History of the Snoqualmie Pass area

Before discovering what is now known as Snoqualmie Pass, Yakima Pass, just to the south, was used by the whites for crossing the Cascades. It was even sometimes called Snoqualmie Pass, which has created confusion about when whites first visited Snoqualmie Pass.  Yakima Pass had probably been used since the early 1800's by traders for the Hudson Bay Company, probably along with other passes just to the south.

The "real" Snoqualmie Pass was probably first mentioned by the Native Americans to Capt. George B. McClellan (after whom McClellen Butte is named) in September 1853, while he was surveying for a route across the Cascades.  He was actually guided across at Yakima Pass (from the east, and after a short distance turned back), because he was told that Snoqualmie Pass, now the lowest elevation and easiest route across the Cascades, was "seldom used" and "practicable on foot with the greatest difficulty".  Every route he explored over the mountains, he declared unpassable... several of which were later travelled successfully.  He either wasn't a very good surveyor, or he had very high standards.

It was next mentioned to railroad surveyor Abiel Tinkham (after whom Tinkham road and campground near exit 42 is named) in January 1854, while he was crossing Yakima Pass (a winter crossing from the east, made successfully all the way through to Seattle).  Arthur. A. Denny, a founder of Seattle and after whom Denny Mtn is named) says that the Indians told him that Tinkham crossed near Snoqualmie Pass, not exactly using the route the road takes, but pretty close to it.  I'm not sure how this confusion came about. 

The first white persons to undisputedly cross Snoqualmie Pass were in 1855.  Frederick W. Lander's railroad surveying party crossed it in August (from the west).  Denny himself was very interested in making a road over the Cascades, and that fall joined Frederick's brother Edward Lander and Hillory Butler and started off towards Snoqualmie Pass, but got turned back just after they left due to the outbreak of the Indian War (caused by the Indians in Eastern Washington being understandably upset about being forced to sign treaties and move to reservations).

In 1856, during the Indian Wars, Van Bokkelen crossed the pass, looking for spots to build forts, to protect against hostile Indians crossing Snoqualmie Pass from the east.

In June 1858 a group of Seattle men, probably miners, cleared a trail all the way up to the pass, and many miners followed them. Lake Keechelus, at the time, was not very easy to walk around, the old Indian trail going way up a ridge and back down again, so travel was much easier by raft across the lake. A lumber company on the lake in later years would sometime ferry people across for money. (Keechelus, by the way, means "few fish".  Kachess means "many fish".  You can tell where the Indians preferred to fish).

In 1862, Smallman explored Snoqualmie Pass, and came back to Seattle trying to drum up support for making a road there.

In 1865, a large forest fire devestated the slopes of Denny Mtn.

A.A. Denny, Jeremiah Borst, William Perkins and a Snoqualmie Indian guide visited the pass in 1865 to make a plan to widen the trail to a wagon road.  According to Denny, the Indian guide said that Denny may have been the first to take the exact route over Snoqualmie Pass that the road now follows.  That road was finally completed in 1867.  Ferrying across the lake was still necessary. Parts of this wagon road can still be seen near Denny Creek campground.  This road never stayed in good condition for more than a few months at a time.  Each winter it was practically obliterated and had to be rebuilt every year by the first people using it.

To raise money for making the road, some citizens of Seattle got permission to run a lottery around 1875.  There were some amazing prizes, including Yessler's saw mill (one of Seattle's most valuable properties).  I can't imagine what possessed him to donate it.  But, due to some questions about how much of the proceeds would actually go to road building, and legal questions about the raffle, the government revoked the permission, and it never happened.

A private company in Ellensburg finally decided to make a better quality road, and got permission to charge a toll for using it.  The toll was in effect from 1884 to 1887.  Tollgate Farm in North Bend was one of the toll booths.

The Northern Pacific Railroad finished a railroad across Stampede Pass (using switchbacks in the steepest sections, where the train actually had to reverse direction several times) on June 1, 1887.  They decided to found a new city on Puget Sound rather than  build all the way up to Seattle at greater expense and delay.  The new town was called "Tacoma".  Stampede Pass got its name because in the early 1880's, while the railroad was being constructed, a new foreman arrived who promised to work everyone much harder and get the most out of them.  The entire crew quit on the spot and stampeded back to Seattle.

As an incentive to build the railway, the Northern Pacific received twenty 1/4 mile sections of land for every mile of track laid in Washington; alternate sections, in a checkboard pattern. Believe it or not, 22% of Washington State was given away to railroad companies, mostly to Northern Pacific.  That's quite an incentive.  Yet NP was given their land in 1864, and didn't finish building the railroad for 23 years. They sold their land, mostly to timber companies, like the 900,000 acres sold to Weyerhauser in 1900 for $6 an acre.

On May 3, 1888, they completed the "Stampede Tunnel" through the mountain, eliminating the need for switchbacks.

In 1894, another large forest fire devestated the slopes of Denny Mtn.

Since the railroad came, the road wasn't used so much anymore, and fell into disrepair again.  Arthur Denny's brother David made some improvements to it in 1899.

The first automobile was able to cross Snoqualmie Pass in 1905.  He probably just got lucky.

The first dam was made at Lake Keechelus in 1906.

On March 29, 1909, the Chicago, Minneapolis & St. Paul Railroad completed a track through Snoqualmie Pass itself, following basically the same route I90 does now.  The wagon road was improved as well this year, to be able to handle the new automobile, as well as horse wagons.  A train station was built right at the summit of the pass, called "Laconia".   Although it had no post office, or permanent population to speak of (except for a few cabins like those of Guye and Gingras near Guye Peak - see history of Guye Peak and Commonwealth trails) it was the beginning of civilization at Snoqualmie Pass.  The nearest post office town to the west was Tanner (east of N. Bend) and to the east, Easton.  In between the two towns, were railroad stations named Ragnar, Garcia, Bandera, Laconia, and Whittier, at which passengers could embark/debark and all of which had pre-paid freight and express stations for sending and receiving packages.  In fact, since the road was never plowed in winter, the train was the only way into and across the mountains for half the year.

A private businessman from Puget Sound set up a ferrying company at Lake Keechelus in 1912.  An improved dam was made at the lake in 1914.  The area of the lake was now about double what it had been since it was formed by a natural dam of glacier moraine about 10,000 years ago.  Now the shore line was much different, and much more suited for travelling around.  In 1915, the road was completed around the lake, finally avoiding the need for a ferry.

Civilized life at the pass was shortlived.  In 1916 a tunnel was drilled from Hyak west to a new station, Rockdale, mostly to avoid the danger of avalanches at the higher elevations.  Laconia disappeared.

Starting in the 1931-32 season, the road to the pass was plowed during the winter and kept open as much as possible year round.  By 1934, it was paved.  This road was the current Denny Creek campground road west of the pass, and the side road past the ski areas east of the pass until the 70's, when the current highway was made.  In 1981 the lanes west of the summit were split, and new westbound lanes were opened north of the river, on a bridge over Denny Creek 200 feet above the ground.  This bridge cost $13,000,000, not a small portion of which was because it was constructed without any of the scaffolding touching the ground, to minimize environmental impact.  That was quite a trick.  



Prater, Yvonne:  Snoqualmie Pass from Indian Trail to Interstate, 1981, Mountaineers Press

Denny, Arthur A: Pioneers on Puget Sound, 1888, Bagley Press

Bagley, Charles: History of King County Washington, 1927, S J Charles

Bancroft, H.H: Works Volume 31, 1890, The History Company

Mountaineer Annual 1966, Mountaineers

Majors, Harry:  Exploring Washington, 1975, Rip Van Winkle Publishing Co.

Davis, Ellis:  Davis' New Commerical Encyclopedia The Pacific Northwest, 1909, Ellis A. Davis