Washington's last stop light on Interstate 90 is eliminated when a bypass around North Bend opens on October 13, 1978.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 12/09/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20914

On October 13, 1978, a new section of Interstate 90 opens to traffic, bypassing the city of North Bend. This eliminates Washington's last I-90 stoplight, which was in downtown North Bend when the highway used to pass through town. This also ends the North Bend bottleneck caused by the old traffic signal which would often back up traffic for miles around.

Sunset Highway

In 1915, the Sunset Highway opened providing the first automobile route over the Cascade Mountains. It essentially followed the path of a wagon road that was built through Snoqualmie Pass in 1867, which in turn followed a trail that Native Americans had used for centuries. By 1926, most of the switchbacks were removed from the highway, making for easier travel over the mountains. The Sunset Highway was officially designated as State Road No. 2 and part of U.S. Route 10.

Because North Bend was located at the foot of the western approach to the pass, the town became a frequent stop for motorists looking for gas, food, and lodging. Beginning in 1931, the highway was open all winter, and it was completely paved by 1936.

In 1940, the Lake Washington Bridge opened in Seattle, which greatly increased traffic between Seattle and Eastern Washington. After state officials threatened to reroute the highway around North Bend, the town widened the path by moving a bank, gas stations, stores, and a hotel 40 feet back from the throughway. In 1942, the highway was rerouted slightly to provide a direct route from North Bend to Preston, rather than winding its way through Snoqualmie and Fall City. State Route 202 was extended to North Bend from Fall City along the old Sunset Highway section.

Interstate 90

After World War II, automobile ownership skyrocketed and more people were travelling over Snoqualmie Pass. By 1950, an average of 4,200 cars passed through North Bend every day, with more than 7,000 a day during the tourist and hunting seasons. When a rock slide closed Snoqualmie Pass in August 1953, business declined in North Bend by 25 percent.

In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, which spurred construction of the American Interstate Highway System. The Seattle-Spokane corridor was designated as part of Interstate 90 and in 1957 North Bend held a ribbon cutting ceremony dedicating the first section of the new highway west of the pass -- a 3.7-mile stretch between North Bend and Tanner, which now had four lanes instead of two.

Over the next 10 years expansion work continued on the highway statewide, and as traffic continued to grow, so did concerns over pedestrian safety in downtown North Bend. Parents were upset that their children had to cross a busy highway just to get to school, and when the town council recommended that the speed limit be reduced from 35 miles per hour to 25 mph, the Highway Commission said no.  

Finally, in 1965, local politicians pushed a bill through the state legislature calling for a traffic light to be installed at the intersection of the highway and Bendigo Boulevard -- possibly the only traffic signal ever mandated by state law. At first, the signal was manually operated by police during critical times, such as school hours. The highway department also installed signs warning highway drivers that there was a traffic signal ahead.   

North Bend Bottleneck

Once the traffic signal became automated (44 seconds in the green phase, 10 seconds in the red) North Bend became a traffic bottleneck. During the summer months it was not uncommon to find traffic backed up all the way to Denny Creek near Snoqualmie Pass. The short red phase also meant that pedestrians had to be quick as they made their way across the roadway. And because the highway was also North Bend's main drag, parades and other street events had to share the corridor with cross-state traffic.

Backups only got worse, and by the end of the 1960s new solutions were sought for North Bend's traffic problem. The Highway Commission suggested that the freeway be raised through the center of North Bend on pillars. Local businessmen preferred this idea due to concerns that moving the highway away from the city would depress the local economy. But at a hearing held on December 3, 1969, a group of local women expressed their displeasure with having a 20-foot high, 360-foot wide, six-lane highway gouging through their community.

The town appeared to be evenly split between wanting a raised highway or wanting a bypass built around North Bend. In March 1970, after much deliberation the town council sided with the bypass, noting that the state provided them with data showing that small towns continued to grow even when freeways passed them by. A few months later, State Highway Director George Andrews announced that a bypass would be built and possibly completed by 1972.

The North Bend Bypass

From the start, the project met with delays. Public hearings that were meant to decide whether the bypass should go to the north or south of town (with a few holdouts still clamoring for a central route) went on for months. The southern route was eventually chosen, but after construction began in 1972, work was almost immediately halted by the courts over concerns about whether the U.S. Department of Transportation was following requirements set down in the National Environmental Protection Act.

While the environmental issues were being resolved, proponents of the central route fought again (and lost) to have the highway run through town, which only added more delays. Once the project met the revised NEPA standards, construction began again in 1974, stretching into a four-year project that was hampered by weather and other delays. The North Bend bypass officially opened to traffic on October 13, 1978.

The next day, a mock funeral was held in North Bend for Washington's last I-90 traffic light. Because the infamous traffic signal was still needed for local traffic, a similar one was donated by furniture store owner Terry Hoffman, who was in charge of the light-hearted festivities. During a street dance that day, the traffic light was brought out in a casket, while dirges played and the townsfolk celebrated. The signal and its coffin were later donated to the Snoqualmie Valley Historical Museum.

And while the North Bend stoplight was the last I-90 traffic signal in Washington, it wasn't the highway's last one nationwide. That honor goes to a stoplight in Wallace, Idaho, which remained operational until 1991. It too was given an honorary funeral and now rests in peace at the Wallace Mining Museum.


"Old Sunset Highway Heritage Corridor," King County Historic and Scenic Corridors Project, December 2009; "North Bend Movies its Main Street Back 40 Feet for New Highway," The Seattle Times, August 17, 1941, p. 11; "National Defense Program  Will be Aided by Express Highway Cutoff That Will Bring East Side Closer to Seattle," The Seattle Times, January 25, 1942, Rotogravure-4; "Lumber is Backbone of North Bend, Snoqualmie," The Seattle Times, December 26, 1953, p. 16; "North Bend has Celebration," The Seattle Times, June 30, 1957, p. 16; "State Officials Promise North Bend Traffic Study," The Seattle Times, January 6, 1965, p. 16; "State OK's North Bend Traffic Light," The Seattle Times, April 20, 1965, p. 20; "Paraders Can't Dawdle Along North Bend's Main Drag," The Seattle Times, July 17, 1966, p. 4; "It's Men Vs. Women at Freeway Hearing," The Seattle Times, December 4, 1969, p. 15; "North Bend Bottleneck Snarls Traffic," The Seattle Times, June 2, 1969, p. 1; "North Bend Changes Mind, Wants I-90 Out of Town," The Seattle Times, March 18, 1970, p. 1; "North Bend's Bypass Impasse," The Seattle Times, September 6, 1970, p. 12; "North Bend Bypass May be Open by '72," The Seattle Times, October 27, 1970, p. A17; "Judge Orders Halt in Work on I-90 North Bend Bypass," The Seattle Times, March 18, 1972, p. A6; "North Bend's at the Beginning of Another Era," The Seattle Times, December 7, 1977, p. H1; "Requiem Set for Traffic Light, 13," The Seattle Times, October 11, 1978, p. H3; "The North Bend Traffic Light, a History of Bypass Blues," Snoqualmie Valley Record, October 12, 1978, p.1; "The Last Stoplight on I-90," Chicago Tribune, November 5, 1990, p. B1.

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