After 50 years, still some mixed feelings locally
“Road Filled With Tourists,” the Methow Valley News proclaimed in its report of the grand opening of the North Cascades Scenic Highway 50 years ago, on Sept. 2, 1972.
“The heavy traffic actually caused a traffic jam in Winthrop one weekend,” the article reported. “Tourists are so attracted to the old western town that they tend to stop wherever they are to look and take pictures — whether in cars or on foot.” (Westernization debuted around the same time as the highway.)
The paper noted that the town — and the county — weren’t prepared with adequate parking or tourist accommodations. Some people had to go as far as Wenatchee to find lodging, and even then, they weren’t always successful.
In its first week, the new roadway drew 9,116 cars — some 2,836 people per day — according to a count by the U.S. Forest Service cited in the Methow Valley News in October 1972. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) predicted 600,000 vehicles would travel the road in its first three years. This year, daily traffic counts at Winthrop exceeded 6,000 in mid-July.
The notion of a road across the North Cascades had been in the works for a century before it was finally completed, so people had grown used to the idea.
But it still meant big changes for people who lived in the Methow for decades before the highway was built. They remember a close-knit valley with so few inhabitants that they knew everyone and could go anywhere by horse or snowmobile, even across fences and private property. Life in the valley was conducted at a slower pace.
For people now in their 80s and 90s, the highway ushered in changes that eclipsed a beloved way of life, even though people struggled to get by. But they also recognize that things would have changed anyway.
“The highway, I believe, speeded people coming in here by 40 years. I think it would have developed eventually, but it speeded it,” said Tom Graves, who’s lived in the Methow for all his 93 years and packed crews into the mountains to work on the highway.
It seems to some that there’s been a loss of community feeling. “I don’t see the overall comradeship and friendship” in the valley, Graves said. He and his long-time friends no longer know all the merchants in all the stores.
Sleepy enclaves like Mazama have been transformed. In the 1970s, Mazama had a gas station and a grocery store that stocked 10 loaves of bread and three cans of beans, said Claude Miller, whose family homesteaded in the valley and who also packed crews to work on the highway. “We’re spoiled and want it to stay that way,” Miller said.
Among the starkest changes most long-term residents described are the houses that have proliferated along once-empty roads and ridges. All the hills are now covered with high-end homes and dotted with lights at night.
The influx of people and houses — and different attitudes about property — have meant significant changes in the way people live. “Now, there are ‘no trespassing’ signs everywhere,” Graves said. He recalls riding his horse across Studhorse Mountain to get to school.
Fae Graves, Tom’s wife, grew up in the valley in a house without power or indoor plumbing. After a few decades away from the valley, when she returned in 1977, the first thing she noticed was all the signs prohibiting trespassing, hunting or fishing.
Others who’d once made a living as orchardists also had to find a new livelihood safter severe winters in 1948 and 1968 killed almost all the fruit trees in the valley.
“The tourist town opened up right when the tourists got there,” said Brad Martin, who graduated from high school the year the highway opened. The most sudden change was the volume of cars.
Donna Martin, Brad’s mother, who’s been in the valley for almost all of her 87 years, remembers that time well. Some people were excited about the highway, but others — particularly older people — were opposed. But with the mill closing and logging drying up, people needed work, she said.
The valley was already accustomed to large crowds of tourists, and people welcomed the business. Hunting season was the big money-maker and always “crazy,” Donna Martin said. (Coverage in the Methow Valley News just a month after the highway opened likened the tourist activity to “the first day of hunting season every day all month.”) Fishing also drew lots of people to the area.
For young people like Brad Martin and his friends, the highway was attractive because it provided easier access to the Puget Sound and a way to come home on weekends from college in Bellingham.
Few people recall vocal or organized opposition to the highway, and most people welcomed the income. While initially billed as a way for farmers and ranchers to get their products to larger markets on the west side, in the end, the main economic impact of the highway was to bring tourists and their money to the valley.
Today, people see the mountains as a place for recreation but, half a century ago, the forest was seen more as a source of firewood and food, Brad Martin said.
“Everyone kind of had mixed feelings about it, but we needed jobs,” Fae Graves said. Even though they didn’t relish the large influx of people they knew the highway would bring, in the long range, people thought it would be the best thing for the valley, she said.
In some ways, they did too good a job creating jobs and the biggest problem now is finding housing for all the employees, they said. All the places that were built to serve tourists should have also planned housing for their workers, Tom Graves said.
‘The world likes to come and visit’
Ten years after the highway opened, valley residents already noted fundamental changes to life here.
“[The road’s] had quite an impact. It’s exposed people to things they wouldn’t have seen otherwise, said Louise Grim, a Twisp business owner interviewed for a special section in the Methow Valley News in 1982, on the 10th anniversary of the road.
Grim was wistful about the loss of the valley’s isolation and old way of life (including living without electricity, even in the 1950s). But she noted that the road had brought a lot of revenue to the valley. While Grim said she hadn’t initially supported the highway, “A person can’t drag her feet. She’s got to make the best of it,” she said.
Then–Winthrop Mayor Warren Badger said the highway had created jobs. But, “from a sociological standpoint, it has disturbed a way of life for those people seeking peace and solitude,” especially older folks, he said.
But others noted that the highway had made it possible for young people to stay in the valley and earn a living. “Our town, our valley, had to grow up,” Shirley Haase told the Methow Valley News in 1982. “We were at a standstill. Then the world found the Methow, and the world likes to come and visit.”
Looking back on those times today, Tom Graves observed that the valley had been changing even before the highway. Lots of people were already moving here, including many from the counter-culture who wanted to be close to nature, Brad Martin said.
Donna Martin doesn’t recall a campaign to drum up support for the highway, nor an effort to stop it, even though some people opposed it. People knew it would change the valley, but they saw it as an economic boost. Some resent newcomers who come in thinking they’re going to change everything, she said.
Brad Martin also doesn’t recall much animosity over the road — nothing like the fierce opposition to the downhill ski resort proposed for Early Winters. The ski hill was supposed to draw thousands of people a day, some arriving by plane to a planned jet port, and the sheer size of the proposal just overwhelmed the valley, he said.
Today, Donna Martin avoids downtown Winthrop entirely because of the traffic jams that have become a common feature of daily life. She’s relieved that the grocery store and post office were moved out of town.
“My only negative observation about the highway is that they made it too nice — it doesn’t have to be a super highway,” Brad Martin said. There’s a value to slowing down, he said.
“The highway is probably good for the valley in the long run,” Tom Graves said.