Des Moines -- Thumbnail History

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 1/14/1999
  • Essay 697
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The City of Des Moines, located 15 miles south of Seattle along the shores of Puget Sound, has never been a large center of industry like other Seattle suburbs. Although it incorporated as recently as 1959, it has been a Northwest community for more than 100 years.

High Bluffs

Europeans first saw the high bluffs of Des Moines under a cloud of smoke. On May 26, 1792, Captain George Vancouver passed by the present site of the city during his explorations of Puget Sound. At the time, Indians had been burning brush to drive out deer for hunting and the air was thick with smoke. Thirty-two years later, an American expedition led by Lt. Charles Wilkes charted the coastline, but it wasn’t until the late 1860s that settlers first arrived.

In 1867, John Moore acquired a claim for 154 acres along the water and built a cabin. Little is known of Moore, except that he later went insane and in 1879 was committed to an asylum. His land was sold and later ended up in the hands of Fountain O. Chezum. Other homesteaders settled surrounding land, but very little development occurred until 1890. By this time, a military road (actually a rough trail) connecting Seattle and Tacoma passed by the area. Other trails meandered around the hillsides into the Kent Valley to the east, but Puget Sound was the main artery along which people and goods flowed, either by steamer or by canoe.

Both Seattle and Tacoma were burgeoning, and the entire region was prospering. Many outlying areas within King County were booming along with the cities. Since Des Moines was located midway between the Seattle and Tacoma, early entrepreneurs saw great potential for their little town. In 1889, Chezum sold his land to F. A. Blasher, who had moved out from Des Moines, Iowa. That same year, John W. Kleeb and Orin Watts Barlow platted the townsite, and when Blasher sold them his land, they named the town Des Moines and formed the Des Moines City Improvement Co.

The first businesses in town were lumber and shingle mills. The Douglas Fir and cedar trees needed to be cleared to develop the land: The wood was used for building. Often a mill would burn down, owing to the inflammable (easily able to burn) nature of the business. When a mill burned down, a new one would be built in its place.

A new wharf was built to accommodate sea vessels. Ferries were essential to the early development of the town. They were the quickest and most efficient way to travel to and from Seattle or Tacoma. At first privately run steamers ploughed the waters, but by the twentieth century, Puget Sound’s Mosquito Fleet was the main choice for Des Moines commuters.

The town developed in fits and starts. In 1890, the community could claim hotels, a chair factory, a tin factory, a boat yard, a school, and churches. When the Panic of 1893 drove the nation into an economic depression, the town suffered also. Des Moines lost nearly a quarter of its population, which declined from 216 in 1890 to 162 in 1900. A boom in 1906 raised the population to 357. By 1920, the number of residents had slowly risen to 751.

The Purloined Coffin

By this time transportation corridors other than Puget Sound had opened up. The Seattle-Tacoma Interurban ran through the valley, five miles to the east, and for some it was worth the walk to ride the electric train. To the north a private trolley line led into Seattle, although many compared it to the Toonerville Trolley of the comics page. At one time, trolley service was delayed because the tracks were coated with dead caterpillars, causing the wheels to slip and slide.

The age of the automobile greatly opened the way for further development. Early roads were nothing more than ruts, but after 1910 gravel and brick roads allowed easier car access to the city. Still, the high bluffs created problems. One winter, a wagon carrying a coffin couldn’t make it up the steep hillside. It was decided to bury the coffin right then and there.

Automobiles not only allowed residents to travel to the cities, they also allowed Sunday drivers from Seattle and Tacoma a chance to come out and see the countryside. Many of these “rubberneckers” liked Des Moines (especially the lower cost of land) and ended up moving there. By 1930, the population had grown to nearly 2,000.

The completion of Pacific Highway South (SR-99) in the 1930s gave Des Moines a direct route to both big cities. Small farms (mostly growing berries and chickens) were abundant in Des Moines during the Great Depression, and produce could travel from harvest to market within the day. The highway also attracted new businesses that appealed to drivers: service stations, motels, and restaurants. Travelers along the highway were also enticed by Des Moines’ parks and shops. One memorable business, which has since burned down, was the Big Tree Inn. This popular chicken restaurant was built from hollowed-out sections of a 2,000-year-old redwood tree. The building was built for an exposition in San Francisco and brought to Des Moines in the 1920s. Later, when the highway was built, it was moved next to it.

Residents Incorporate

Des Moines was incorporated in 1959, as the nearby town of Kent began annexing land. Rather than become part of Kent, the residents of Des Moines voted to become a city in their own right. Incorporation allowed residents to exert finer control over local issues pertaining to infrastructure, development, and the intrusion of Sea-Tac Airport air traffic and noise from the north.

By 2021, Des Moines boasted a population of nearly 33,000 people. The ferries are long gone, but the Des Moines marina remains a vital centerpiece of the community. On hot summer afternoons, people still visit from Seattle and Tacoma to take advantage of the city’s waterfront. As in the past, some of them still end up staying for a while.


Clarence B. Bagley, History of King County Vol. 1 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co, 1929), 867-870. Also see: Richard T. Kennedy, One Hundred Years of the “Waterland” Community: A History of Des Moines, Washington (City of Des Moines, 1989).

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