The Route of Highway 99 Through Bellingham

As determined from an old Kroll Atlas, the route of Highway 99 from Burlington ran across the Skagit County flatland, sharply curving up at the state fish hatchery and continuing on through Alger. From Alger Highway 99 passed Lake Samish and entered Bellingham along the broad curves of Samish Way next to Lake Padden. Highway 99 continued along Samish Way, crossing where I-5 is today and curving along onto Maple St. and then Ellis St.

At Holly St., Highway 99 made a left passing through the core of downtown Bellingham. Today, this section of Holly is a one-way street for traffic going west, but it would have had to accommodate the two-way traffic of Highway 99. This is evident by examining the positions of stoplight poles.

From Holly, Highway 99 turned right onto Prospect and followed onto Dupont St. where it crossed Whatcom Creek one block south of where Pickett’s bridge was located. Highway 99 then veered right onto Elm St., veered left onto Northwest Ave. and exited Bellingham along West Maplewood, continuing to Canada.

There was also a scenic Alternate 99 that diverted from the main branch of Highway 99 at Burlington going onto Chuckanut Drive and winding along Puget Sound. This road was frequently closed due to weather and rockslides. The Alternate 99 left Bellingham from Meridian St., heading north to another border crossing into Canada. Chuckanut Drive is still a pleasant way to reach Bellingham, enjoying picturesque views of Puget Sound and Bellingham Bay.

Although it was the fastest road through Western Washington, Highway 99 still had crossroads, stop signs and lights and ran through congested city streets. These features make for an interesting journey, but also slowed down driving. By 1956 heavy traffic on Highway 99 through downtown Bellingham made parking impossible and slowed traffic to a near stop.

In 1950, the State of Washington performed a traffic survey of Bellingham examining the traffic problem and proposing ways to alleviate it. In 1950, when Bellingham’s population was around 34,000 people there were approximately 38,000 cars using Highway 99 every day, most with destinations outside of Bellingham and most without stopping. The traffic study concluded that the roads and highways did not adequately serve the travel demands, and recommended “the improvement and/or relocation of the north-south route, namely US 99, Primary State Highway No.1.

A new theory of what constitutes a "good road" was emerging. Instead of directly connecting each county seat and principal trade center, like J.J. Donovan and the Good Roads Association originally pushed for, the State’s Department of Transportation thought roads should tackle "through and local traffic alike and should function as a downtown by-pass yet lie sufficiently close to the downtown area to provide easy access for local trips."

The Department of Transportation suggested creating a freeway that would follow Highway 99 to the south of Bellingham, skirt around the Central Business District to the east, and then continue north in a direction similar to Highway 99. What they suggested in 1950 was under construction within the decade.

In 1956 President Truman started the Highway Defense Fund when the idea of a possible atomic attack incited enough public support. The new highways were required to be at least four lanes wide to handle greater volumes of traffic. Washington’s geography and population pattern necessitated keeping the basic route of Highway 99. In fact, for years the highway construction occurring was referred to as "99 expansion." However, by 1966 the road’s title changed to Interstate-5 (I-5).

Bellingham’s first section of the new freeway was 5.2 miles from Samish Way to Northwest Ave., opening in 1960. Cutting the ribbon for the ceremony was Miss Washington, Connie Hughes from Bellingham. Bellingham’s downtown merchants were unhappy with the new road that would direct the bulk of travel around their businesses; they had lobbied for a viaduct along the waterfront. Frequent interchanges were built in an attempt to compensate the downtown proprietors. Remarkably, the 5.2-mile route of I-5 through Bellingham has more interchanges per capita than any other city in Washington.

In 1966 all 227 miles of Interstate 5 through the State of Washington were complete. Highway 99, soon referred to as "Old 99", was no longer the main path of north-south traffic. Although some sections are abandoned and dead ended, parts of Highway 99 have been adopted into the city and county road system and used for less demanding service.

Tracing the route of Highway 99 through Bellingham today gives only a little insight into what effects it had on the city. The change in land use patterns over the decades can be clearly seen using old city directories that also depict a historic image of Bellingham.

Building a Military Road| The Start of The Good Roads Association | Highway 99

The Route of Highway 99 Through Bellingham | Samish Way | East Maple and Ellis Street

Holly Street | Prospect and Dupont | Elm Street and Northwest Avenue

West Maplewood | References and Attribution



Copyright © 2000. City of Bellingham