Interstate 5 serves most moderate-sized cities on the outskirts, where the freeways are less costly, easier to expand — and don't divide the town in half or pour traffic directly into downtown.
There was plenty of space to build Interstate 5 east of Medford in the 1950s, when the freeway route was laid out, but it didn't go there. Why?
Medford businesspeople didn't want to be bypassed by an alternate route of the freeway, which was being considered for a path along Hillcrest Road. And orchardists, farmers and homeowners in the thinly populated area east of Medford didn't want it there.
Lynn Newbry of Talent, a powerful state senator in the 1960s and 1970s, said that Glenn Jackson, chairman of the State Highway Commission and a Medford resident, and Earl Miller, the mayor of Medford, wanted the freeway to follow the downtown route of Bear Creek.
"Glenn was a very powerful man and a real leader. He ran the Highway Commission. He thought that was the best route, through Medford and that's the way it went," said Newbry, adding that Miller said Medford couldn't afford arterials to an outlying freeway.
Ashland historian George Kramer said Jackson, who also was chairman of Pacific Power and instrumental in the birth of White City and the Rogue Valley Country Club, "sat on huge pools of power. He lived east of town by the club and he didn't want the freeway there. The decision was incredibly contentious. It wasn't the smartest move they could have made."
Newbry, a major pear orchardist at the time, said the eastern freeway route would have taken it east of Blackwell Road (north of Central Point), not joining the present route until the north Ashland interchange.
"It would have gone through a lot of orchard lands and the pear growers were not very high about that impact," said Newbry. "I opposed it. It would have taken out some of my orchards, but in retrospect, it was probably a mistake because a lot of orchards were pulled out anyway."
The central valley route may have brought traffic close to business but, said Kramer, "it was expensive, there's no place for on-ramps, it's hard to modify and it divides the town in half."
Native Ashlander Karen Smith, director of the freeway's unwilling bedfellow, the Bear Creek Greenway, said Medford merchants thought, if the freeway were located in foothills routes east or west of town, "then Medford would dry up and lose all kinds of business."
"They twisted the arms of Glenn Jackson, arguably the most powerful unelected man in the state. He could say where the freeway went and he said put it over the city." Smith added, "We can see how impractical that was now. It's up in the air, more subject to weather. Everything from it drains down into Bear Creek. You can't widen it. It would cost more money than there is. It's very likely vulnerable to earthquakes and if any part of it goes down, there's no place for detours. The decision was entirely political."
Walt Hoffbuhr, director of Talent Irrigation District for 30 years, now retired, said, "It was Glenn Jackson. There was a lot of politics, a lot of pressure to keep it in the middle of town. It's the same reason it went through Yreka, though it would have been better through Montague (in Siskiyou County)."
Jill Livingston of Klamath River, author of "That Ribbon of Highway," the history of Highway 99, agreed, noting that powerful California state Sen. Randolph Collier, known as "the father of California freeways" applied the pressure to put I-5 through Yreka.
Most of the players from the late 1950s are gone. Mail Tribune stories from the series of State Highway Commission hearings in 1956-57 report that a majority of officials and residents — some 800 attending a hearing at the Craterian Theater — favored the Bear Creek or Hawthorne Park route, as it was called.
These included officials from Jackson County Fruit Growers League, Medford and Talent Irrigation Districts, county agricultural service, county engineer, county judge, Medford city manager, chamber of commerce and Rogue Valley Memorial Hospital (which would have been near the east route).
"They pointed out that a great amount of orchards and other agricultural land would be destroyed by the Hillcrest route, with subsequent decline in the economy of the Rogue Valley," reported the Mail Tribune in October 1956, three years before Jackson was appointed to the Highway Commission and six years before he became chairman.
Another group of citizens and a few attorneys protested the downtown route, citing "blight effects on the city route, noise, destruction of homes and blocking of future planning," the Mail Tribune story said.
The Highway Commission in January 1957 chose the 26-mile Hawthorne route, costing $18.7 million. The route "will provide the best service to the traveling public and to the Medford area with the least disruption of orchards, farms and homes," said Chairman Ben Chandler in a Tribune story.
The eastern route is "somewhat remote," the commission said, would require "extensive connectors and penetrating spurs" and would cost $3.5 million more than the Hillcrest route.
In February 1957, the Medford City Council voted 6-2 to support the decision, but one dissenting councilman complained it would "hinder possible beautification of Bear Creek and would be as much a barrier to future development of Medford as has the Southern Pacific railroad tracks," the Tribune reported.
The freeway from Central Point to Barnett Road in Medford opened in 1962, with the Barnett-to-Ashland segment opening on July 26, 1963.