Federal Way -- Thumbnail History

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 7/08/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 4215
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Federal Way is located in the southwest corner of King County, bordered by Puget Sound to the west and Pierce County to the south. Named for the highway that passes through it, the city was rural for much of its early history, but has seen explosive growth and development in recent years.

Although there were no Indian settlements in what is now Federal Way, Native Americans who lived along the White and Green rivers to the east used the area for seasonal campgrounds. During clamming season, they would catch clams on Puget Sound and smoke them to preserve them for transportation. When Captain George Vancouver (1758-1798) explored the area in 1792, many natives came to the shore to greet him.

Hudson’s Bay Company explorers may have traveled through the area as early as 1824, and in 1840 they established a small trading post along an Indian trail that traveled north/south. This trail would have a long legacy throughout Federal Way’s history.


In the early 1850s, a survey was made for a road to be built between Fort Steilacoom and Fort Bellingham. Existing trails were used in many areas, including the one in what is now Federal Way. Since the road was constructed for military use, it was named Military Road. By 1860, the road was completed from Pierce County to Seattle.

At the time, many settlers along south Puget Sound chose land claims near Seattle or Tacoma. It wasn’t until 1871 that the first homesteader moved into the general Federal Way area. Sam Stone established his homestead at what is now Redondo, which was then named Stone’s Landing. Also around this time, the bay was named Poverty Bay.

Other settlers began moving nearby, and by 1880 the first school was built near Star Lake. Jacob Reith helped build a road made of split logs in what later became Reith Road. Arthur Steele settled around a body of water that is now known as Steel Lake. Small communities such as Buenna and Adelaide built their own schools. In 1890, Taylor Webb moved to the spot where SeaTac Mall is today. Some still refer to that area as Webb Center.

Pacific Highway

Most families had small farms in this remote rural location. Some sawmills were built on the small lakes, but the area remained mostly undeveloped for years. It wasn’t until 1904 that the first store opened at Stone’s Landing, owned by Charles Betts.

In 1906, a dock collapsed at the landing, killing 13 people who had crowded onto it to await a steamer. Worried about the stigma from the disaster, Mr. Betts recommended that the community change its name to Redondo. Some were hoping that the area would become a recreational destination, just like Redondo Beach in California. In just over 10 years, a bowling alley, dance hall and skating rink were built.

With the onset of the auto age, talk began of a new highway that would travel the entire western coast of the United States. Construction began in 1915, and in 1925 federal funds were secured to pave the road between Seattle and Tacoma. Much of the new highway -- designated US-99 -- overlay or ran parallel to Military Road. The section between Seattle and Tacoma officially opened in 1928.

By this time, there were eight small school districts in the area -- Woodmont, Redondo, Buenna, Adelaide, Lakota, Harding, Lake Geneva, and Star Lake. In 1929, it was decided that they should all be consolidated into one. The first elementary school built in the new district was constructed next to the federal highway, and was named Federal Way School. That name was also given to the school district.

Eat and Get Gas

The community now had a major thoroughfare, but the Great Depression, followed by World War II hindered development. Other than gas stations and restaurants, the area remained rural until after the war. In 1945, Marckx's Farm Store opened along highway 99, and became Federal Way’s first major business. Others would soon follow.

In 1946, the Federal Way Commercial Club -- predecessor to the Federal Way Chamber of Commerce -- was organized. A few years later, the community had its own newspaper, the Greater Federal Way News.

By the 1950s, Highway 99 was not only being traveled by King County residents, but by travelers up and down the coast. Restaurants such as Rose’s Hi-Way Inn, Rocky’s Drive-In, and Les’s In-and-Out Hamburgers offered tasty repasts for the hungry traveler, and a surfeit of motels provided a temporary stopover for those who were weary.

Shoppers’ Paradise

In 1955, Federal Shopping Way mall opened to enthusiastic consumers. As well as being the only shopping mecca in the area, the mall also became home to the amusement rides of Santafair, the European reproductions of Old World Square, and a collection of old cabins and historical artifacts known as Old Line Historic Park.

In 1961, 160 additional acres were acquired for the venture, and a few years later a narrow gauge railroad was built around the perimeter for use as a ride, but the owners began having legal troubles. They were charge with 29 counts of fraud and conspiracy, and although they were eventually cleared, they went into bankruptcy.

In October 1962, a stretch of Interstate-5 opened up a mile east of Highway 99. This brought more development to the community. The Century City complex opened in 1964, and the Twin Lakes housing development began selling homes a year later. New schools were built, and in 1968, the Weyerhaeuser corporation began building its corporate headquarters in Federal Way.

A City, Long in the Making

An attempt to incorporate as a city was made in 1971, but was overwhelmingly voted down. Attempts were also made in 1981 and 1985 with no success.

The Teratron Company, purchased Federal Shopping Way, but the mall was in disrepair. The business community received a much-needed shot in the arm in 1975 with the opening of SeaTac Mall. Nearly 20,000 people visited the new mall during the first week. The next year, SeaTac Village Shopping Center opened across the street.

Throughout the 1980s, the city saw further growth and development. Condominium complexes and business campuses began sprouting up through the community. Enchanted Village, with its Wild Waves Pool, as well as the community’s many county parks, lured those seeking recreation.

In 1990, another attempt at incorporation was made, and this time the voters approved it. The official act of incorporation was held at the Sportsworld Lanes bowling complex. That same year, Federal Way received worldwide recognition when the Goodwill Games swimming and diving events were held at the new Weyerhaeuser Aquatics Center.


Progress Special edition of the Federal Way News, August 1979; Historical Society of Federal Way Timeline, Revised Edition, February 20, 2002.

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