Tukwila: cradle of Puget Sound civilization

From site of one of the earliest white settlements to crossroads of the metro area, the once-humble Seattle suburb is looking back on more than a century of history. That history includes a disappearing river and an airplane that never flew.
Crosscut archive image.

The Black River in 1905. (University of Washington)

From site of one of the earliest white settlements to crossroads of the metro area, the once-humble Seattle suburb is looking back on more than a century of history. That history includes a disappearing river and an airplane that never flew.

People who don't think of Tukwila, Wash., as a real place may be astonished to learn that on Tuesday, Jan. 8, the Seattle suburb will kick off its centennial celebration. Known primarily as the site of the Southcenter shopping mall, Tukwila has actually been incorporated since 1908. Originally, the Black and White rivers came together there to form the Duwamish, which then meandered north through a broad floodplain, spread out in a vast estuary, and finally emptied into Elliott Bay. Now, the White has gone elsewhere, the Black has gone, period, and, instead of a place where rivers combine, Tukwila has become the place where Interstate 405 joins Interstate 5.

People farmed the Duwamish and Green river valleys back in 1908. There was already a Tukwila post office. The old electric interurban streetcar between Seattle and Tacoma stopped there. (Now, Sounder commuter trains stop there, and next year, Tukwila will briefly become the southern terminus of Sound Transit's new Link Light Rail system.)

The first non-native homesteaders had settled along the Duwamish in 1851. When the Denny party, whose members went on to found Seattle, arrived at Alki Point in rainy November 1851, the earlier settlers shared food with them. The next winter, with food running low, David Denny and a companion got a couple of Indians to paddle them up the Duwamish to a native village, where they bought potatoes – introduced by the Hudson's Bay Company in the 1830s – to help them through the long winter. All the villages in the river valleys had cleared garden plots at the time, but settlers soon ran the natives off, burning their cedar longhouses and taking over the already cleared and cultivated land.

The Black River that flowed through early Tukwila drained Lake Washington, flowing south from the lake at what is now Renton, picking up the Cedar River just beyond the lake, and curving west to join the White just below what is now the Starfire soccer center in Fort Dent Park. The White, which started below the glaciers on Mount Rainier, flowed northwest, picking up the Green River below what is now Auburn, then heading almost due north to its rendezvous with the Black.

Salmon swam up all those rivers, and natives gathered wapato roots on the low-lying land of Fort Dent. Archaeological evidence suggests that people may have occupied, or at least camped on, a hill southeast of Fort Dent for some 8,000 years.

Even before Tukwila was incorporated, the White River had literally gone south. In the great floods of 1906 - when an interurban train with 106 people on board was stranded overnight by floodwaters just south of what is now Tukwila - the White jumped its banks, flowing through the channel of the minor Stuck River into the Puyallup, and finally into Tacoma's Commencement Bay. King County farmers, tired of getting flooded out, didn't want it back. Armed groups stood guard to keep anyone from re-diverting it. And they didn't have to take it back, although King County settled a legal dispute by agreeing to pay 60 percent of the cost of levees and other flood control measures in Pierce County.

By the time Tukwila was incorporated, two years later, only the Green and Black joined there to form the Duwamish. Then, in 1916, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished the ship canal from Lake Washington to Salmon Bay. Lake water flowed out through it, the lake level dropped 9 feet, taking it below the level of its old outlet into the Black River, and the Black simply disappeared. You can still see a trickle entering the Duwamish just north of Fort Dent, where the Black used to be. The disappearance of the Black River marked a milestone in people's reshaping of the landscape.

It was merely a side effect of building the canal - which can be thought of as a failed economic development project - but, of course, early 20th-century residents of the Seattle area saw nature as no impediment to their civic ambition and personal greed. By the time the Black River vanished, the "regrading" of Seattle had already removed much of Denny Hill between the central waterfront and Queen Anne, the dredging and straightening of the lower Duwamish had begun (and dredge spoils were being dumped into the old salt marshes to create new industrial land), and Seattle had started importing both drinking water and electricity from the Cedar River.

No longer a crossroads of rivers, not yet a crossroads of freeways, Tukwila largely just was for most of its first 50 years, but it became a focus of regional commerce when Southcenter opened in 1968 – the very same year Seattle-area residents turned down a rail transit system that would have gotten a 90 percent federal match and might have channeled Eastside suburban development toward rail stations before it grew into the current cars-only sprawl. Southcenter wasn't the area's first shopping mall, but it was the largest. It didn't persuade anyone to vote down transit, but it symbolized the regional commitment to automobiles. It still does.

Twenty-one years later, in 1989, Tukwila annexed the south end of Boeing Field - aka King County International Airport - which brought into its city limits the Museum of Flight, the largest private air and space museum in the country. The museum recapitulates a great deal of aviation history. It contains the "Red Barn," the old wooden, two-story boat-building shed converted to Boeing's first aircraft factory, which was barged upriver from its original site beside the Duwamish, and a huge array of planes, including the very first jet Air Force One, a pre-World War II Boeing 40B mail plane, a high-flying Blackbird reconnaissance plane, and a supersonic Concorde.

At the south end of Boeing Field stands the big, featureless Boeing Developmental Center, where Boeing workers fashioned the first all-composite fuselage section for the new 787 jetliner, and where their predecessors once created a full-scale mockup of the planned American SST. If the Museum of Flight stands as a monument to what has been, the Developmental Center stands as a monument to what has not, an icon of the road not taken.

By the 1960s, Boeing's 707 had given the U.S. the lead in commercial aviation. Britain and France hoped to supplant the U.S. by building a supersonic transport, the Concorde. The U.S. of the early 1960s wasn't about to let that happen. Just as John F. Kennedy resolved to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, so in 1963 he resolved to build a supersonic transport plane that would compete with the planned Anglo-French Concorde. Congress put federal money into the effort. Boeing beat out Lockheed for the right to build the plane. This was going to be another giant step forward for commercial aviation. The commercial jets of the 1960s - the 707, 727, and 737 - all carried passengers at around 600 miles per hour. The SST was going to triple the speed, carrying passengers across oceans and continents at 1,800 mph. There in the Developmental Center, Boeing workers built a full-scale mockup of the sleek, needle-nosed plane.

That was as close as they got to building a full-fledged SST. The plane soon ran afoul of bitter Vietnam-era politics. Some critics worried that if the plane went supersonic over land, sonic booms would disrupt people's lives. Others speculated that a whole fleet of SSTs, cruising above 60,000 feet, would shred the ozone layer, letting in more ultra-violet radiation and triggering an epidemic of skin cancer. The late-'60s "counterculture" and much of liberal America had an anti-technology bias. Late-'60s conservatives didn't much like government subsidies. The economics were also questionable. Congress pulled the plug on the SST program at the end of 1970.

By that time, the aerospace industry had hit a large air pocket, Boeing had laid off two-thirds of its work force, state unemployment rose to 12.5 percent, and Seattle plunged into the recession that inspired the famous billboard: "will the last person leaving Seattle--Turn out the lights." Losing the SST was hardly Seattle's biggest problem, but it seemed both significant and symbolic. (On the other hand, losing the project may have been a blessing in disguise for Boeing. Only the British and French national airlines ever bought the Anglo-French Concorde, and no one ever bought the USSR's TU-144.)

The United States was mired deeply in-and divided politically by-- the Vietnam War, and pulling back from building the SST seemed somehow to reflect a broader loss of American hubris. We weren't even trying to be number one.

By scrapping the SST, the nation also turned away from the so-called "technological imperative"-the idea that if we can do something, we will. For perhaps the first significant time in our history, we just said no.

So here's to Tukwila - not just a stop on the rail line or a site of early settlement, but the place where rivers no longer meet and where people built the mockup of the plane that never was.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.