Seattle Now & Then: Lake Keechelus road, 1911

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: In 1911, an old wagon road runs along the eastern shore of Lake Keechelus. Between 1907 and 1912, ferry operators E.J. and S.J Finch charged as much as $5 (more than $100 in 2022 dollars) per automobile for a trip of less than two miles, outraging vehicle owners. In 1912, urged by Kittitas and King County commissioners, the Finches agreed to halve their rates. (Asahel Curtis, Paul Dorpat collection)
NOW: Replacing the Sunset Highway, six-lane Interstate 90 passes high above Lake Keechelus, just east of Snoqualmie Pass. In both “Now” and “Then” photos, the railroad cut is visible across the lake. The line was abandoned in 1980. (Jean Sherrard)

Published in The Seattle Times online on Dec. 8, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Dec. 11, 2022

To grandmother’s house we swerve — around Lake Keechelus
By Jean Sherrard


This scream from my grandmother-to-be was followed, a split second later, by a swerve from my grandfather-to-be to avoid a head-on collision. He skidded off the gravel road and barreled toward a 100-foot cliff.

Let us freeze that instant of white-knuckled, bug-eyed terror and pause to consider life’s random fragility. From near-miss bullets and plane flights not taken, to Spanish flus and rattlesnake bites, every family history is replete with “what ifs” upon which threads of destiny dangle.

My maternal ancestors’ fate hinged for several seconds on the reaction time of my 21-year-old gramps, who drove a Model-T Ford in the late fall of 1927 on a treacherous switchback of the Sunset Highway, high above Lake Keechelus’s eastern shore.

Heading home to Seattle for the holidays from Whitworth College in Spokane, Lewis Randal and his fiancé —  Dorothy Dailey, then a senior — were taking a much-traveled road with a long and checkered past.

For likely thousands of years, Snoqualmie Pass (elevation 3,010 feet) offered a trail from east to west. In the 1860s, it was expanded to accommodate pack trains and cattle drives and later used by cross-state travelers and nascent automobiles. Early in the 20th century, however, traffic over the pass slowed to a crawl.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had designated Lake Keechelus, a primary source of the Yakima River, as the ideal reservoir to irrigate hundreds of thousands of acres of parched valley farmland. They erected a temporary wooden coffer dam in 1907 at the lake’s mouth, raising the water by 10 feet — just enough to make the existing road unusable.

THEN2: In 1917, the permanent, concrete Keechelus Dam undergoes construction near the head of the Yakima River. The water was projected to rise up to 50 feet above the lake’s pre-dam levels. (MOHAI)

The recently formed Washington State Highway Department, led by Joseph Snow (who engineered Seattle’s first major regrade) found itself between a rock and a wet place. Travelers on the east/west road, now partially flooded, were hostages to a private ferry operator who offered lake crossings at usurious prices.

Meanwhile, on the west side of the lake, astute managers of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad had planned ahead, carving railbeds well above the dammed waters. By 1909, their trains ran on a busy schedule, taunting bottlenecked traffic on the opposite shore with every steam whistle.

With convict labor, the state’s re-routing of the wagon road, part of the proposed Sunset Highway, was not complete until 1915. It remained unpaved until 1934, years after my grandparents flirted with terror.

A merciful thaw of the freeze-frame reveals that the Model-T was halted by a stump at the cliff’s edge, allowing them to proceed toward their (and my) destiny.


Just follow the link to watch our 360 degree video version of this column.

For your enjoyment, Jean added a few photos taken on the same late October trip of the eastern side of the Cascades in the Yakima Canyon near Ellensburg.


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