The nearly 20-year battle to stop the "concrete dragon" that was the proposed R.H.Thomson Expressway was a turning point in modern Seattle history, a fine example of citizen action stopping the bulldozers in their tracks.
Like a war saga, battles were fought on many fronts by citizens, lawyers, activists, UW faculty members and students, gardeners and eventually the entire electorate. Seattleites ultimately voted to defund the project, which would have been part of a network of freeways running through and around Seattle, including one stretch that would have sliced off a big chunk of the Arboretum.
It took more than a village to stop the R.H. Thomson.
As part of the Arboretum Foundation's Pacific Connections lecture series, one veteran of the R.H.Thomson fight recently returned to tell of his involvement in the epic struggle. The story of Franklin Butler, now 65 and a newly retired lawyer practicing in Stanwood, is a fascinating case study in how to stop a freeway.
Butler was a senior at the University of Washington in 1969 when the city was gearing up for road building. It was an era of major protest, especially over the Vietnam War. Butler says many students were also interested in "putting their energy into the community." As a student representative, Butler flew back to Knox College in Illinois for a weeklong conference on how to get college students activated on local issues.
At the conference, the young Butler met representatives of the famed Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky (whose work also inspired Barack Obama). Butler was inspired too and convinced his fellow UW students to bring two Alinsky organizers out to run a weekend training in Seattle.
The training took place in the spring of 1970, a time when college students were fired up with anti-war fervor over the U.S. expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia and by the subsequent shootings of students at Kent State by National Guard troops. Butler remembered angry Seattle protesters taking over I-5 in a spontaneous march before being driven off by policemen wielding batons and tear gas.
The budget for the Alinsky training was $325. The trainers flew out from Chicago on standby and were put up in a commune in Montlake, which was, naturally, ground zero for R. H. Thomson opposition. Yes, Montlake was a little different back then, an era when students could live in leaky Portage Bay houseboats and dilapidated Capitol Hill mansions. The 50 to 200 people who showed up for portions of the three-day training were fed hippie food: 30 gallons of beef stew, mounds of peanut butter and brown rice.
The attendees represented a wide swath of Seattle: residents from Montlake, Madrona, Broadmoor and the Central Area, members of the Sierra Club and Audubon Society and Citizens Against R.H. Thomson, the main group fighting the expressway. Reflecting the breadth of the freeway opposition, a contingent of Black Panthers, in their signature black leather coats and berets, was on hand alongside the genteel members of the Seattle Garden Club in their dresses and pearls. It was the ladies of the Garden Club who earlier in the century had raised $3,000 to pay the Olmsteds to design the Arboretum in the first place. With a coalition of gardeners and Panthers, how could you fail?
A Seattle P-I reporter named Frank Herbert was there too. Herbert had just published a science fiction book called Dune, which hadn't really taken off — yet. Butler recalls Herbert trying to convince every student he met to buy the book. Herbert was an environmentalist and took part in the training discussions. He hoped the group would eventually take up the cause of opposing the toxic ASARCO smelter in Tacoma. The citizen activists chose stopping the expressway as their project instead.
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