Military Road: South King County’s link to the Civil War

Retaining its original name and general route throughout South King County, Military Road is a section of the Fort Steilacoom–Fort Bellingham Road, part of a network of Military Roads constructed in the Pacific Northwest under the supervision of the U.S. Army in the 1850s.

Hostilities between natives and settlers spurred Congress, with the support of Secretary of War and future Confederate President Jefferson Davis, to appropriate $35,000 in 1857 to construct a land route between the two forts to move troops and supplies and facilitate settlement in the remote Puget Sound country.

Traveling on foot with a pocket compass and an axe to mark trees along the way, Army Capt. W.W. DeLacy began surveying the unsettled wilderness accompanied by a crew of six Native Americans and three settlers; the area was so densely-wooded that pack animals could not be used.

Construction began in 1858 under the supervision of Lt. George H. Mendell; the road was completed to Seattle in October 1860. Throughout its length, Military Road follows the lakes in the vicinity – the gas stations of the pre-motor buggy era. In South King County, Army troops camped at the three lakes the road connects: Five Mile Lake, Star Lake and Angle Lake.

Five Mile Lake derives its name from the fact it is 5 miles from the Carson’s Ferry Crossing on the Puyallup River – the same location as the modern Puyallup River Bridge. The gravel footpath along the lake is a remnant of the original wagon road. 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 north through present-day Ballard, the road traversed east along the north shore of Lake Washington, skirting the swamps along Sammamish Slough and eventually moving north along the route of the future Highway 9.

Turning west north of Big Lake, the road moved north to Bellingham along the present routes of Highway 99 and Interstate 5.

Capt. George Pickett was in charge of construction at the northern end of the road from Whatcom to Fort Bellingham. George B. McClellan, Joseph Hooker and Ulysses S. Grant were among other future Civil War generals assigned to the Pacific Northwest as junior officers in the 1850s, a number of whom were involved in Military Road construction.

The first telegraph line in Washington Territory was strung along the length of the road in 1864. Carved out of the wilderness on the eve of the Civil War, Military Road encouraged settlement and commerce and enabled the movement of people and supplies throughout its length, a legacy that continues today.

By Karen Meador, Historical Society of Federal Way

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