Gulf Freeway at 70: See photos of I-45 from the start, as Houston's first freeway turns 70

2022-08-02 15:48:10 By : Ms. Amanda Kong

Christened the Gulf Freeway on Aug. 2. 1952, it meant faster trips to the coast, though not quite at freeway speeds. Since, it has been a long ride as the freeway added lanes as the Houston region added homes and businesses. Work started on the freeway after World War II, with much of it built in 1948, shown. Take a look at some of the milestones and changes along the way.

July 16, 1952: Crews race to the finish of the Gulf Freeway, and the upcoming opening. Laying the final expansion joint are (L-R) J.D. Gandy, general foreman in charge of paving for the contractor; Woodroe Drow, an expansion joint setter; and C.B. Carpenter, a junior inspector for the State Highway Department.

Gunnar Liljequist, Jr / Houston Chronicle

Aug. 2, 1952: Officials in Houston and Galveston met at the midpoint at FM 517 near Dickinson to celebrate and dedicate the Gulf Freeway. Except the whole thing arguably was a fraud. The “freeway” only had an 8.5-mile segment built to freeway standards and there still were 32 at-grade road crossings between southeast Houston and Galveston. That didn't stop officials from celebrating on what the Chronicle called "a hump north of Dickinson Bayou."

Gunnar Liljequist, Jr / Houston Chronicle

April 1947: If Houston named freeways for elected officials, common in many cities, the Gulf could have become the Holcombe Freeway. Oscar Holcombe, mayor of Houston for most of the time between 1921 and 1958, pressed for the freeway, along with other projects such as the Main Street bridge, shown. In 1940, Holcombe inked a deal for the city to buy segments of the Galveston-Houston Electric Railway. The deal replaced the rails with a road, starting a trend in Houston of replacing trains.

Officials held a contest to choose the name many use to this day. “The exact name ‘Gulf Freeway’ was suggested by only one entry, that of Miss Sara Yancy of the Heights,” Oscar Slotboom wrote in his book, Houston Freeways. “She received a $100 prize.” E. Phil Gemmer and former Gov. W.P. Hobby display the bronze plaque to be officially installed on the Gulf Freeway at Dickinson. Gov. Hobby was chairman of the Houston Chamber of Commerce's Highway Committee.

February 1955: Expansion of I-45 contributed to home and business losses along the route, including east of downtown where the freeway’s path across Midtown cost many East End homes. Pierce Street is on the far right, parallel to the Gulf Freeway construction. Markle Steel Company, 1709 Delano, is seen in the center of the photo. The area now is where the Pierce Elevated begins.

Oct. 4, 1959: It wasn't long before drivers took to the new freeway, as this photo shows. Fords and Chevys file onto the freeway just south of downtown Houston. Note the speed limit at the time was 40 mph.

Nov. 21, 1963: Crowds line the Gulf Freeway as President John F. Kennedy's motorcade heads north on Interstate 45 past the Scott exit.

Nov. 21, 1963: An aerial view of Kennedy’s motorcade making its way along the Gulf Freeway.

Dec. 18, 1963: Rush hour in the 4800 block of Gulf freeway — the most crash-prone spot in the city. Freeways quickly became where Houstonians flocked in their Fords, but also where congestion and crashes became an issue for local law enforcement.

July 1964: Demand for freeway travel to downtown turned into demand for freeway travel through downtown. To connect the Gulf Freeway to the North Freeway, and essentially create I-45 in the area, crews built elevated freeway lanes atop and parallel to Pierce Street. Each of the girders used for the original Pierce Elevated weighed 23 tons and stretched 90 feet.

Aug. 16, 1967: Three years of construction later, crews finally connected the Gulf and North freeways, making I-45 a region-spanning road. In many respects, it was the culmination of 30 years work by Holcombe, who died less than a year later. The freeway was built to interstate standards to NASA 1 by 1970.

May 23, 1972: On hazy days, the emissions from vehicles made Houston’s air quality worse. Light winds and changing temperatures made the entire city hazy on some days, along with reports of a pollution smell in some neighborhoods along the freeway.

Dec. 23, 1983: A motorist finds his truck precariously perched on a median fence on the Gulf Freeway at FM 2351 near Ellington. Though a lifeline for commuters, the road also could be hazardous in inclement weather. Freezing drizzle iced highways, temporarily closing the Gulf Freeway from Almeda to NASA Road 1 and the Galveston causeway.

John Van Beekum, Houston Chronicle

May 4, 1988: Crews ready to open HOV lanes along the Gulf Freeway, as growth toward Galveston starts to make the freeway a crowded place, again, after the oil boom and bust. Thousands of carpools and buses hop in the lanes almost immediately.

Sept. 6, 1999: Spur 5, adjacent to the University of Houston main campus, opens, offering for some a secret bypass to I-45 traffic and direct access to Old Spanish Trail.

Sept. 21, 2005: Bumper to bumper traffic heads out of Galveston toward Houston as Hurricane Rita bears down on the Gulf Coast. Residents were ordered off the island, causing a mass migration along the freeway, taking as long as 5 hours to travel 45 miles. Rita grew into a monster Category 5 storm and led officials to evacuate more than a million people from most of the coast and parts of Houston.

Sept. 10, 2008: With Hurricane Ike tracking closer to the Houston area, signs on the Gulf Freeway warn motorists Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2008, to fill up their gas tanks. Ike knocked out power, making gas hard to come by for weeks in some neighborhoods.

Craig Hartley, For The Chronicle

May 5, 2015: If there is one constant in Houston, it is the freeways getting bigger. Folks often joke that I-45 will be great when they finish building it. The reality is, between Houston and Galveston that’s a rarity. Officials by 2015 were widening the freeway in Clear Lake, with plans to have four lanes in each direction eventually to Galveston, along with frontage roads.

Craig Hartley, For The Chronicle

Aug. 27, 2017: Two men pull an inflatable boat to help rescue Dickinson flood victims from near Interstate 45 northbound and the Hughes Road underpass in Dickinson. The deluge of Tropical Storm Harvey swamped the freeway, trapping hundreds of thousands south of Houston until the waters receded.

July 25, 2022: The COVID crisis reduced traffic along I-45, but it now is returning, in some places, such as near the Fuqua overpass, back to pre-pandemic levels. During the pandemic, average daily traffic dipped to 133,000 vehicles, but by 2021 was up to 159,000, with higher numbers expected this year.

Officials now are contemplating what they can do to elevate segments of the freeway, deluged in heavy storms such as Hurricane Harvey, and augment the freeway with other options. As part of the ongoing corridor study for I-45 between downtown Houston and Beltway 8 near Ellington Field, TxDOT is discussing “how various alternatives can address issues related to growth, congestion, mobility, safety, connectivity, freight, and asset management in the study corridor.”

Meanwhile, growth along the Gulf Freeway continues...

Captions by Dug Begley and Houston Chronicle archives

Photography by Houston Chronicle staff, Robert L. Browning Photography, Reuters and Craig Hartley

Editing by Matt Schwartz and Jasmine Goldband