This is Part 2 of a two-part overview of King County history. Part 2 begins with World War II. This was prepared as a community history resource by staff of the former King County Office of Cultural Resources, now 4Culture (King County Cultural Development Authority). It was last revised in February 2000.
World War II and Beyond
Even before the outbreak of World War II, an increasing number of defense contracts relating to the outbreak of war in Europe and Asia were helping to stimulate local industries. When war was declared in 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor, King County rapidly mobilized for defense. The aviation, shipbuilding, automotive and related industries were greatly expanded. In the early 1940s, King County's population soared by several hundred thousand persons as many came to work in war production industries. Defense housing was hastily constructed at Kirkland, Highline, South Seattle, Renton and other areas in order to accommodate the influx of workers.
In 1942, President Roosevelt issued executive order 9066, which forced the relocation of all persons of Japanese ancestry on the west coast, including those who were U.S. citizens, to internment camps in the interior of the country. This was a devastating blow to the social life, personal freedom and economic well being of the Japanese-American community. After the war few Japanese-American families returned to agricultural businesses. Some families never returned. Many of those who did faced a hostility and racism.
During the war up to 6,000 persons were employed at the Lake Washington Shipyards near Kirkland, and more than 40,000 were at work at Boeing plants in Renton and the Duwamish Valley. Pacific Car and Foundry in Renton was also among the many local industries producing war materials. Seattle shipyards and other defense industries were booming.
Among those who came to work at defense industries was a significant number of African Americans. The post-war economic readjustments, resulting layoffs and the increasing incidence of racial discrimination resulted in many difficulties for them.
During the war, local activity was devoted to waging war on the "home front," including scrap metal drives, civil defense activities and war bond drives. The huge influx of defense workers to the region strained the capacity of many communities to provide adequate housing. Therefore, new wartime housing was constructed in a number of areas, especially those in close proximity to defense plants. The war years also saw a major consolidation of school districts throughout King County.
After the war, servicemen and women returned to find industries drastically curtailing their workforces. By 1950, the Lake Washington Shipyards were completely idle, and Boeing had laid off nearly three-fourths of its employees. Recession in heavy industry was somewhat alleviated by the demand for cars and other consumer products, but the post-war period was one of significant economic readjustment.
The late 1940s saw real growth in the suburban areas around Seattle including Shoreline, White Center, Highline-Burien, Northshore-Bothell, Kirkland, Bellevue, Kent and Auburn. Many areas that had recently been farmed were now becoming residential developments. Small suburban shopping areas such as Bellevue Square first made their appearance in the late 1940s, and by the mid-to late 1950s shopping "centers" such as Northgate and the sprawling complex at Federal Way were becoming popular. The increased use of cars contributed to the suburban flow of the population. Increasing commercial strip development along suburban roadways catered to the marketing needs of the new residential areas.
In 1947, limited operations were commenced at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and in 1949, the airport became fully operational. The Port of Seattle, which operates the facility, expanded and modernized the facilities under major construction projects in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Subsequent expansions of the clear zones around the facility have had significantly negative impacts on the residential districts, which were constructed in close proximity to the airport in the 1950s. Current efforts to add a third runway to the airport have been met with stern resistance by a coalition of municipalities surrounding the airport.
Lumber mills in the area geared up for production during the war, and post-war suburban growth helped keep production going into the 1950s, but decline was inevitable, and only a few mills remained in King County by the 1970s. Since then there has been further decline. The Snoqualmie mill, one of the last facilities in the region capable of cutting large timbers, was closed in 1989.
Large-scale, open-field or row-crop farming began to decline in the post-war period, although King County was still prominent in vegetable growing into the mid-1950s. Changing land uses involved with suburbanization and industrial growth contributed to the decline of agriculture. Since then, food producers in other regions, states and countries have supplied most of the produce used in the area.
After World War II, King County experienced another "wave" of incorporations of new cities and towns, which lasted from 1947 until 1961. Bellevue, Medina, Yarrow Point, Hunts Point, Clyde Hill, Beaux-Arts, Algona, Black Diamond, Mercer Island, Normandy Park and Des Moines were incorporated in order to shape community development and provide local control of services to their citizens. Three other communities, including Houghton, Mercer Island (the Town), and East Redmond were incorporated. The two municipalities on Mercer Island, one a city and the other a town, were merged as were the municipalities of Houghton and Kirkland. East Redmond was disincorporated in 1964 after a Superior Court decision found that its incorporation procedure had been invalid. After the second incorporation the wave was over, no new incorporation attempts would be successful until the late 1980s.
The post-war "baby boom" as well as the "white flight" phenomenon contributed to the rapid expansion of suburban residential areas and helped to accelerate the decline of small town character in some areas. Some of the early schools built to accommodate the "baby boom" children, such as those in Shoreline and Highline School Districts, were surplussed in the 1970s and 1980s because of the decline in the school age population.
The Washington State Legislature's Canwell Committee became involved in the late 1940s with investigations into the allegedly subversive political backgrounds of University of Washington professors and labor activists in Seattle. The committee was part of a national reaction to the beginnings of the "Cold War" between the U.S. and its allies and the Soviet Bloc. The continued tensions of the Cold War and later the U.S.-Soviet "Space Race" impacted local politics and fueled considerable federal investment in the region's defense and aerospace industries. Seattle was surrounded by a ring of defensive missile sites, a number of which have since been converted to other public uses.
Seattle experienced a severe earthquake in 1949 that damaged or weakened a number of downtown buildings, including many in the Pioneer Square neighborhood.
The continued success of Boeing's military and commercial aircraft designs of the 1950s helped them to attain their present leadership position in the commercial aviation and aerospace field. Although fluctuations in their contracts and employment situation have occasionally had adverse effects on the local economy, the Boeing Company and its subsidiaries continue to be among King County's largest employers.
The growing problems of environmental pollution and sewage disposal in the County led in 1958 to the establishment of the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle or Metro. Metro cleaned up Lake Washington, and effected major improvements in water quality and sewage treatment. Later on, it was authorized by the voters to expand into transportation, and it has in the intervening years built one of the nation's finest transit systems.
In 1962, the Howard Hanson Dam project was completed in order to maintain flood control in the Green River Valley. The project, initially described as a potential benefit to the farming community, actually contributed to its decline. Protection from periodic flooding made valley properties more attractive to developers. Zoning policies and increasing real estate values and taxes have added to the pressure on farming operations.
When the Interstate 5 freeway was built through Seattle and King County in 1962, easier access to the Green River Valley was made practical, and industries eager to relocate out of Seattle were established on the immensely productive farmlands around Tukwila, Kent and Auburn.
The opening of the Evergreen Point Bridge in 1963, the completion of Interstate 405 on the Eastside, and the opening of state highway 167 to the Green River Valley from Renton also facilitated major changes in the demographic and industrial makeup of suburban and rural King County.
The Century 21 Exposition at Seattle in 1962 was a world's fair that attracted favorable attention to the Seattle Metropolitan Area. Like its predecessor, the AYPE in 1909, the fair was an economic success. The great legacy of the fair was a group of buildings at the Seattle Center that continue to serve the City and the region as a complex of important arts and cultural facilities. A number of regionally significant programs and events are held annually at Seattle Center.
In 1964, the B & R Coal Company, the last of the coal mining operations at Newcastle, was shut down, marking the end of an era of slope mining in the King County coal fields. Although hundreds of millions of tons of coal still remain in reserve, the demand for coal had declined dramatically and the cost of mining it here was no longer competitive with other mining operations in the U.S. Not until the 1980s would a major coal mine, the John Henry No.1 Mine at Black Diamond, a strip pit operation, again go into production in King County.
The 1960s and 1970s saw dynamic growth and development of the area's community college system. In addition to the development of a three campus system in Seattle (North, Central, South), facilities were also established at Shoreline, Bellevue, Highline and Green River near Auburn. These institutions have contributed significantly to the social, cultural and economic vitality of the region.
In 1964, Seattle and the region experienced another severe earthquake. Reaction to the quake led to development of stronger building code requirements for seismic stability. In 1964, King County adopted its first Comprehensive Plan to guide growth and development in the region. In subsequent years, a number of community plans were also adopted.
In 1967, the voters approved a levy for the construction of a number of new facilities for the King County Library System, a special purpose rural library district not directly affiliated with County government. Since then, the System has added many new facilities, annexed a number of communities and evolved into one of the nation's most prominent and high-volume circulation systems. Today, only the cities of Seattle, Renton, Auburn and Enumclaw operate their own municipal libraries.
The ambitious Forward Thrust bond issue of 1968 resulted in the improvement of a number of public facilities, the acquisition of many new parks and the building of King County's extensive network of aquatic centers.
In 1969, the voters of King County adopted a home rule charter, which allowed it to change from the commissioner form of government to the Council-Executive form we know today. The basic restructuring of the County's operations allowed the County to manage an increasingly complex range of services demanded by a predominantly urbanized population.
Among the significant developments in the 1960s and 1970s was the rise of the University of Washington to national prominence. It was the focus of a great deal of controversy during Civil Rights and Vietnam era protests. By the late 1970s it became the nation's foremost recipient of federal research grants and contracts. Its continuing influence on the cultural life of King County and Seattle is immense. Over the years, the University has become one of the county's largest employers.
By the 1970s the majority of County citizens lived outside the City of Seattle. This population shift has had significant social, economic and political ramifications. When Seattle's population was 80% or more of King County's total, the city dominated much of the political activity around the County. Currently only about a third of the county's population resides in the City, and the political, economic, social and cultural influence of trans-Seattle King County has been increasing.
In 1971, King County was the first county in the country to adopt a 1% for Art ordinance. Since then, the public art collection has expanded to include over 165 art sites and nearly 1000 individual artworks. Public Art programs at the federal, state and municipal level have greatly enriched the region, providing national models for innovative artistry.
In 1972, the federal government turned over title to a significant portion of Ft. Lawton for use as a city park. Although planning for the park was controversial, it has been developed into a significant regional facility.
Seattle voters turned down proposals in 1972 to construct two new freeways, the Bay Freeway in northwest Seattle and the R.H. Thompson Freeway in northeast Seattle.
King County's Multipurpose Stadium, the Kingdome, was constructed in 1976 to house the region's major league baseball and football franchises and other exhibition and meeting events.
By the late 1970s, the Port of Seattle had developed the second busiest container port in the United States. The ports of Puget Sound have a natural trans-Pacific trading advantage over other facilities on the West Coast due to their proximity to Alaska and to the international markets of East Asia.
Historic Preservation programs were established at the state and local level in the 1960s and 1970s. The City of Seattle moved to preserve its older neighborhoods and downtown areas, including the historic Pike Place Market, International-Chinatown and Pioneer Square districts. King County established its Historic Preservation Program in 1978, capitalizing on the forward momentum and visibility provided by the U.S. Bicentennial of 1976.
Preservation of open space and farmlands in King County became an issue in the 1970s and in 1979, voters overwhelmingly approved the King County Farmlands Preservation Bond issue. Under this program, the first purchase of farmland development rights by the County took place in January 1984. Over $50 million in development rights were purchased.
The rapid rise of computer software, medical technology, aerospace, communication and electronics related industries has had a dramatic influence on the growth of suburban King County since the 1970s. These industries rose to national prominence in the 1970s and 1980s becoming a major economic resource for the region. The boom in the Eastside cities of Redmond and Bellevue in recent years is partially due to this trend. The continued success of these industries has made them the most important economic assets of the region. The recreation industry has also had a significant impact on tourism and the region's economy. A number of manufacturers of recreational equipment are located in King County.
The 1980s were another period of rapid population growth and economic expansion around the county. In response to the rapid growth and urbanization of many unincorporated areas, King County updated its Comprehensive Plan in 1985. By the end of the 1980s a "third wave" of incorporations of new cities had begun. In the year of the State Centennial of 1989, two new cities were formed: SeaTac and Federal Way. By the end of 1997, Woodinville, Burien, Newcastle, Shoreline, Maple Valley, Covington and Kenmore had also been incorporated, and a number of the existing cities had annexed considerable amounts of territory in their planning areas.
In 1986 the King County Council adopted a motion to rename the County for the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Nobel Prize winner and national civil rights leader.
In 1988 the massive expansion and redevelopment of the Interstate 90 freeway and bridge system to Seattle across Lake Washington and Mercer Island was completed. It was one of the largest, most costly public works projects ever undertaken in the region.
The revitalization of the central business district of Seattle was enhanced by the construction of the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, the construction of many new high rise residential and commercial buildings, the Westlake Center project, the Metro bus tunnel project, and the redevelopment of the central waterfront. The impact of high rise construction in the downtown area was so great by the mid-1980s that citizens of the City of Seattle approved an initiative in 1989 to "cap" the growth of high-rise buildings in the downtown core.
In 1989 King County voters approved a major open space bond issue which provided funds for the purchase of recreation and resource lands around King County. Additional appropriations since then have added to the growing public ownership of parklands, open spaces wildlife habitats and other resource lands. Among the significant public-private partnerships created to preserve the quality of life in the region was the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, which is working to coordinate the retention of scenic, cultural, natural and economic resources along the Interstate 90 corridor from the Cascade Mountains to Puget Sound. Cooperative corridor planning is also underway in several other areas of King County, including the routes of US 2 through Stevens Pass, the SR 410 east of Enumclaw, SR 202 through the Snoqualmie Valley.
The cultural life of the region experienced major growth in the 1980s and 1990s with the construction of new, world class facilities for the Museum of Flight and the Seattle Art Museum. New arts facilities were built at Seattle Center and historic theaters in the downtown area have been renovated and expanded to accommodate the area's thriving arts organizations and activities. Regional theater, opera, dance and symphony programs have become nationally and internationally recognized. Community arts and heritage facilities around the county are being developed through the new funding initiatives of state, county and municipal grant programs. By 1990, over 500 landmark buildings, sites, objects and districts had been designated at the federal, state, municipal and county level around King County. All of the area's cultural, natural and recreational resources have combined to make Seattle and the region an attractive place to hold conferences, conventions and vacations. A considerable amount of positive publicity in the national press has characterized Seattle and the region as among the most culturally rich and livable places in the country.
King County added to its growing list of regional recreational facilities in 1990 with the construction of the Weyerhaeuser-King County Aquatics Center at Federal Way. Activities of the international Goodwill Games competitions were held there in 1990. Other regional facilities of the King County Park System include the Cougar Mountain Regional Park of some 4.5 square miles, the King County Fairgrounds at Enumclaw and Marymoor Park, with its historic district, museum, climbing rock and velodrome. The state, county and municipal trail systems, which have been developed around King County since the 1970s are currently among the most extensive in the country.
Sections of the Lacey V. Murrow floating bridge on Interstate 90 to Mercer Island sunk in 1990 while undergoing repairs. A replacement bridge was constructed to take its place and the bridge was reopened in 1993.
Growth management laws were passed at the state level in 1990 in response to a citizen's initiative intended to curb urban sprawl. The legislation has resulted in the establishment of urban growth boundaries, which have intensified the debate over development, the usage of resource lands and environmental protection. It has also had the effect of stimulating further incorporations and annexations as well as revisions to municipal and county comprehensive plans. The national trend toward dissatisfaction with government regulation has also had an impact on King County. Although there has been a long-standing secession movement in King County that would create a new county in its eastern portions, the secession movement has intensified in the 1990s through initiatives and court proceedings.
In 1992, the citizens of King County voted to amend the King County Charter and to consolidate Metro and King County governments. The consolidation of functions of the two agencies has coincided with efforts toward a restructuring County government, which has been precipitated by loss of County jurisdiction over newly incorporated areas and those recently annexed by cities. For the first time, King County government surpassed the City of Seattle as the largest local government agency of the area. In 1994, the County again updated its Comprehensive Plan in response to Growth Management requirements.
Heightened public debate over the funding and location of new infrastructure, such as airports, water systems, landfills, transit systems, freeways, stadiums, parks and other public facilities, characterized the 1980s and 1990s. After several failed attempts, a Regional Transit levy was passed by the voters of King County in 1997. The levy was intended to provide new rapid transit facilities, the first installment of a regional system. A referendum was also passed at the polls in 1997 to replace the aging Kingdome with a new stadium, financed in large part with public funds. A variety of other public-private partnership facilities, including a new baseball stadium were also controversial in the later 1990s. Infrastructures, environmental and quality of life issues are expected to remain among the most important--and contentious--as King County enters the 21st century.
By Charles Payton