The year was 1877.
The gold fever that had plagued the West Coast in the 1800s struck Otto Klement when he found evidence of the precious metal in Ruby Creek, near Ross Lake, just south of the Canadian Border.
Soon Klement’s discovery and others like it began to draw scores of miners to the area, and the idea to build a road through the mountains took seed.
Almost a century later, a 63-mile ribbon of asphalt finally ran through the valleys and passes of the North Cascades, where previously only boot and hoof had crossed.
It stretched around Diablo Lake, over Thunder Arm and along Ruby Creek and Granite Creeks to Early Winters Creek and Mazama. It wove under the majestic summits of Liberty Bell and Early Winter Spires, Silver Star and Cutthroat Peak, most of them at least 8,000-feet tall - a primitive mountain kingdom.
On Sept. 2, 1972, the $25 million State Route 20 - the North Cascades Highway - was dedicated with much fanfare.
Ceremonies marking its 25th anniversary were held Monday in a park opposite the Skagit General Store here.
The building of the highway was not without its battles. Construction in the 1960s through what was to become North Cascades National Park became one of the state’s early environmental battles. It was also one-sided, some remember.
“Let’s put it this way,” said Pat Goldsworthy, a member of the North Cascades Conservation Council and a retired University of Washington bio-chemistry professor. “We didn’t exactly approve of it, but we didn’t have much political clout.”
“We made a lot of noise, but we weren’t getting anywhere,” said Harvey Manning, Seattle area outdoor author and environmental activist. “It’s still a travesty.”
Polly Dyer, of Seattle, helped found the conservation council 40 years ago.
“I would like to have seen the area stay wild … but I’m sure the public that drives the road loves it,” Dyer said.
She was one of two women in a group of 20 highway opponents and proponents that were led over the route on horseback by then-Gov. Dan Evans in the 1960s.
Evans is credited with bringing a together the interests of highway enthusiasts and conservationists in the design of the road.
“He put his feeling about environmental quality into the highway as the governor,” Goldsworthy said.
Today, it would be almost impossible to build such a highway because of environmental regulations and cost, said Don Senn, a state Department of Transportation regional administrator based in Wenatchee.
“The money would be going to state Route 18 or 522, where capacity is needed,” Senn said. Washington 18 runs through south King County between Auburn and Interstate 90, and Washington 522 runs between Bothell and Monroe.
“Gold was the primary reason for the ferocious efforts to get through” the mountains, said JoAnn Roe, a Bellingham author whose book, “North Cascades Highway, Washington’s Popular and Scenic Pass,” is to be published this fall.
Miners needed access to the closest smelter, which was in Tacoma, Roe said. For more than a half-century, the issue of just where to build an east-west road through the mountains remained undecided.
Routes considered included a road over Hannegan Pass and Whatcom Pass to Ruby Creek; a road over Austin Pass between Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan; and another via Bridge Creek, up the Stehekin River to 5,392-foot Cascade Pass and into Western Washington.
“The problems were mostly terrain,” Roe said.
Whatcom Pass and Austin Pass were the first to be discarded as routes. But Cascade Pass remained under consideration into the 1940s, according to Roe’s account. When the scenic highway was finally dedicated in 1972, the road didn’t follow any of the original routes.
At issue now is whether the North Cascades Highway should be kept open year-round.
That would require more than $100 million in snowshed construction in the Washington Pass area, plus the huge costs of keeping the road free of snow, Senn said.
Businesses at either end of the corridor have come to depend on the highway’s presence from at least the late spring to early fall when it is snowfree and open.
“If we didn’t have it, most of us wouldn’t be here,” said Vic Moss, who operates the Outdoorsman, a camping and sporting goods store in Winthrop, where the highway works its way down the Methow Valley toward Twisp.
Traffic through the mountains ranges daily from 60 vehicles during the fall hunting season to 3,000 vehicles during the summer peak, Senn said.
“Unless you can prove it is financially feasible,” he said, the chances of keeping the highway open 12 months a year are as remote as some of the distant peaks motorists can see as they drive through.
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