The Strange Saga of Sahalee Way

Sahalee Way

Sahalee Way
"A broken Sahalee Way, March 1982" Reprinted with the permission of the Pacific Publishing Company

Most of us have little reason to give the history of Sahalee Way much thought.  After all, it’s just a road.  But ask any local long-timer about the history of the northern end of the plateau, and you’ll hear about Sahalee Way, and maybe see an eye roll too.  Building it was far from simple, both physically and politically, and three years after it was finished in 1979, the road “broke” and was closed for more than a year and a half.   

In the 1960s, the main route to get to Redmond from the northern end of the plateau was Inglewood Hill Road to East Lake Sammamish Parkway.  Northbound 228th Avenue NE ended at a “T” intersection at Inglewood Hill Road, but as early as 1963   King County’s major roads and streets plans included a proposed route extending 228th to the Redmond-Fall City Road. As the Sahalee development and golf course came into being at the end of the 1960s, actually building the road became more urgent.  The 1968 King County Forward Thrust bond provided funding for the project, and by the early 1970s preliminary design work for the 228th Avenue NE extension was under way.

As were a lot of doubts.  Many recognized that building the road would open the plateau to more rapid urbanization.  However, there was a bigger problem. The proposed road would traverse a big, steep hill where the plateau drops down into Happy Valley, and this hill was known to have a history of landslides.  Redmond city officials warned of the slide potential in a 1973 letter protesting the road’s construction, and an environmental impact statement prepared by King County in 1975 also cautioned of the “possibility of earth slippage…along the descending portion of 228th Avenue NE extension… earth movements of major slide proportions must be considered a possibility.”

But the project moved forward.  The J.J. Welcome Company of Redmond submitted the lowest bid for the project at $993,731 (just over $4 million in 2010 dollars). This had to have surprised some people, since at least one prior estimate for the road’s construction had exceeded $2 million (although admittedly for a more deluxe version of the road, complete with a 300-foot trestle).  Construction of the 3.5-mile extension began in October 1975, with completion scheduled for the autumn of 1976.  An especially rainy 1976 here washed away those plans.  Construction slowed to a trickle. Then, in February 1977, the hill started to slide.

The first slide occurred about a third of a mile south of the intersection of today’s NE 50th Street in Happy Valley, and at that point the new road was still dirt. Much of the four-and-a-half-acre slide involved the hill west of the road and didn’t damage the road itself, but the project was still forced to pause for months while the county purchased additional right of ways around the landside and seeded the slide area. It worked -- when construction resumed, there were no more problems there.

Part of the 228th Avenue NE/Sahalee Way NE extension opened in March 1978 and by the end of the year all of the road was finished, though not officially open in its entirety.  Signs were posted forbidding use of the closed section of the road, but that didn’t stop people from driving it, and county police occasionally rewarded the scofflaws with a citation for their impatience.  Finally the full extension opened without ceremony on January 6, 1979, more than two years late.  Cost overruns doubled the original $1 million contract price for the job.

All was well for the next three years.  But on February 18, 1982, drivers on Sahalee Way noticed a crack snaking diagonally along the road for about 150 feet. It was located near the top of the hill at the northern end of Sahalee Way, just within today’s Sammamish city limits, near where a traffic caution sign warns northbound drivers of a sharp left turn ahead. Within 24 hours the road sank six inches along the crack, and on February 19 Sahalee Way was closed along a three-quarter of a mile stretch from the top of the hill (near today’s NE 37th Street) to the bottom of the hill at NE 50th Street.

Still, the road continued to sink, and the crack continued to spread.  Soon miniature cliffs appeared as the affected part of the road sank further -- three feet in the first week, between five and eight feet by early March. By the time the slide stopped in the spring, it had grown to more than 800 feet long and had become a series of cliffs, some up to 10 feet high.

The break was precipitated by the winter’s heavy rains.   The affected part of the road was built on fill which itself sat on a layer of sand and silt.  The sandy, silty layer lacked natural drainage channels to let water flow out of the ground.  As a result the soil’s weight increased, decreasing its resistance to shear; the additional water trapped in the soil also served as a lubricant that further aggravated the ground’s tendency to slide along the steep hill on Sahalee Way.

The county retained a soils engineering consulting firm, Golder and Associates, to figure out what exactly caused the slide and how to fix it.  This took time, and it didn’t help that in 1982 the economy was in a recession.  That summer rumors began to fly on the plateau that King County might be not be prepared to handle repairs to the road.  When a community newsletter published said rumors, irate residents bombarded the Department of Public Works with complaints. They were assured the department was working toward a solution.

And it was.  It just took awhile, infuriating local drivers, who were again forced to use Inglewood Hill Road to get to Redmond from the northern end of the plateau. On the other hand, their children were delighted, finding the mysterious cliffs and fissures along the broken road just fine for championship climbing and bike riding. 

Eventually a solution was reached to install a system of drains in the hillside under the road to allow water to escape, and these drains were installed in the late winter and spring of 1983.   Reconstruction of the road began that summer, and completion was initially anticipated by late in the year.

But this time the transportation gods smiled upon Sahalee Way.  Good weather enabled construction to proceed faster than expected, and the road reopened early, on October 4, 1983.  Total costs of repairs (including consulting fees and drain installation) exceeded half a million dollars, a pricy ending to an unusual story in Sammamish’s history.
Phil Dougherty
July 1, 2010

Sources:  Marilyn Papakyritses, “Controversial 228th May Be Built This Spring,” Sammamish Valley News, January 9, 1974, p. A-1;  Evan Jones, “Landside Shifts Hill Towards Road,” Ibid., March 2, 1977, p. A-1;  “228th NE Opens -- Finally,” Ibid., January 10, 1979, p. A-1;  “Plateau Residents May Be Using Inglewood Hill Road For The Long Haul,” Ibid., February 24, 1982, p. A-1;  Susan Bottles, “Sahalee Way NE Still On The Move,” Ibid., March 10, 1982, pp. A-1, A-4;  “Soils Testing Finished,” Ibid., July 28, 1982, p. A-2;  Susan Bottles, “Progress Made On Sahalee Way Repair,” Ibid., September 8, 1982, p. A-1;  “Work Begins To Fix Drainage On 228th,” Ibid., February 23, 1983, p. A-1;  “Yes Plateau, There Really Is A 228th!” Ibid., August 31, 1983, p. A-1;

“Sahalee Way Open -- Really,” Ibid., October 5, 1983, p. A-3;  “CPI Inflation Calculator,” Bureau of Labor Statistics website accessed June 26, 2010  (


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