by Stephen Lamphear
Des Moines Memorial Way was established after World War I as a living memorial to those who gave their lives in it. A privately funded effort transformed a 10-mile section into an American Elm-tree-lined road, from the Seattle City limits to the Kent-Des Moines Highway. The memorial was inspired by the tree-lined boulevards through which American soldiers marched in France.
On Armistice Day, November 11, 1921, the first 25 elm trees were planted. The “pioneer highway” was rededicated in 1922 as Des Moines Memorial Drive, with 1,432 American elm trees planted along its shoulders to commemorate Washington State’s World War I dead, including eight Seattle women. Some of these trees still line the road.
Over the years, upkeep of the memorial suffered many trials and tribulations. Maintaining the memorial trees in the face of public apathy or ignorance was an ongoing struggle.
The elms’ demise was almost a certainty from their planting. Little thought was given to soil preparation, maintenance, or watering. Dutch Elm disease claimed many of the trees. Others were lost to or butchered for power lines, other utilities, and increased traffic. In 1957, an “armistice” was negotiated with the companies involved and better pruning was done to preserve the beauty and shape of the trees.
Since the 1960s, the community has preserved some of the memorial trees and restored parts of the road to its original status. American Legion Post 134 replanted over 90 of the elms. In 1973, the trees defeated a proposal to widen Des Moines Road.
Des Moines Memorial Drive has national significance on several accounts: it is the earliest planned “living road of remembrance; it is the only “living road of remembrance” that uses Elm trees; and at 10 miles, it is the longest “living road of remembrance.”
Lamphear is a former Burien City Councilmember and one of the founders of the Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden. He compiled this piece from numerous sources including the Highline Historical Society and City of Burien.