Joseph M. Snow takes office as Washington's first Highway Commissioner on April 15, 1905.

  • By Alyssa Burrows
  • Posted 2/04/2005
  • Essay 7237
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On April 15, 1905, Joseph M. Snow (1850-1929) begins his job as Washington state's first Highway Commissioner. In March 1905 Washington Legislature created the Highway Commissioner post and a Highway Board to oversee road building in the state, thus becoming the 14th state in the nation with some form of a highway department. The Highway Board will have its first meeting two days later. By statute, the Highway Board consists of State Auditor Charles W. Clausen, State Treasurer C. W. Maynard, and Joseph Snow as Highway Commissioner.

From Dirt Roads to Good Roads

The Highway Board and Highway Commissioner post came about due to the work of the Good Roads Association, which had been lobbying the government ceaselessly to improve the state's roads in the name of commerce. Contractor, businessman, and former railroad executive Sam Hill organized the group in 1899. In 1904, less than 1 percent of state roads were paved, and paving meant bricks, wooden planks, or wooden blocks -- not concrete.

Joseph M. Snow was born in 1850. In 1869, he and his widowed mother arrived in Oregon Territory (which included what would be renamed Washington Territory) and settled on a Whidbey Island farm. Snow taught school for two years. In 1870, he got a contract doing surveying work for the government with the help of Elisha P. Ferry (1825-1895), the surveyor general of the territory, who would become Governor of the Territory (1872-1880), and then Washington state's first governor (1889). Snow began surveying on government land on the Samish River. He continued with surveying work, except for two years spent building levees on the Fraser River in Canada.

From Seattle City Engineer to Spokane County Engineer

In 1883, Seattle Mayor Henry G. Struve gave Snow got the job of City Engineer. During this time, Seattle's first sewers were laid on Mill Street (renamed Yesler Way) to 3rd Avenue. Snow also supervised the work of regrading Jackson Street and did the first regrading of James, Columbia, Main, Seneca, and Battery streets. He also regraded (what is now) 1st Avenue between James and Pine streets, which at that time was a bluff overlooking the beach. When completed, this was the longest relatively level street in Seattle.

When his term as City Engineer ran out, Snow did some farming and real estate business in Chelan and in the Waterville area, and also worked as a probate judge in Chelan County. R. H. Thompson became Seattle's next City Engineer. In 1896, Snow became the land examiner for the Northern Pacific Railway. He was elected as the County Engineer of Spokane County in 1902.

The Roads Are Full of Chuck-holes

Snow became the Highway Commissioner in 1905. During the years prior to his appointment, $131,881.23 had been spent on state roads. Of this allotment, Snow said, "At least 75 percent of this money has been wasted, there being nothing to show for it in the way of passable roads" (First Biennial Report).

In his 1906 biennial report, he suggested that state appropriations of more than $100,000 be made for state highway work. He also recommended that a state highway be constructed from Blaine to the Columbia River by way of the Puget Sound shoreline, a north-south highway from British Columbia border to Walla Walla, and an east-west highway across the state. He declared: "If one half of the roads funds of the counties was expended in building permanent highways each year, conditions would rapidly improve and the old style of road, full of chuck-holes in the summer and a sea of mud in the winter,would be a thing of the past" (Seattle Mail and Herald).

In 1907, the Legislature authorized State Aid Roads (main lines of travel, for which the costs of building would be split between the state and the counties), and State Roads (for which the state would pay the entire costs of construction). Snow saw the first state appropriation ($10,000) for the maintenance of roads in 1909. This had been the responsibility of individual counties. Snow was an advocate of convict labor for road building, a practice the Highway Board began in 1907 and halted in 1917.

Henry L. Bowlby succeeded Snow as highway commissioner on August 1, 1909.

After leaving the commissioner position, Snow became County Engineer for Ferry County. He moved to Spokane, and in 1929 was working as chief assistant to the Spokane County Engineer, A. R. Scott, when after a week of illness he suffered a heart attack and died on December 6, 1929. According to his obituary in the Spokesman-Review, "Mr. Snow was 79 years old but had the appearance of a man 20 years younger." A. R. Scott was quoted: "He was one of the finest men I have ever known."


The Seattle Mail and Herald, January 5, 1907, p. 3; The Seattle Times, October 29, 1959, p. B-4; Joseph M. Snow, First Biennial Report of the Highway Commissioner for the Period Ending November 15, 1906 (Olympia: G. W. Gorham, Public Printer, 1906); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Governors of Washington Territory and Washington State" (by HistoryLink Staff) (accessed November 10, 2004); Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy, Building Washington: a History of Washington State Public Works (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1998), 74; "Forty Years with the Washington Department of Highways," Washington State Department of Transportation website accessed November 10, 2004 ( History/40years.htm); "Snow, Early Day Engineer, Famed," the Spokesman-Review, December 8, 1929, p. 8.

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