Concrete dragons: How to slay a freeway

In the ‘60s, student activists quashed a web of highways that would have strangled Seattle. And they did it wthout Twitter!
Crosscut archive image.

Proposed Arboretum exchange for the ill-fated R.H. Thompson Expressway

In the ‘60s, student activists quashed a web of highways that would have strangled Seattle. And they did it wthout Twitter!

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.

They had very little time. As Butler remembers it, the weekend training ended on a Sunday and the R.H. Thomson construction was set to begin at 7 p.m. the following Thursday. The group's strategy was to deluge everyone in the political hierarchy at city, state and federal levels with phone calls objecting to the project.That calling began at 8 a.m. Monday morning. The goal was to convince the powers that be that "the people" opposed the expressway. The group did no polling; they just made numbers up. But they did find very few freeway supporters among the public.

On Thursday, Butler says, 300 to 400 protesters showed up, many ready to lie down in front of the phalanx of bulldozers and dump trucks positioned near the Arboretum's "ramps to nowhere" where the road work was to begin. The hard-hatted equipment operators started their engines and left them rumbling. The crowd prepared to block them. Some young women environmentalists were ready to chain themselves to the front of the ‘dozers. But the order to dig never came. The crowd cheered as the engines were shut off. There was a one week delay, then a two-week delay, then a months-long delay. The last-minute blitz had worked, sowing the seeds of doubt in officialdom.

Eventually, Seattle voters decided to pull the plug on the project. It took another seven years before the city council finally, once and for all, killed the R.H. Thompson Expressway in 1977, though it was effectively dead after a public vote in 1972.

The R.H. Thompson protest was not the first Seattle freeway fight. Citizens had protested the big "ditch" for I-5 through downtown in the early 1960s, but those opposition groups didn't have the energy of the '60s at their back. That failure to stop or lid I-5, which divided the city's core, inspired some locals to make sure such a thing never happened again. R.H. Thomson was their line in the sand.

The same freeway frustration also led to a years-long fight over the expansion of I-90. That project wasn't stopped, but its impact on Seattle was lessened considerably by the addition of a lid and park over the highway in the Central Area — no less a mitigation than what Mercer Island received. The original design was a lidless cut that would have devastated the neighborhood.

The Arboretum Foundation's current executive director, former Port Commissioner Paige Miller, hosted last week’s lecture. She said that her group's goals regarding the expansion of highway 520 through the Arboretum were more limited than those of the stop-the-freeway movement of the '60s and '70s. The Foundation wants to minimize the expanded highway's impacts, restore the damaged areas around the "ramps to nowhere," add new walking and bike trails, better connect the Arboretum with the neighborhood, add new wetlands to the park and get as much mitigation funding as possible.

The Foundation would also like to remove the ramps that were built for the R. H. Thomson. Those ramps are the last vestiges of the concrete that was poured in anticipation of a project that would have devastated the Arboretum, and eventually neighborhoods throughout the city.

Many voices in the audience were unhappy about the loss of the ramps, especially after hearing Butler's story of youthful passion, activism and commitment. Miller said there was some discussion about preserving a column or two, but the current plan is to remove the ramps entirely.

That's too bad: Something should remain, something more than a plaque, to reflect the battle that was won there, a victory that has helped empower Seattle citizens ever since. The ramps to nowhere remind us that new, unnecessary freeways are still being proposed, and that David must be ever ready to take on Goliath.



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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.