -- between flooding and avalanches -- hard to maintain. Several other routes were considered and some surveyed, but planners -- most notably highway engineer Ike Munson (1898-1996) -- saw that the best way lay north of the proposed Cascade Pass route. This route, which Munson first surveyed in the summer of 1932, would run not through Stehekin but from Twisp to Winthrop instead, northwest through Mazama and across Washington and Rainy passes, then down Granite and Ruby creeks to the Skagit River just above Diablo Dam, and down the Skagit to Marblemount. Portions of this route were already built. In the west a road ran from Marblemount north and east to Diablo Dam, while in the east a passable road from Okanogan to Early Winters Creek, a few miles west of Mazama, had existed for several decades.
A New Campaign
By the early 1950s Washington had five cross-mountain highways in the southern two-thirds of the state, and the legislature had little appetite for funding a similar project up north. But local boosters were determined. In 1953 they formed the North Cross-State Highway Association (which became the North Cascades Highway Association in 1971) and went to work. The association began a campaign similar to what the Cascade Pass Pilgrims had done in the 1920s, and it continued up to the highway's 1972 opening. Association members took newsmen and freelance writers, legislators, one governor -- Dan Evans (b. 1925) -- and others who could influence funding on carefully planned horseback trips along the proposed route through the tops of the Cascades. Most came back believers.
Many contributed in many ways to the highway's promotion and construction, but one name stands out: George Zahn (1897-1971). Zahn, a Methow orchardist and former state senator, became a passionate proponent of the highway after he took an excursion along its planned route in 1956 at the invitation of Ike Munson, who was leading the trip. Zahn's influence increased when he became a member of the State Highway Commission in 1961, and it increased more when he became its chairman. Zahn's tenure on the commission coincided with critical years that the road was under construction, and his wizardry in keeping funding flowing amazed all. In a 1972 interview with Washington Highways magazine Munson explained, "George Zahn was as responsible as any man ever was for getting the highway finished. He was continually able to get appropriations for the highway from various public sources ... he devoted his whole life to it" ("North Cascades Highway ..." p. 22).
Construction of what was then called the North Cross-State Highway began in 1959 with a 5.3-mile project from Diablo Dam to Thunder Arm, and work proceeded steadily from there. Surveyors and construction crews faced a variety of challenges. In some cases rock ledges had to be widened, sanded, and graded to be able to hold heavy construction equipment. In many places the road had to be cut through solid rock that wore out 3.5-inch power-drill bits every 50 feet. Rockslides were a constant threat, and buried two workers a week apart in 1962. Contractors installed screens around workers' cages on earth-moving equipment to try to protect them.
Avalanches were a continuing problem during the winter, and work simply couldn't be done in higher elevations during the snow season. Huge icicles that formed on waterfalls during cold snaps became heavy daggers ready to drop on workers below, and these had to be knocked down before work could continue. In the summer, yellow jackets and rattlesnakes were the threats.
Another challenge came in the early 1960s when environmentalists began pushing for a national park in the North Cascades where the highway was crossing. The North Cascades National Park became a reality in 1968, and at first some worried that its creation might derail the highway. It didn't, but special touches were incorporated into the road's construction with a nod to the environment. Dynamite charges were modified so nearby trees would not be blown down. In other areas trees were carefully cut to spotlight soaring mountains and sweeping vistas. Concrete in some of the bridges was darkened to blend in better with the surrounding rocks.
A rough dirt road was finished in 1968. Nearly 1,000 jubilant souls came together by four-wheel drive, motorcycle, dune buggy, and horse at Rainy Pass on September 29 to dedicate and celebrate. Politicians, including Governor Evans and U.S. Senator Warren Magnuson (1905-1989), abounded. Miss Washington Highways, Jeannine Gill, cut the ribbon at the pass, and two vehicles slowly edged toward each other. Seated on their hoods were John Pierce of Bellingham and Les Holloway (or Hollaway) of Twisp, representing west and east respectively. Eventually the two men were close enough to symbolically shake hands. A resounding huzzah rose from the crowd and echoed off the mountains.
There was a finally a road, except there really wasn't. Most cars couldn't drive it, and even jeeps could only average about 10 m.p.h. along much of it. Graders and pavers still had a lot of work to do, but Evans -- who was facing reelection that year -- assured the crowd that if he were reelected the road would be completed by the end of his next term in late 1972. He won, and it was. The total cost of construction between 1959 and 1972 was $23.9 million.
Opening day was Saturday, September 2, 1972. It was a sunny warm day in the North Cascades, perfect for dedicating the recently renamed North Cascades Highway. Work continued on the road right up to the big day, and even then a few punch-list items (such as installing warning signs and more guardrails) remained. Ceremonies kicked off that morning in Winthrop, newly remodeled with faux Old West facades on its downtown buildings, with a speech from Governor Evans followed by the obligatory ribbon-cutting ceremony. From there the governor led a caravan across the passes to Newhalem, where he spoke and participated in another ribbon cutting before gathering his charges for the final leg west. The tired troop finally reached Sedro-Woolley about 5 p.m. for the day's third and final ceremony at the high-school stadium.
Leveling the Legend
And then arose a legend, which rested on the documented fact that one of the many people at the ceremonies that day was Ted Bundy (1946-1989), who would later gain notoriety as a serial killer. (The documented killing spree that Bundy subsequently became known for began more than a year later.) Evans was again up for reelection, and Bundy had been hired by the governor's campaign team to pass out literature and buttons during the festivities. Bundy later claimed he'd been Evans's driver that day and thus had been the first to officially cross the North Cascades Highway. This legend grew and eventually became accepted by many as fact.
Evans leveled it in a 2012 interview with the Methow Grist: "He certainly wasn't driving my car ... [The driver was his regular driver, State Patrolman Bill Lathrop.] It's totally bogus. They even had him babysitting our boys. It's just absolutely nonsense. It never happened" ("It Wasn't Ted Bundy").
One or two newly modified versions of the legend persist, but today the highway is known more for what it was intended: a popular draw for tourists who want to enjoy its scenery and travelers who appreciate its shortcut through the mountains. A 40-mile stretch of the highway between Thunder Arm and Early Winters Creek routinely closes during the winter months -- typically November or December until April or May -- because of heavy snow in the higher elevations and avalanches. (There has been one winter the highway didn't close -- the infamously warm one of 1976-1977.) But when it's open it's a smooth ride with great views, and a testament to those who envisioned and built it.