Where is our Military Road?

Ed. note: Last year, South King County-based independent historian Karen Meador published an award-winning pamphlet called “Military Road: A Lasting Legacy” that traces the road as it was originally developed from Fort Steilacoom to Fort Bellingham. This has sparked new interest along the road, and prompted further inquiry into its history. The piece below has been excerpted from the April 8, 2015 edition of the Queen Anne News. Author Michael Herschensohn is president of the Queen Anne Historical Society.

by Michael J. Herschensohn, PhD

…As documented in Meador’s pamphlet and “Building Washington: A History of Washington State Public Works,” by Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy, published in 1998, Captain W.W. DeLacy began surveying the route in 1858 with a crew of nine, including six Native Americans. Construction began soon after under the supervision of Lt. George H. Mendell and reached Seattle in October 1860. In 1864, the first telegraph line was strung along the route. The pamphlet includes a map of the route and marks contemporary buildings that lie on the Military Road. Discovering Wilson Machine Works, one of Queen Anne’s oldest surviving factories, on the map was great news. Who thought there was a pre-Civil War route crossing Queen Anne?

In their texts, Meador and Dorpat and McCoy strand the route through Queen Anne high-and-dry between two sentences. The pair of asterisks in this passage from Meador marks the spot: “Near the present site of Georgetown in south Seattle, the Road crossed the Duwamish River Valley – known today as Boeing Field – to Beacon Hill and from there along the tide flats of a rough, little mill town called Seattle. ** Crossing Salmon Bay and continuing through present-day Ballard, the Road traversed east along the north shore of Lake Washington.”

Neither source reveals exactly how the Military Road got from Downtown Seattle to Ballard. Meador thought that it followed the route of what we now call Elliott Avenue and 15th Avenue West. That is why she put Wilson Machine Works on her map and why she suggests the road crossed Salmon Bay. Convincing clues indicate another route.

Augustus Koch's 1891 bird's-eye view map of the north end of Seattle's Lake Union

Augustus Koch’s 1891 bird’s-eye view map of the north end of Seattle’s Lake Union

Kay Reinartz* provided one clue in Chapter 5, Page 32 of QAHS’ “Queen Anne: Community on the Hill.” There, she reports that [Queen Anne’s] section of the Military Road “…went north from Yesler’s Mill on Front Street (First Avenue), circling Denny Hill (Denny Regrade) on the east side and passing by the burial ground that became Denny Park. The road then continued along the east side of Queen Anne Hill.”

Reinartz gives another hint about the road’s location on Page 38 when she recounts Lake Union freezing over in 1861 and settlers walking out to the lake along the Military Road to go skating Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to verify Reinartz’s sources.

Another clue is offered by Meador’s statement that the road crossed Salmon Bay. An examination of Augustus Koch’s 1891 bird’s-eye view of Seattle and King County environs shows no roads crossing Salmon Bay until the 1889 construction of a plank road on trestles….

We may also wonder why Army engineers would have constructed a wagon road across a pretty big stretch of water when only a narrow, little creek (now replaced by the Lake Washington Ship canal) separated the two sides less than a mile away. Koch’s 1891 map shows two roads crossing Salmon Bay Creek: one about where Ewing Place meets the ship canal today, and [the] other one crossing at the site of the Fremont Bridge – either one could be the Military Road.

The clincher about the road’s location is the Nov. 3, 1860 survey of David T. Denny’s claim by a Mr. Richardson. Generally speaking, Denny’s claim is marked on the north today by Mercer Street and on the south by Denny Way.

The surveyor describes crossing the Military Road for the first time 80 chains or about a mile (a chain equals 66 feet) from the shore of “Elliott’s Bay” and a mere 17 chains (0.2 miles) from the post he planted at the shore of Lake Union. On his way back to his starting point on Elliott Bay, about 28 chains (.35 miles) from the southeastern corner of Denny’s claim, Richardson crosses the Military Road again.

Considering the regrades that leveled Denny Hill and fill that obliterated the natural banks of Lake Union, locating the exact route of the Military Road would take a huge effort and a cross-country trip to see maps filed at the National Archives in the other Washington.

It seems Reinartz had it right: The road did run along the east side of Queen Anne….

*Reinartz also authored “Tukwila: Community at the Crossroads” in conjunction with the City of Tukwila.

Posted 7/14/2015