Old cow path nearly blocked freeway construction

In the late 1960s, the state of Washington issued contracts to build Interstate 405 through Tukwila connecting Renton to Interstate 5. As with many large projects about ready to break ground, it can be difficult to anticipate unique challenges that were not envisioned during the design and planning stages. This was certainly the case in the area known as Renton junction when the I-405 freeway and bridge project was brought to a standstill in what was known as the Battle of the Cowpath.

Just south of today’s Grady Way, contractors moved into a tract of newly acquired right-of-way including a winding county road that had been vacated to begin a large earth fill. Standing in their way were two dairy farmers, Jacob Nielsen and Fred Nelson. They notified the crews and state engineers that they were trespassing on private property. When state engineers checked they found that Nielsen and Nelson were right. By state law, when a road is vacated it reverts to the original owners. State officials had assumed that the vacated road became public property where the new freeway was being built.

Nielsen’s main objection to the filling of the area is the use of the old road and two culverts under the railroad tracks to drive cattle daily from pasture to barn. Nelson also added that the fill operation would cut off access to their pastures. He said “the railroad used to run on trestles and there was no direct road to Renton. We had to drive our teams seven and a half miles to get there.

So we gave an easement for a more direct road.” He was not worried about the road but they still needed the cowpath under the railroad.

State officials had to call back two of the four bids for the freeway project until an agreement could be worked out with Nielsen and Nelson. Those culverts under the tracks still exist today as a reminder of the Battle of the Cowpath. It depicts a time when the agricultural days of Tukwila had clashed with the inevitable regional changes that are part of Tukwila today.

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