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All Over The Map: Origin of Washington’s Military Roads predates Civil War

As any commuter knows, there are several stretches of generally north-south roadway in King and Pierce County that are called Military Road, including:

  • A short stretch on Beacon Hill, not too far from the Comet Lodge Cemetery.
  • A long stretch from Burien almost all the way to Milton in Pierce County that roughly parallels I-5.
  • Short stretches in Spanaway and Steilacoom.

It might come as a surprise to some of those same commuters that this name goes way back to the 1850s, when future Confederate President Jefferson Davis was Secretary of War and the U.S. Army had a hand in shaping what would become Washington state.

When the Native lands of Oregon Country, which had been jointly occupied by the British and the Americans for decades, became “Oregon Territory” in 1848, it paved the way for federal funding of infrastructure, mostly via the military, and for things like federally-paid postmaster positions.

Water was the main means of travel in those years, but the need for roads was clear to settlers and to the Army, because weather sometimes meant travel by water was dangerous or just impractical.

Washington Territory was carved from Oregon Territory in 1853. Washington’s Territorial House of Representatives “memorialized” Congress – that is, asked them – for a new road in December 1855, because of concerns over the looming treaty war.

The northernmost American military post in Washington Territory in 1855 was Fort Steilacoom; the Army had decided to build a fort on Bellingham Bay, so settlers wanted a road between the two for safety reasons.

They also saw the value of a road to encourage more settlement and to support commerce in the young territory. The military value of the overland route again came to the fore when conflict with Great Britain – the so-called “Pig War” – over the international boundary in the San Juan Islands seemed imminent in 1859.

In the summer and fall of 1857, Army personnel did the surveying and some of the ax and shovel work, but much of the construction was contracted out to nearby residents, which is considered among the first federal dollars to support the local economy. The quality of the construction varied, but in the most elaborate stretches, the road was described as a “16-and-a-half foot carriageway”; it was “grubbed of rocks and roots to a depth of 9 inches”; and it was planked (or paved) with logs where necessary (which is called a “corduroy road”).

The final product was not a continuous highway from Bellingham to Steilacoom. By 1860 or so, five miles of wagon road had been built from Whatcom to the fort on Bellingham Bay and a wagon road had been built between Seattle to Steilacoom. However, in between the stretches of wagon road, from Seattle to Whatcom, the finished project was considered more of a trail.

While individual sections would come to be gradually improved by local residents and local governments in the decades ahead, by the early 1860s, the federal money for military roads ran out. Looking back from the perspective of the early 20th century, historian Thomas Prosch wrote:

The War of the Rebellion, the gold mines of Idaho and Montana, the sudden opening and development of the country, the coming not long after of railroads, the overpowering and speedy subjugation of the Indians, these and other things so changed the conditions that the military roads lost their relative importance, and the anticipated results of their building we’re not realized. It is well, however, to give full credit to the Army officers for their good intentions. If they had had their way, the Pacific Coast country would have been supplied with a system of wagon roads of the best character, permeating it in all directions, and rendering travel through it by carriage easy and comfortable in the extreme. That their efforts were not more successful was due to causes they could not control, and was a loss to the people of Washington territory well understood and deeply regretted by them at the time.

Washington Territory’s first governor, Isaac Stevens, served in the U.S. House as Territorial Representative in the late 1850s. Despite several attempts, Stevens was not able to secure very much in the way of federal appropriations to build more roads and complete what was already started. In what may have been something of an understatement, Stevens described travel condition in Washington Territory, saying, “It is a difficult country to communicate in.”

The Steilacoom-Bellingham route wasn’t Washington Territory’s only military road built in that era. There were also routes connecting Fort Walla Walla to Fort Steilacoom over Naches Pass (which was actually first built mostly by civilians after George McClellan failed to follow Isaac Stevens’ orders); Fort Vancouver to Fort Dalles; Fort Vancouver to Fort Steilacoom; and Fort Walla Walla to Fort Benton on the Missouri River, 633 miles away in Central Montana, via what came to be called the Mullan Road.

Regarding McClellan’s failures, Thomas Prosch wrote, “He expended in unknown ways much of the money, but as far as the citizens and immigrants were aware, not a dollar in actual road construction.”

The north-south Military Road never saw much in the way of military use, but it did create a reliable overland route, much of which later became the route of Highway 9, Highway 99 and Interstate 5.

In the 1930s, it was an annual tradition for soldiers from Fort Lawton in Seattle to march via the route of the old Military Road to Fort Lewis for maneuvers, and to camp along the way in Puyallup. In Auburn’s Five-Mile Lake Park, the gravel path around the lakeshore is commemorated as one of the last surviving stretches of the original Military Road.

Special thanks to Karen Meador for sharing a pamphlet about Military Road history that she researched and wrote for the City of Federal Way.

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