The makings of Military Road

by Mark Klaas, Kent Reporter

Military Road weaves through South King County, connecting people to homes, schools and businesses.

It remains an important corridor today, just as it has been for many years.

It carries its original name, follows its original route.

As one of the oldest roads in the state of Washington, Military Road facilitated early settlement, opened important supply lines between strategically established military forts and became a productive thoroughfare long before the advent of Interstate 5 and other major highways.

As local author and historian Karen Meador explains, the road was built behind the efforts of some influential personalities – notably Jefferson Davis – who went on to establish names for themselves during the Civil War era.

“The continuity (of the road) is what fascinates me,” Meador said. “It goes from a trail, to a native footpath to a wagon road … to many cases, a super highway.”

Meador once lived in Biloxi, Miss., near Davis’ estate. She became intrigued by the American statesman and the rich history of that era, a time of westward expansion and the settlement of the far reaches of a geographically growing country.

Davis, as Meador points out, played a significant role. A West Point graduate, he fought in the Mexican-American War as a colonel of a volunteer regiment. Before and after his time in President Franklin Pierce’s administration (1853-57), he served as a Democratic U.S. senator who argued against secession, but did agree that each state was sovereign and had an unquestionable right to secede from the Union.

Davis eventually would serve as president of the Confederate States of America for its entire history, from 1861 to 1865.

As Secretary of War during Pierce’s administration, Davis played a key role in bolstering forces, creating roadways and railways and improving other settlement conditions in the burgeoning Pacific Northwest. He served with distinction and was recognized as one of the most capable administrators to hold the office.

“Davis did a lot to make all that happen,” Meador said. “He doubled the size of the U.S. Army, got a lot of forts built throughout the West, including here (Steilacoom, Vancouver, Bellingham).

“He always had been a champion of building wagon roads as well as the rail lines,” Meador added.

Worried about protection for American settlers in the area, Davis convinced Congress to approve funding of Military Road that connected Fort Steilacoom to Fort Vancouver. Other military roads followed.

Military Road – from Fort Steilacoom to Seattle – was finished in 1860, the year Abraham Lincoln became president.

Military Road eventually would stretch to the Canadian border.

The outbreak of the Civil War pulled the officers who served in the region to duty elsewhere, including Davis.

Among the junior officers stationed in the territory were Ulysses Grant, Philip Sheridan, George McClellan and George Pickett.

This article has been shared courtesy of the Kent Reporter. It was originally published February 21, 2013.