Friends in High Places

As presidents go none of them spent as much time in Tacoma and the south sound as Dwight Eisenhower. As a soldier before the Second World War, Ike served at Fort Lewis as a battalion commanding officer and regimental executive from December 1939 until March 1941. During the time his wife Mamie charmed local Tacoma society and son John attended Stadium High School. Ike’s older brother Edgar founded the Eisenhower Carlson law firm in Tacoma and lived the rest of his life in Lakewood where Ike and Mamie visited several times.

Eisenhower left the military as perhaps America’s

General Eisenhower at Ft. Lewis in 1942

most respected soldier, served as head of NATO and Columbia University before becoming the 34th President of the United States. Ike had a soft spot for conservative politics but during the baby boom economy of the 1950’s he poured tax money and ideas into American cities.  Tacoma got more than its share of the revenues and Urban Renewal programs during post war years fundamentally changed the physical and social patterns of the city.

Ike’s emphasis on building a national interstate highway system coincided with urban blight removal programs, federal funds for infrastructure and unimaginative city building, and loans and cash to local governments for planning and business development. In Tacoma it all added up to I-5 sweeping past the downtown carrying people to the suburbs, blocks of demolished buildings and a proliferation of parking lots, vacant lots and lots of brutal concrete parking structures.

The route of I-5 through Tacoma paralleled its predecessor, old Pacific Highway 99 which ran along South Tacoma Way and then swung

January 1961, I-5 bend with 38th Street cloverleaf in distance and Old Pacific Highway 99 below

east along Puyallup Avenue. The new freeway cut through established working class neighborhoods in South Tacoma, the Wapato Lake and Lincoln districts and destroyed the Hawthorn neighborhood at the foot of McKinley Hill entirely. Like many older cities that were forced to give up swaths of urban fabric to accommodate federal transportation projects that fueled suburban sprawl, Tacoma absorbed the damage.

By 1959 I-5 was completed from Ft. Lewis to Seattle. It cut through Tacoma, a city with salt water shoreline making up three quarters of its city limits, without even providing a clear view of Puget Sound. The route intentionally ran over or divided ethnic and lower income districts where property condemnation was cheaper and home and business ownership was less common. Puyallup tribal lands and the largely African American residents at Salishan, who had come to work in wartime industries were fenced off from the downtown and port areas by the freeway. Like the Urban Renewal programs that targeted older ethnic neighborhoods and buildings downtown, the federal interstate highway system was used as a weapon of blight removal by planners who were also aware of social and economic patterns in housing, schools, public transportation systems and neighborhood micro-cultures.

During the war years Tacoma grew explosively, gaining almost 35,000 people between 1940 and 1950. But during the 1950’s, as I-5 was built and suburban sprawl was sucking the purpose and vitality out of the downtown, the population stalled to less that one third of one percent growth over the decade. It barely grew more in the 1960’s, when the Tacoma Mall drew the big and small retail stores out of the city’s historic core and drive thru everything from banks to Kentucky Fried Chicken and movie theaters kept people in their car seats. Tacoma’s rail based DNA, from its birth in the transcontinental railroad to its city plan and neighborhoods based on streetcars, worked against itself as cars, split level ranch houses, double car garages and home entertainment centers became the modern norm.

Ironically, during the years that Tacoma had the closest ties to the White House, the Eisenhower years when it received the most attention and Federal funding from Washington D.C., the city experienced its deepest decline and most damaging physical changes.

Bizarre pre-photoshop composite image created for Earl Irwin, owner of the B&I Circus Store on South Tacoma Way. The montage shows the Presidents motorcade driving by a menagerie of  animals, people and signs in October 1956. A motorcade down the Pacific Highway from Tacoma to McChord AFB was planned but canceled due to security concerns and it was not the last disappointment for Irwin’s B&I Circus that faded in glory after Interstate 5 was completed in 1958.



  1. I have a copy of that photo of Eisenhower looking at the Tacoma map. My mom said I looked like Eisenhower when I was about 3 as I had such fine hair that I often looked bald in a picture.


    1. I was 6 years old when Eisenhower was going to motorcade down 6th Ave. I was at Grant grade school in 1956. That date really surprised me, I had no clue I was in the first grade when he was coming. I do remember being disappointed having it cancelled. I have a friend that lived on Lake Louise in Lakewood that served with Eisenhower . He was staying at the Cabin & helped do construction on it during the war.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The completion date of I-5 from Fort Lewis to Seattle would of been more like 1963. I attended Holy Rosary school on 30th and Tacoma Ave and know for certain that section was completed until 1963 because the year was engraved into the Tacoma and G street over passes. Plus I walked to school when Tacoma Ave was solid ground up through early 1963. We would play around in the construction site like it was a big sandbox. There was a lot of dirt that was excavated out of that east/west cut to get the grade down to it’s existing level. They used the dirt to fill in all of the gulches that had streams that flowed into Foss Waterway. All of those watersheds were destroyed and replaced with culverts that now terminate under the Thea Foss bridge on Dock Street.


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