Trace Des Moines history via heritage trail

by Barbara McMichael, SoCoCulture administrator
Historical photographs provided courtesy of Des Moines Historical Society 

The Des Moines Beach Park Heritage Trail is a stroll back through time. The Des Moines Historical Society, with support from 4Culture, has erected several informative markers throughout the Des Moines Marina and Des Moines Beach Park so that people can get a sense of the lives of those who came before.

Before the advent of white exploration and settlement, the mouth of Des Moines Creek was certainly used as a temporary camp site by Native Americans, who set up shelters with poles and woven mats, harvested shellfish, and speared and smoked salmon.

Pioneer settlement of the Puget Sound earlier really took hold in the 1850s, but it wasn’t until the 1880s that French Canadians were logging with oxen in the valley of Des Moines Creek. The mouth of the creek became the site for a couple of different sawmills during that era, but in 1918, when a promoter for one of the mills went to jail for shady dealings, the structure was converted into a dance hall, built out over the water.

At the same time, Herman and Annie Draper, who ran a self-supporting orphanage in Des Moines, bought the land up the creek valley to establish a private park and playground for the children in their care.

In the 1930s, both the dance pavilion and Draper Park were purchased by the Evangelical Covenant Church of America and the land and facilities were used as a Bible camp for several decades, with the dance hall turned into a tabernacle. But in 1954, fire broke out in the wooden structure and a longtime waterfront landmark was destroyed.

Scandinavian church members, using constructions skills and architectural details learned in Sweden, built a new tabernacle further inland, up the creek.  They erected additional buildings that served as a dining hall and sleeping cottages.  When the church property went up for sale, the City of Des Moines bought these storied structures and landscape, had the park listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006, and has since been steadily working to preserve the buildings. Restoration of the 1950s-vintage former tabernacle was completed this year, and the building now hosts art shows, civic events, and private parties as the Des Moines Beach Park Auditorium.

For many more details and lots of photos about the history of this picturesque town on Puget Sound, plan to visit Des Moines Beach Park soon and look for the markers along the Des Moines Beach Park Heritage Trail.