Sixty years ago, in the mid-1950s, Portland had become a fairly significant city. With a population of about 374,000, it was the 29th largest metropolis in the United States and was a major port on the West Coast.

It also had a lot of the trappings of success:  A busy downtown, a thriving seaport, a growing air terminal and good rail connections.

What it didn’t have was a freeway system.  Portland wasn’t alone in that.  Freeways, as we know them today, were relatively rare in the United States at that time.  But then came President Dwight Eisenhower, who held office from 1953 to 1961. 

Eisenhower’s legacy as president is somewhat checkered but there’s no question the nation owes its system of Interstate Highway System to the man who served as the 34th president.

Before Eisenhower was commander in chief, he was Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II.  As such, he got a first-hand look at how things worked in Europe before, during and after the war.  And one of things that impressed him most was the autobahn system in Germany.

While the U.S. highway system tended to be two-lane rambles through cities, towns and countryside, Germany had begun a system of high-speed roadways that allowed people and cargo to get from one part of that country to another quickly and without much fuss.  Eisenhower liked the idea and thought it could prove even more effective in the United States, which is much larger than Germany, or Europe, for that matter.

So during his time in office, he managed to persuade Congress to appropriate money to build a what we now know as our Interstate system, which allowed for quick transportation of goods, easy travel for tourists and – in time of war – efficient transport of troops and equipment across the vast United States.

And the Portland area benefitted.  On the morning of Thursday, June 21, 1956, The Oregonian carried the following headline at the top of Page One:

“4-Lane Freeways of U.S. 99, 30 Near Reality in State”

Below that, two decks of  headlines said the following:

“32 Billion Bill

Put Into Shape

By Conferees”

“Oregon expects annual $26,000,000,

Will start immediately on two routes”

And below that, the lead to the story talking about an amount of money that in 2015 would be the equivalent of at least $220 million annually would be used in the state:

Border to border, Oregon’s U.S. 99 will be a four-lane non-stop divided highway.

 It will have complete access restriction, with ingress and egress only at traffic-separated interchanges.  It will have no cross traffic and will go around cities and towns.

 U.S. 30, from Portland east, with some minor differences, will be the same.

All that sounds pretty mundane by today’s standards. After all, the U.S. 99 described above has existed – as Interstate 5 – for nearly 50 years.  And the old U.S. 30 – now called Interstate 84 – has been around even longer, with stretches of it operating since about 1960.

But that was just the beginning.

Over the next 30 years, the freeway system through Portland would come to also include Interstate-405, I-205 and parts of U.S. 26.  The freeways would take traffic off  city streets and arterials, would speed freight to and through the Rose City and help Portland grow into the city it has become today.

This map shows a concept for a freeway system that would have been much more extensive than the one Portland has today. It may have moved traffic around more efficiently, but it would also have led to the bulldozing of several neighborhoods. The red freeways were built; the green were not. 

And as they city grew from a little under 400,000 people to it’s current population of more than 600,000, the freeways would also contribute to congestion, frustration and endless talk about whether Portland needs more freeways.

While the construction of the freeways in the city of Portland dates back to about 1958 and continued until I-205 was completed in 1983, the idea for some parts of the system go back to at least 1938. 

That’s when highway engineers were beginning to at least consider the idea of I-405 – then called the Stadium Freeway – and I-84, which even today is often referred to as the Banfield.

That can be seen in old photos that can be found in the city of Portland archives.  In several photos, roadway planners have drawn lines to show proposed rights-of-ways through old neighborhoods. In several cases, the lines showing the conceptual pathway for freeways prove to be very close to the roads that decades later were actually built.

Portland’s freeway system came at a huge cost to some.  Wide swaths of neighborhoods were razed to build I-405, I-5 and I-205.   Some homes also had to be torn out to build the Banfield (I-84), but because it followed Sullivan’s Gulch for the most part, relatively fewer residents were impacted.

There were even some homes razed in Southeast Portland before the decision was made to not built the Mount Hood Freeway, which would have run from the Marquam Bridge to an area near Southeast 122nd.   The freeway would have run through the Division-Clinton neighborhoods to about 52nd Avenue and then would have moved south to take over the right-of-way now occupied by Powell Boulevard.

But most of that project was killed by opposition from residents who did not want to see more homes razed and neighborhoods flattened.  Much of the federal money that would have been used for the freeway was diverted and used to pay for the first leg of Portland’s MAX light-rail system.

Only two parts of the project were ever completed:  The stretch of four-lane expressway that runs from the east side of Gresham to the outskirts of Sandy; and some of the ghost ramps coming off the  east side of the Marquam Bridge above OMSI. 

For efficiency, they were built as part of the Marquam Bridge (completed in 1966) when the Mount Hood Freeway was still in the planning.  But they were never put to use. 

Now, they can be seen pointing east, like branches of a tree that have been pruned back, mute testimony to the end of freeway building in the core of Portland.

— John Killen

[email protected]

503-221-8538; @johnkillen

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