I recently read the State of Washington was going to demolish a local historical relic, a bizarre urban ruin people in Seattle call "The Ghost Ramps" or the 520 Ramps to Nowhere.
Pretty much everyone in Seattle knows these ramps, protruding into the air with nothing attached to them. Thousands of motorists see them every single day while crossing the Route 520 Bridge which gives the ramps their name. But I was not aware of the rich history of these ghostly relics now fifty years old until I visited the site and was amazed by their eerie grandeur.
First, a history and geography lesson.
Seattle is not a big city. On a map the city looks like the letter "Y" just a few miles wide at any given point. For those of you who know Seattle's Pike Place Market on the city's western shore, the eastern shore is less than three miles away. This little detail makes highway construction in Seattle extremely difficult. If you are going to build a north/south highway, how do you do it in such a narrow corridor?
In the 1950s, the civil engineers of Seattle had this very problem. Much like many older cities, Seattle at the time was serviced by one small main highway, Route 99, or today's Aurora Avenue. (Think Route 1 along the East Coast or PCH on the West.) If you arrived or departed Seattle by car you likely left via 99. As the interstate highway system reached across the United States and the old car highways like Route 66 were replaced by more modern freeways, the decision was made to bring Seattle into the modern age and build some roads.
But how? And where?
The decision was made in the early 1950s to ready Seattle for the 21st Century with three major north/south highways running straight through the city.
The first built was today's Alaska Way Viaduct, along the western edge of Seattle. Completed in 1953, this is today's Route 99. Since this was the simplest of the routes to complete it went up first. The Viaduct, as it is called today, is an elevated highway which made putting roadway above the existing city street a fairly straightforward project.
The second highway was not going to be so easy.
Building Interstate 5 through Seattle was going to require slicing a HUGE path literally up the spine of the city. A concrete ditch needed to be dug SEVEN MILES long and THREE BLOCKS wide
and everything in its path was to be destroyed. The oldest hotel in Seattle, one that had survived the Great Fire of 1888, met the wrecking ball. Whole neighborhoods disappeared under asphalt. Other communities found themselves severed in two, cut off from downtown with only occasional overpasses as links to the rest of the world. Local streets were converted into interstate cloverleafs.
Beginning in 1957, whole parts of Seattle were obliterated and covered in concrete. Thousands of residents had to be relocated. Hundreds of businesses moved or closed. The building of Interstate 5 through Seattle's was (and still is) the most disruptive public works project in its history. The few protests against the construction were mostly ignored because most people believed the interstate was needed for the city's future survival.
This last point is key. By the late 1950s, Seattle like many large urban cities was dying. Populations were falling as the giant postwar economic boom for the cities that was predicted never occurred. Instead, the growth was centered in the new suburbs as residents fled the downtown corridor for the charms and lures of backyard BBQs and single family homes. Seattle built Interstate 5 to save the city, not doom it to the excesses of the automobile.
By the early 1970s, the city was so economically depressed someone famously put up this billboard.
But in 1959 Seattle had one more highway to build according to its plan, the third and most eastern route through the city. This highway would be larger than the Viaduct but smaller than Interstate 5 but still a massive urban works project.
The R.H. Thomson Expressway was going to use the existing roadway known as Empire Way (now called Martin Luther King Way) and cut its way north to the Washington Arboretum, where ramps would take the highway across Lake Washington.
The highway was named after Reginald Huber Thomson, the famous civil engineer who literally built Seattle at the turn of the 20th century. Without Thomson, Seattle would have not been connected to the outside world via any means and even getting across town would have been next to impossible. It was Thomson who dreamed up the Denny Regrade, built the Lake Washington Ship Canal, and most of the streets and sidewalks of the city. Thomson built Seattle's famous Volunteer Park.
He loved to build so much his friends told him to relax and take a trip to Europe. While exploring the continent on vacation, he became fascinated on how to build European-style water treatment systems. When he returned, he built Seattle's public water system including parts of what is today Discovery Park.
Thomson had so much energy as a builder when retired from employment in Seattle he built bridges, water systems, dams, and roadways all over the Pacific Northwest. An example? Tompson built the water supply system of Bellingham, Washington.
While serving as Seattle's chief civil engineer, this marvelous bundle of energy also decided to become President of the University of Washington from 1905-1915. Tompson just loved to build and UW needed some building done.
So while overseeing the construction of much of Seattle's public infrastructure AND also running the University of Washington, Tompson then decided to also build the Port of Seattle and the Hiram M. Chittenden locks. Those are the locks below. Seattle residents still love them and tourists read about them in their visitor guides.
But "That Man Thomson" (as he was known around Seattle) was not done with public service when he retired from UW in 1915. He was a member of the Seattle City Council from 1916-1922. But he was bored with the job and decided not to run for reelection. He went and built hydroelectric dams in Eugene, Oregon and Southeast Alaska instead!
So in 1960 the voters of Seattle gave approval for the $11 million project named after Thomson. But right at the start there were problems.
The proposed route would again require the displacement of thousands of city residents and the destruction of hundreds of buildings and homes but this time, unlike I-5, there was a difference. The selected route went through the Central District of Seattle, home of the city's African American community. Some civic leaders, white and black, thought the R.H. Thomson Expressway was merely a veiled way to ELIMINATE the black population of Seattle. The Central District for half a century had been an Italian American enclave but those days were over. Wasn't it curious, even suspicious, the planned highway route would so devastate just one minority group? The ongoing I-5 construction and population displacement was the future of the Central District.
For those who know Seattle, the Thomson Expressway would have run two blocks east of Garfield High School, slicing the Central District in two. Here is the actual route of the proposed Thomson Expressway and its overleaf exchanges such as on Cherry, Madison, and Union Streets in Seattle
View Thompson Expressway in a larger map
By 1963, construction began on the easy section of the highway, building the ramps across Lake Washington inside the city's arboretum, itself a controversial act. But, once again, the engineers encountered problems. The wetland soil could not support the weight of the ramps without reinforcement.
None of this mattered in the end, obviously. By the late 1960s, fierce opposition from every quarter in Seattle forced the city to rethink the R.H. Thomson Expressway. In 1971, a citywide referendum on the project killed it once and for all. In the end, 71% of the city voted against the highway, leaving the few ramps in the arboretum as the only physical proof the idea ever existed at all.
And this is where the 520 Ramps to Nowhere have sat for the last fifty years with few people paying attention until Washington decided to demolish them.
Before this happened, I decided to take a look. I initially acting out of curiosity. But now I believe these beautiful relics need to be saved. I was overwhelmed by my visit and the experience.
For a fraction of the cost of their demolition, these ramps could be developed into a world class park. Seattle's experience with its now world famous Gas Works Park and the rusting ruins there should teach residents and city planners this fact. People love urban ruins and these ramps have a graceful irony about them. According to the specifications of their engineer designers, these ramps were meant to carry 45,000 cars ever day. But if these ramps stand 10,000 years they will never carry a single one. These ramps are pure 1960s, vintage in every way.
Remember the 520 Ramps to Nowhere and the Space Needle are the same age---and always will be.
The environmental trend today in civil engineering and urban architecture is called "adaptive reuse" and the Ramps to Nowhere are perfectly designed for this purpose. An excellent example of what is possible for the Ramps to Nowhere is Manhattan's High Line Park, built on the remains of an elevated rail line which had been scheduled for demolition. New Yorkers love this park and the same type of adaptive reuse could be planned for the Ramps with all types of plants and vegetables grown on and around them.
Chicago, St. Louis, and even Durham, North Carolina are attempting adaptive reuse of abandoned rail lines and urban infrastructure. Ten years from now I'd love to put Seattle on this list since reusing structures is GREEN and demolishing them is a dirty, dangerous, and landfill consuming business.
I loved everything about my visit to the Ramps to Nowhere and I bet thousands of tourists each year would as well. For me, it was a powerful and emotional experience. And also, lots of fun!
These relics are a testament to the demands of the automobile and our dependence on them. They are massive in size and still structurally sound. Breaking them up and hauling them away will be no easy or clean project. Moreover, the claims of "restoring the natural state" of the Washington Park Arboretum makes no sense given the fact the arboretum's land itself is man made, the remnants of a paper mill operation housed in the area for nearly sixty years.
The Washington Park Arboretum should save the Ramps to Nowhere as a monument to the birth of Seattle's environmental rights movement and its own prominent role in it. How many other arboretums around the world can claim they stopped a highway and have the proof? Not a planned highway, but an actual one already actually under construction?
On June 1, 1961, about 100 environmental activists began a protest against the Thomson Expressway. They carried signs which said BLOCK THE DITCH. They marched near the construction site of I-5 in downtown Seattle and warned this same concrete monstrosity and community devastation was coming to the eastern neighborhoods of the city just like it was obliterating the center.
By 1969, thousands of protesters were flocking to the Arboretum to protest the Thomson Expressway. The gates of the Arboretum were literally the battleground against the project.
Historians credit the environmental and community activism which doomed the Thomson Expressway as saving Pike Place Market from demolition in 1971. The fight to BLOCK THE DITCH led to the 1960's Seattle Freeway Revolt and a whole new attitude on the environment and historic preservation which continues to this day. The strong role of Seattle's local communities in the land use and planning process of today's city is a legacy of the fight against the Thomson Expressway.
I have no skills as a photographer but I took these photographs to demonstrate how the ramps could be incorporated into the landscape. These ramps offer a complete interactive experience for visitors, something most ruins cannot because, by definition, most are structurally unsound. You can walk on these ramps, climb on them, and even canoe and kayak to them. I see them being used as movie sets, concert venues, photographic backdrops, and more.
As Seattle once again decides on its relationship with the automobile, this park provides a valuable lesson for historians and the future. The decaying (and always free) Viaduct highway, the first built in the 1950s, is now being demolished and replaced with a toll tunnel far fewer people will use, pushing traffic it now carries onto surface streets downtown.
Interstate 5 now carries 250,000 cars a day through Seattle and cannot carry many more. So how does the city of Seattle in the year 2050 and beyond move its people? The answer to this question is still not clear and controversy surrounds the answer.
But the real emotional power of these Ramps to Nowhere is the Somewhere still in front of them.
I dare any person to stand at the top of the buried ramps and stare straight ahead into the neighborhoods of Madison Park and Madrona. EVERYTHING for the next seven miles would have been vaporized if the Thomson Expressway had been built.
Allied carpet bombing against the Germans during World War II would not have cleared such a path.
See this spit of land? This is the terminus of the Ramps to Nowhere. This is where the land meets the ramps, where the highway goes into the air. All land in front of this spit would have been cleared.
Instead of those bushes and trees you see above, what you would see instead in that very spot is this scene below. A concrete trench seven miles long and four blocks wide. Much of the Seattle neighborhoods of Madison Park, Washington Park, Madrona, the Central District, and Leschi would have been destroyed. Whatever remained to the east of the expressway would have been cut off and relying on overpasses just like the scene below. Notice the sad little houses still standing on either side of the expressway in the drawing.
Hundreds of homes, stores, and city streets like these below would have been demolished. But with the loss of the homes and business and jobs would have been the loss of communities.
Friends lost. Families uprooted. Support systems for people like the elderly and the disabled obliterated along with their homes. The legacy of 1960s urban renewal programs would have been felt in Seattle with disastrous results. Famous Seattle architect and vocal foe of the Thomson Expressway Victor Steinbrueck put it best when he said the routes of I-5 and the R.H. Thomson Expressway went through poor people's neighborhoods. Rich people were not asked to move for their cars.
The 520 Ramps to Nowhere section of the Washington Park Arboretum should be renamed the R.H. Thomson Park. It is truly ironic and indeed fitting this should be the case since the ramps and the Washington Arboretum itself is on Lake Washington Boulevard, a road itself laid out and built by Thomson himself as Seattle's chief civil engineer.
It is also fitting the Washington Park Arboretum, managed (in part) by the University of Washington, also honor one of UW's own past presidents on this site. Thomson was obsessed with building infrastructure projects and he loved Seattle and especially UW. The Ramps to Nowhere can be his memorial and I'm sure the obsessed civil engineer who lived and breathed to build roadways would be positively thrilled with such a physical (and public infrastructure) monument bearing his name.
To visit the 520 Ramps to Nowhere, set your GPS or Google Maps to Lake Washington Boulevard and East Miller Street in Seattle. The ramps will be visible about fifty yards to the northwest. You cannot miss them.
I HIGHLY RECOMMEND YOU DO NOT VISIT THE RAMPS ALONE. The area is filled with homeless men and their encampments, some who live under and on the ramps. BE CAREFUL. You can walk around the ramps and see the large buried ones without breaking any laws. But in order to go out onto the water ramps you will be violating posted trespassing signs.
THE AREA IS PATROLLED BY POLICE. Or in this case, the Washington State Patrol who take trespassing a bit more seriously than the local Seattle cops or the King County Sheriff. Remember to follow all the traditional rules when visiting an abandoned place with NO TRESPASSING signs.
1. Have your ID handy at all times.
2. If confronted by police, always be friendly and respectful.
3. Do not carry weapons. Police will excuse trespassing if your motives are good but not concealed weapons.
4. Carry evidence of your research or reason for being there, such as books, articles, cameras, etc. Most police are fascinated with historical research even though you will get a lecture on trespassing before they let you go.
5. Always carry a cell phone.
6. Never go to such a place alone.
UPDATE, March 10, 2013: The response to this article has been phenomenal. Please see this new Facebook Page on the 520 Ramps to Nowhere with more information about them and new preservation efforts.