2012 articles About Offbeat Oregon 2012 articles 2011 articles 2010 articles 2008-2009 articles About me Store (the Finn J.D. John Centre for Crass Commercialism and Filthy Lucre)
Link to Web site for Wicked Portland: The Wild and Lusty Underworld of a Frontier Seaport Town z

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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Oregon's highways were the envy of the West

State had first paved road border-to-border west of Mississippi, in 1923.

Oregon does not have much of a reputation for its road system; both its West Coast neighbors have more developed interstate highway systems.

But it probably should.

In fact, Oregon’s first freeway was built in 1955 — a year before Ike Eisenhower signed the legislation getting the nation’s interstate highway system started. That was the Banfield, in Portland, named after a legendary state highway commissioner.

And the state’s roadbuilding record goes back much further than that. Oregon was the first state west of the Mississippi to build a paved road from one of its borders all the way to the other — Highway 99, all 347 miles of it. The work was done in 1923.

Oregon's highway-building mojo actually got a little out of hand in the 1960s, when a plan was afoot to punch a highway right down the middle of the beach in places like Nestucca Spit on the Oregon Coast. That plan fetched up with a sickening thud on the bulwark of public opinion as well as federal law, and a chastened highway department had to back down.

When Hasso Hering, the longtime editor of the Albany Democrat-Herald newspaper, first came to Oregon in the early 1960s, he found the state a motorist's paradise, well stocked with straight, clear, well-engineered, pothole-free highways untroubled by congestion and surrounded by gorgeous scenery, the legacy of decades of roadbuilding tradition in Oregon.

But for all that early work, the interstates took a while to get really popular in Oregon. You might not believe that if you’ve been stuck on I-5 lately. At quitting time on a weekday, anywhere in the Willamette Valley, the freeway is usually bumper-to-bumper. But it wasn’t always like this.

In fact, when Bill Bowerman was coaching the University of Oregon track team in the late 1960s, his runners would use the then-newish freeway for practice. They’d run onto the freeway at the north Springfield exit and run to Coburg and back, running in the fast lane going against the flow of traffic — such as there was. In fact, they’d only see a car or two, and they’d see it coming from a long way off, in plenty of time to get into the median to safety.

Many longtime residents also remember times, driving between Eugene and Salem for instance, when they were virtually alone, hurtling along, kings of the highway. Those days are gone in the valley, although a trip from The Dalles to Pendleton on I-84 can get pretty lonely sometimes.

For younger residents, the freeways seem like part of the landscape: always been here, always will be. But Oregon’s freeway system is a relatively young one. Interstate 5 itself was finished in 1966, just over 40 years ago. Interstate 205, through the east side of the Portland Metro area, dates back to 1982. And the most recent addition to the system, I-82 near Hermiston, was finished in 1988. Unless you’re still a teenager (or nearly so), that freeway is younger than you are.

Most of these freeways had to be done as new projects. One could not simply upgrade, say, Highway 99 to an interstate freeway. That’s because the businesses built up along Highway 99 felt they were dependent on having lots of cars drive by all the time. So any suggestion of changing the road to a limited-access freeway did not go down well with them.

Today, most of these businesses are gone. So much traffic has shifted to the interstate that many of the old arterials have turned into lonely stretches, used only by highway hermits who are willing to spend an extra twenty minutes behind the wheel in exchange for not having to dodge tractor-trailer rigs on the freeway.

(Sources: Oregon Department of Transportation; 2008 interview with Hasso Hering of Albany Democrat-Herald)

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