Last year, Karen Meador, a good friend of the Queen Anne Historical Society (QAHS), published a delightful pamphlet called “Military Road: A Lasting Legacy.” In her pamphlet, Meador shows the road running west of Queen Anne Hill along the beach and mud flats that later welcomed one of Queen Anne’s longest-surviving, working-class operations, Wilson Machine Works.
Indeed, Meador features the machine works as if it occupies a site on the Military Road called the Fort Steilacoom to Fort Bellingham Road by 19th-century settlers, road builders and surveyors. The evidence points, however, to a more eastern route for the Military Road close to Lake Union.
Most Seattle citizens recognize the name “Military Road” as Exit 151 on Interstate 5 near Southcenter or the street just east of I-5 and Boeing Field. In fact, Native American paths often became wagon roads that eventually became the good roads for automobiles we know today. In both cases, it is the same road that crossed Queen Anne in 1860.
In 1857, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis appropriated $35,000 to construct a land route between Fort Steilacoom and Fort Bellingham. In addition to Davis, other Civil War leaders who worked on road construction included George B. McClellan, Joseph Hooker and future President Ulysses S. Grant, who was stationed at Fort Steilacoom.
Military roads were intended to facilitate travel in remote territories and the movement of troops. In the case of Queen Anne’s Civil War-era Military Road, it linked important military outposts.
Clues to its whereabouts
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.
Kay Reinartz provided one clue in Chapter 5, Page 32 of QAHS’ “Queen Anne: Community on the Hill.” There, she reports that our 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. Also, Seattle Parks and Recreation’s history of Kinnear Park (acquired by the city in 1887) states that the plank road along the east edge of Smith’s Cove cut up from the beach toward modern-day Uptown along Mercer Place and headed east away from Seattle’s downtown.
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 other one crossing at the site of the Fremont Bridge — either one could be the Military Road.
Not on the 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.
As much as Dave Wilson was thrilled to learn that his machine works were on the historic Civil War Military Road from Fort Steilacoom to Fort Bellingham, he may be equally sad to hear it isn’t true. Wilson may be mollified knowing the site was once a scenic Puget Sound beach, but he’s known that all his life!
MICHAEL HERSCHENSOHN is president of the Queen Anne Historical Society (qahistory.org). To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.