Today’s Aurora Ave. goes hand-in-hand with jokes about drugs and roadside prostitutes. It’s a grimy stretch of road lined with dilapidated businesses. If they have a choice, most homebuyers (and renters) steer clear of properties along that asphalt swath.
But Aurora didn’t use to be like that. It was a happening place once, with new businesses and plenty of foot traffic. Even before that, it was a vital transportation artery. In fact, it’s always been a vital transportation artery, ever since the early days of Seattle.
How did one of the city’s oldest, most important roads fall into slovenly disrepute? The short answer is I-5. The slightly longer answer involves prioritizing cars over pedestrians. But for the real answer, let’s take a look at Aurora’s origins and move through the decades. For a stretch of asphalt, it has a very interesting history.
R. F. Morrow Road
In the 1880s today’s Aurora Ave existed as a rough wagon road through the forest.
North Trunk Road
The old wagon road became a popular route thanks to new development in what we know know as north Seattle. The Firlands Sanatorium for tuberculosis patients played an especially important role. The sanatorium was located 12 miles north of Seattle’s then-border, and staff and visitors needed a better road to get there. When it opened in 1911, the North Trunk Road reached north to greet it. A year later, the road extended all the way to the county line and gave travelers a direct route from Green Lake to Everett.
What type of road was this? Dirt and gravel originally, but in 1913, brick pavers went nuts. You can still see some of those old red bricks beside the current path of Aurora Ave. City planners widened, straightened, and surfaced parts of the North Trunk Road in 1925, and by 1928, all the bricks had been replaced with concrete.
This state-of-the-art thoroughfare attracted all sorts of new businesses, but no industry flocked to the North Trunk Road quite like the automobile industry. Cars had made the road necessary, after all, and the North Trunk Road capitalized upon that blossoming industry. Gas stations, auto repair shops, cafes, and roadhouses sprung up along the road in the 1920s. So, too, did the brand-new automobile motels that have since limped into the 21st century. At one of those very first Aurora motels, a car full of travelers could pay fifty cents for hot showers, laundry facilities, a telephone, and a community building with a veranda, open-air fireplace, and views of Green Lake.
Route of the North Trunk Road (on today’s roads)
Westlake Ave. to Fremont Ave.
North on Fremont Ave to 50th
West on 50th to Phinney Ave.
North on Phinney Ave t.o Greenwood Ave.
North on Greenwood to 85th
East on 85th to Aurora Ave.
North to Aurora 185th St
West on 185th to Firlands Way N.
North on Firlands Way to just past N. 195th.
East to Aurora Ave
North on Aurora to 212th St. SW.
The road then snaked through more streets until it made its way east to the Pacific Highway at Mill Creek, and then shot north via the Pacific Highway all the way to Everett.
Pacific Highway 1 / US Highway 99 / Aurora Ave.
In 1930, the Seattle City Council approved an ordinance that extended Aurora Ave. through Woodland Park, creating a “speedway” that would provide a direct approach to and from downtown via the George Washington Memorial (Aurora Avenue) Bridge. That bridge was completed two years later, and the Aurora speedway became the region’s major north-south highway.
As a US Highway, Aurora qualified for federal funding, and with this new financial backing, it grew beyond the county line. Eventually, it extended all the way from Oregon to the Canadian border.
Origins of the Aurora name:
Some claim the name honors Aurora, Illinois, the hometown of Dr. Edward Kilbourne, one of the Fremont founders. George Cotterill, former city engineer, claims the name was chosen because the road is a highway to the north, toward the aurora borealis.
State Route 99
Aurora couldn’t join the interstate highway boom. Businesses lined the street too tightly for adequate expansion, so US 99 was downgraded to SR 99 and lost its federal funding. Meanwhile, I-5 moved in to the east and stole the title of Seattle’s main north-south route.
Aurora’s once-thriving businesses lost their primacy. And as Seattle continue to grow, Aurora was widened—not to freeway widths, but its four lanes became six and a turn lane. The sidewalks shrunk by 60 percent, and traffic noise grew louder and harsher. Pedestrians dwindled, and the businesses suffered. The long slide into today’s dingy, crime-filled corridor began.