South Lake Washington History Ride
[bicycle crankset clicking] The region around southern Lake Washington has been changed by human intervention in geography, culture, and more. It would be unrecognizable to someone from 200 years ago. Hi. I'm Bob Svercl. I'm your ride leader for this history ride around South Lake Washington. I'm going to lead you to some interesting places while telling stories of the people that have lived here. [music playing] The Pacific Northwest used to be covered by the Cordilleran Ice Sheet during glacial periods of the last 2.7 million years. Lake Washington is a ribbon lake formed by the Cordilleran Ice Sheet.
The land here has been inhabited by Coast Salish people for thousands of years. Coast Salish are indigenous peoples living around the Salish Sea that includes Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The dxʷdəwʔabš [Duwamish], people of the inside, lived in what is now Seattle, and Xacuabš [Hah-choo-absch], people of the large lake, lived around Lake Washington. They are distinct but related to each other, and oftentimes they have been grouped together. The route takes us along Lake Washington into South Seattle, then back into and around the city of Renton. We’ll start outside the Renton Rowing Center at the south end of the lake.
[music playing] Our first stop is at the original source of the Black River. Lake Washington used to flow out to Puget Sound via the Black and Duwamish Rivers. The Cedar River flowed into the Black River, the Black River combined with the White River, to form the Duwamish River which flowed into Elliott Bay.
When the Lake Washington Ship Canal was completed in 1916, the water level of the lake dropped by 16 feet. Hundreds of acres of land were created. To stabilize the water level of the lake, the Cedar River was redirected to flow into Lake Washington, and the lake's water level stayed at 9 feet lower than it was originally.
This cut off the source of the Black River, causing it to mostly dry up. While many celebrated the completion of the ship canal, it was not a joyous occasion for the Duwamish people like Joseph Moses who lived along the Black River. He was known to have said: "That was quite a day for the white people, at least. The waters just went down, down, until our landing and canoes stood dry, and there was no Black River at all.” From here we'll get onto the Cedar River Trail.
[music playing] At this seaplane base, we'll learn the story of an ill-fated journey to Alaska by Will Rogers and Wiley Post. Will Rogers was a famous actor, entertainer, and humorist who was a Cherokee citizen born in Indian Territory in 1879. Wiley Post was a famed American aviator from Oklahoma who accomplished the first solo flight around the world. On August 7, 1935, they took off from Lake Washington on a trip for Alaska and Siberia.
A week later, they died in a plane crash in Alaska on August 15. The City of Renton named the refurbished floatplane facility after them in 1949. [music playing] As we ride into the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle, we’ll learn about the development of the Rainier Valley near the site of the historic Rainier Beach Station. Before European-American settlers arrived, the best land route from south Lake Washington to Puget Sound was along modern Rainier Ave & Yesler Way. In the 1880’s, banker J. K. Edmiston had the Rainier Avenue Electric Railway built from downtown Seattle to the Rainier Valley.
Along this streetcar line, the Rainier Valley developed, and by 1907, it had been completely annexed into the City of Seattle. Service ran every 45 minutes, and it cost 5 cents to get from downtown Seattle to Columbia City and another five cents to get to Rainier Beach. The line was extended to Renton in 1896, becoming the longest electric railway in the world, and it was renamed the Seattle Renton & Southern Railway.
On both sides of the streetcar tracks, a 2 lane dirt road was created, paved with wood planks, that became Rainier Avenue. Later, the road would be paved with bricks from the Denny-Renton Clay & Coal Company which we’ll cover later on this ride. Eventually, streetcars were replaced with buses. The railway permanently ended its service at 1:45 am on New Year’s Day in 1937. Bus Route 7, currently run by King County Metro, runs along much of the original streetcar route between downtown Seattle and Rainier Beach. [music playing] On our way towards our next stop, we’ll take a quick detour here onto a street named Island Drive which is aptly named.
[music playing] Before United States settlers arrived, this was an island that held the Xacuabs village of tleelh-chus, “little island”. It became known as Pritchard Island when the land was acquired by Alfred J. Pritchard in 1900. When the Lake Washington Ship Canal was completed and the lake’s water level dropped, the island became connected to the mainland. The City of Seattle purchased the slough area and turned it into a public beach in 1934. A marker on the ground near the bath house shows the original water level of Lake Washington. [music playing] We’re now at one of South Seattle’s most treasured spaces: Kubota Garden.
It starts with Fujitaro Kubota. Fujitaro Kubota was born on the island of Shikoku, Japan, and he moved to the United States in 1907. After working at a sawmill in Selleck and managing hotels and apartments in Seattle’s International District, he founded the Kubota Gardening Company in 1923. In 1927, he bought 5 acres of swamp in the Rainier Beach area. He drained the swamp and built a Japanese garden, eventually expanding the property to 20 acres.
During World War II, he was sent to a concentration camp at Minidoka in Idaho and had to start the garden anew when he returned in 1945. Near the end of his life, he was awarded Japan’s Fifth Class Order of the Sacred Treasure in 1973. In 1981, part of the garden was declared a city landmark, and in 1987, the City of Seattle bought Kubota Garden and turned it into the public property that it is today. [music playing] This next section of the route involves the most climbing, and it is fitting because we are headed up to Skyway. [music playing] This area became known as Skyway in 1944 when the Skyway Park Addition development of 500 new homes was introduced. It provided homes for workers at the nearby Boeing and PACCAR factories.
Today, it is one of the most diverse areas in the state. Skyway features a unique looking library. Before it got its first physical library in 1953, Skyway relied on bookmobile service from the King County Library System.
In 1970, they moved into a new library building that was 5,200 square feet. The current library opened in 2016, is 8,000 square feet, and serves over 18,000 residents. [music playing] In front of one of the entrances to this Fred Meyer stands the Henry Moses Honoring Pole.
Born in 1900, Henry Moses is a Duwamish chief who grew up along the Black River on a plot west of Renton High School that was granted by Henry Tobin. In high school he played basketball and baseball, and his team would be teased for having a Native American. The high school changed the name to the Indians in his honor, a decision supported by his widow and the Duwamish tribe.
After his death, locals in Renton referred to him as the last Duwamish chief, though that’s not accurate according to the tribe’s succession. This honoring pole was carved by Jim Ploegman and installed in April 1975. In 2009, it was stolen by C. E. Jenks, an art collector in West Seattle, along with the totem pole at Rotary Viewpoint. After an extensive search, both poles were found in Keizer, Oregon. With the help of Jim Ploegman, the Henry Moses Honoring Pole was restored by the Duwamish Tribe and rededicated in May 2011.
[music playing] At our next stop, we’re going to see one of the surviving parts of the Black River. [music playing] We’re at the Black River Riparian Forest & Wetland. After the Black River mostly dried up, this 93-acre forest and pond were created. According to the Rainier Audobon Society, over 50 species of birds have been sighted here. This is home to one of the largest heron colonies in the region.
The herons that live here are coastal herons, a subspecies of Great blue herons unique to Puget Sound and British Columbia’s Fraser River Valley. The heron colony began in 1986, and over 100 herons nest here. [music playing] We’re now at Waterworks Gardens, a public arts project centered around stormwater treatment.
Renton Treatment Plant is a wastewater plant built in 1965 to serve the east side of Lake Washington and the Green River Valley. In the 1970’s, it was reaching capacity and would account for up to 25 percent of the Duwamish River’s flow during the summer. In the 1980’s, the plant was expanded including a pipeline to discharge treated water at Duwamish Head. Waterworks Gardens is an 8 acre public space that was completed in 1996 as part of the treatment plant expansion. It was a project of the King County Public Arts program and Department of Natural Resources working with the City of Renton.
Environmental artist Lorna Jordan was the concept and design team leader and worked with Jones & Jones, Brown & Caldwell, and Fuji Industries. There are 5 garden “rooms” that water passes through. Stormwater starts at The Knoll, a grate covered channel, passes into a series of ponds called The Funnel, then enters The Grotto which is shaped like a seed pod. From there, it flows into The Passage made of open ponds, then wetlands known as The Release where the cleansed stormwater finally flows directly into Springbrook Creek. Our next couple of stops are in downtown Renton.
[music playing] At this stop, I’m going to tell you an apocryphal story about the tunnel that used to be here and how it got its name, so keep in mind that details might not be accurate. In 1877, the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad wanted to buy land from Erasmus Smithers, the first white settler in the area, so that they could build their railroad. As the story goes, he had them build a tunnel wide enough for him to move his cows through to get from field to field. How wide was it? Four cows wide! Four Cow Wide Tunnel remained until 2007 when it was widened to allow car traffic to get through. [music playing] This stop is the former Burlington Northern Railroad depot. In 1873, when Northern Pacific Railway chose Tacoma instead of Seattle to be its western terminus, Seattle businessmen formed the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad.
They built tracks from Seattle through Renton to Newcastle; successors would build tracks along the Cedar River to places like Black Diamond and more. One of its successors was Burlington Northern who used this building as a depot. It is now home to Renton’s Chamber of Commerce. Another business that operated from here was the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train.
Operated by the Temple family from 1992 to 2007, the dinner train took riders on a tour from Renton to Woodinville and back along the east side of Lake Washington. The train used tracks from the Woodinville Subdivision of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. The 3 and a half hour ride included dinner, history, and dessert.
[music playing] Our next stop is in an odd place near an interstate off-ramp. It starts with Captain William Renton, a lumber and shipping merchant who built a sawmill at Alki and places around Puget Sound. He became a board member of the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad. A major investor in coal in the area, the town that grew up here was named Renton in his honor. In 1873, coal was discovered here by Erasmus M Smithers, and he organized the Renton Coal Company.
The mine goes more than a mile into the hillside, going down at a 12 degree slope and branching out over 22 times. Before the mine shut down in 1918, over 1.3 million tons of coal were removed. The mine was covered up and largely forgotten. In 1963 during construction of the Tukwila Freeway, currently known as Interstate 405, the entrance to the mine was uncovered. The construction crew pulled up old coal cars, wheels, and scrap iron. The entrance to the mine is now covered by the freeway.
This is the remnant of a hoist used to haul coal cars from the mine. [music playing] Here we have 2 history stops across the street from one another. [music playing] On the north side of the street is the Renton History Museum.
Originally, it was a fire station built in 1942 under the Works Progress Administration. The architect, Ivan M Palmaw, also designed the Russian Orthodox Church in South Lake Union in Seattle. The fire department used this station until 1978; it was then renovated for use as the Renton History Museum in 1984. [music playing] On the south side of the street is the Snoqualmie Falls Power Company Electric Substation.
It is Renton’s first brick building, and it was built in 1899 to supply power to the Seattle and Rainier Beach Railway. It drew power from the world’s first underground hydroelectric generating facility at Snoqualmie Falls. [music playing] Our next stop is just off the Cedar River Trail.
These are the remains of the Denny-Renton Clay & Coal Company’s plant. After the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 destroyed Seattle’s central business district, brick became very popular. The Denny-Renton Clay & Coal Company started when the Denny Clay Company, formed in 1892, merged with the Renton Clay Company. The plant mined clay and coal from the nearby hillside and produced everything from bricks to sewer tiles, roof tiles, chimney flue linings, and more. By 1917, they were producing up to 58 million paving bricks a year, and they helped make King County the world’s largest producer of brick at the time. Bricks produced here were used to pave many of Seattle’s first roads including Rainier Avenue, 1st Avenue, and many more.
Bricks and other products were shipped to places around the world including San Francisco, Cape Town, Tokyo, and more. [music playing] This is the Renton Library. Built in 1966, it spans 80 feet across the Cedar River using pre-cast concrete and wood truss joints. It’s the only library in the United States that was built over a river.
It was renovated from 2014-2015 using techniques to avoid any negative impacts on the river’s active salmon habitat. [music playing] There’s not much to see at this dead end, but this was the original entrance to the factory that would become PACCAR. In 1905, the Seattle Car Manufacturing Company was incorporated by William Pigott. They manufactured railway cars for the logging industry in a plant at Humphrey in West Seattle that is now known as Youngstown. On August 12, 1907, the plant was destroyed by a fire.
The next year, February 1908, they opened a plant in Renton. In 1911, it became known as the Seattle Car and Foundry Company, and in 1917 it merged with Twohy Brothers Company of Portland to become the Pacific Car & Foundry Company. The company designed and built a special logging truck that has a 2 wheeled trailer known as the “Universal Trailer”. You can see one of these on display next to the Renton History Museum.
During World War II, they built aluminum wingspans for Boeing’s B-17 bombers and Sherman M4-A1 tanks for the Army. They fabricated steel for projects like the 1st floating bridge across Lake Washington, Bonneville Dam, Space Needle, and some of the steel used in New York City’s World Trade Center. The company is now known as PACCAR Incorporated. [music playing] Our next stop is Lake Washington Beach Park.
Since the 1860’s this area was used for the coal mining industry, logging industry, and even wartime ship storage. In 1955, the City of Renton acquired 23 acres of land from the Pacific Coast Railroad Company and made it into Lake Washington Beach Park in 1963. The park was expanded to more than twice its size and fully developed by 1982. It is named after Gene L Coulon who was director of the Renton Parks Department from 1949 to 1977. [music playing] Our last stop on this history ride deals with a rail trail whose history is still being made. [music playing] In 1864, Congress chartered the Northern Pacific Railway Company to connect the Great Lakes with Puget Sound.
In 1890, Northern Pacific partnered with the Lake Washington Belt Line Company to build a railroad from Renton along the east side of Lake Washington to Woodinville which was completed in 1904. In 1970, Northern Pacific merged with multiple railroads to form Burlington Northern and eventually became Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. In 2012, the King County Council bought 15.6 miles of right-of-way from the Port of Seattle including the Belt Line and Woodinville Subdivision to turn into a multi-use trail. Originally called Eastside Rail Corridor, it is now known as Eastrail. When it is fully complete, Eastrail will contain 42 miles of continuous trails connecting Renton, Bellevue, Kirkland, Woodinville, Redmond, and Snohomish County.
[music playing] As we head back to the start, there’s one more thing we need to do: a pop quiz! You can pause the video if you need more time for your answers. Question 1: Before the Ship Canal was completed, what rivers used to connect Lake Washington with Puget Sound? The correct answers are: Black River and Duwamish River. Question 2: What did construction crews discover when building the Tukwila Freeway (Interstate 405) in Renton? The correct answer is: the entrance to the Renton Coal Mine. Question 3: Who are the Coast Salish people who lived around Lake Washington and related to the Duwamish? The correct answer is: Xacuabš (people of the large lake). [in happy tone] If you correctly answered all 3 questions, you rock! [in teasing tone] If you gave any wrong answers, you should probably rewatch the video! [in normal tone] We finish our ride back at the Renton Rowing Center.
Thank you for joining me on this virtual history ride around South Lake Washington. There’s a lot more history to learn, so I encourage you to visit museums, read more on your own, and talk to people. I’ll see you on the next ride! [music playing] [bicycle crankset clicking]