Tukwila -- Thumbnail History

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 1/29/1999
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2091
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The City of Tukwila, located 10 miles south of Seattle, is near the original confluence of the Black and White rivers. These rivers, before development altered their courses, merged to form the Duwamish River. The Duwamish flowed north into Elliott Bay, below the hills of Seattle. The Duwamish Indians inhabited this valley for many centuries before white settlers arrived in the 1850s. In 1851, the Collins party staked a claim near the mouth of the Duwamish River. Around the same time, the Denny Party settled at Alki Point, to the west of the Collins' claim. Soon after, other settlers started claiming land further south into the valley.

First Settlers

Joseph and Stephen Foster, brothers who had walked west from Illinois alongside an oxcart, were the first to settle in what is now Tukwila. They both staked claims near where the Black and White rivers met, then known as Mox La Push (Chinook jargon meaning "two mouths"). Spring floods would often reverse the course of the small Black River, causing it to flow backward into Lake Washington, temporarily giving it another mouth.

Two years after the Fosters began clearing their land, hostile Indians massacred settlers in the White River valley to the south. This led to the short-lived Indian War, the result of which was the removal of all local tribes onto reservations. Although many of the Duwamish Indians remained friendly with local settlers, the tribe was never granted its own reservation and was forced to move onto land inhabited by other tribes.

Nineteenth Century Development

Soon after the Indian War, Fort Dent (a small blockhouse) was built near Joseph Foster's cabin in case of further uprisings. Also, the first road in King County was built along the Duwamish River over an established Indian trail. The road and the river enabled valley settlers to access the growing city of Seattle. Logs harvested while clearing the land could be floated upstream to the mills, and the road allowed mill workers to get to their jobs.

Joseph Foster, who served in the Indian War as a packer and scout, became a territorial legislator in 1858. Among legislation he sponsored was a bill that established a Territorial University in Seattle, which later became the University of Washington.

Throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Duwamish Valley attracted many settlers. The soil was excellent for growing hops, hay, fruit, and vegetables. The river was abundant with salmon. In 1880, the total number of people living in the valley was 199. By 1892, the population was 2062. An aphid infestation and the nationwide economic panic of 1893 temporarily slowed growth in the area, but the community's location along a transportation corridor allowed it to flourish in the twentieth century.

Planes, Trains, Automobiles

The grassy plain a few miles down river of Mox La Push was called The Meadows. In the early 1900s, a horseracing track was built there. In 1912, the First King County Fair was held at the site. Later still, a small airport was built which grew to become Boeing Field and home to the Boeing Company's Plant II, which produced many of the larger planes that fought in World War II. In 1902, the Seattle-Tacoma Interurban Railway was built through the valley. The electric train, which could achieve speeds of 60 to 70 miles an hour, greatly suburbanized the area by allowing commuters a chance to have a home in the country and a job in the city.

The increase in the number of automotive vehicles soon followed, and better roads and bridges were built throughout the region to accommodate them. By 1928, the Interurban was phased out as roads became the preferred routes for many people. The rivers, which had been the first travel routes in the community, also underwent man-made changes. One of these rivers was phased out. Following a major flood in 1906, the Duwamish River was dredged and straightened over a period of years. Ten miles to the south, the White River was diverted from its original course, and the Green River now filled the channel. And in 1916, the lowering of Lake Washington resulting from the construction of the Montlake Cut to connect Lake Washington with Lake Union caused the Black River to disappear. Mox La Push went from two mouths to none.

By this time, the community had already been named Tukwila. The etymology of the name is unclear, but it was used by Duwamish Indians to describe the region. Locals had been calling the community by this name for years. In 1908, Joel Shomaker, a Seattle newspaperman who lived in the valley, pushed for incorporation. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer held a "Name The New Town" contest, and the name Tukwila won. The town was incorporated on June 23, 1908 with Shomaker as mayor.

Industrialization vs. Commercialization

As transportation corridors expanded throughout south King County, Tukwila cemented itself as a central hub. The rapid growth of Boeing and other industries during World War II threatened to over-industrialize the area after the war, but opposition from Tukwila citizens prevented it. Rather than rely on industry to sustain growth, they turned to commercial businesses.

In the 1960s, planning had already begun for two new highways that would cross right next to the city: I-405, which would travel around Seattle and Lake Washington, and I-5, which would run the entire length of the Pacific Coast. The city planners, realizing the potential of such a busy crossroads, started work on a grand shopping mall for Tukwila. On July 31, 1968, Southcenter Mall opened with 116 stores built on 30 acres. At the time it was one of the largest malls in the state.

In recent years, the City of Tukwila has annexed many smaller nearby communities such as Riverton, Allentown, and Foster, including a number of industries along East Marginal Way. Seattle had sought these industries for their tax base in the 1980s, but the resistance of a small number of residents in the neighboring South Park area prevented the annexation. The industries now enrich Tukwila's tax base. By 2021, Tukwila had a population of 21,615 people. With industry to the north, Sea-Tac Airport to the west, and a wide variety of businesses within and without, Tukwila continued to be a thriving city as it entered the twenty-first century.


Kay F. Reinartz, Tukwila: Community at the Crossroads (Tukwila: City of Tukwila, 1991).

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