Growth and Transformation

    The rerouting, paving and expansion of Pacific Highway South transformed what was in the early 20th century little more than a quagmire of a farm road into a section of a major international highway and would come to affect a radical change in the cultural, environmental and economic geographies of the region between Tukwila and Federal Way. Improved road conditions and the continuous nature of the highway, which linked the three major countries of North America, coupled with the meteoric increase in the popularity of the automobile spurred a massive increase in traffic through the area. Though growth was slow through the years of the Great Depression, increased accessibility and the volume of motorists passing along Pacific Highway South would eventually stimulate the rapid expansion of towns, local economies and businesses. Improvement of infrastructure and creeping migration from the cities, other parts of the state, the west coast and across the country, made possible and popular by efficient transport, would begin to sow the seeds of the suburban explosion that was to follow in the wake of World War II - the physical echoes of the ever evolving ideology of manifest destiny could be seen working their way across the landscape, slowly infilling the sparsely populated areas between Seattle and Tacoma. 

    Here, as elsewhere across the country, where the road went, man followed. Though it was man that created the road in service to himself, the road, and those who travelled on it, were to become demanding masters. Along the shoulders of this newly busy highway, buildings appeared, one after the other, to answer their masters’ call. At first gas stations appeared then motor camps, motor inns and motels for rest, roadhouses and inns to feed and water the growing number of motorists.[1] The immediacy of the Great Depression, settling its dark blanket over the Puget Sound region not long after the paving and rerouting of the Pacific Coast Highway, would slow the growth of the area and ensure that it remained primarily a thoroughfare in service to the motorist, rather than a destination for homeowners until the end of World War II.[2]

    The onset of WWII is considered to be among the factors that lifted America out of the Great Depression. Here as elsewhere across the country, men and women were put to work equipping the nation for war. Boeing Field, though located in Georgetown in the southern reaches of the City of Seattle and thus out of our area of consideration, played an important part in not only the war effort but in the post war growth of the area along our stretch of Pacific Highway South. Construction of Boeing Field began in the spring of 1928 on a site near the Duwamish River. This particular location was chosen, in part, because of ease of access from a major highway – the Pacific Highway South.[3] Growing to prominence as a center for commercial aviation, aircraft production and testing (by the eponymous Boeing Company) and the headquarters of the nation’s air mail carrier, Boeing Field became even busier as the United States entered WWI

The multi-scalar intersection of Global, National and Local events establish unique cultural and
historical geographies in the Tukwil-Federal Way corridor.
B-17 rolling out at Boeing Field
 Photo:  Museum of History & Industry, Seattle

                                   Air show on the opening day of Seattle-Tacoma Airport, July 9th, 1949.
                                                   Photo:  Museum of History & Industry, Seattle

The impact of the construction of Sea-Tac International Airport on the area cannot be overstated.  Seeking to free Boeing Field for military purposes, the federal Civil Aviation Authority offered $1 million to any local government willing to construct a new airfield to service the Seattle area not long after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.  Construction efforts would make the airport functional by 1944, with the passenger terminal opening in 1949.  The airport was the first real "destination" of significance in the Tukwila-Federal Way corridor, becoming and remaining a critical component of local economies even as the importance of Pacific Highway South declined with the construction of Interstate 5.

Ref: Essay 1005 "Port of Seattle agrees to build new airport on March 7, 1942"

    The Boeing Company was deeply entrenched in not only civil aviation but also in the nation’s nascent military-industrial complex. Awarded a contract to supply bombers to the Army Air Corps, Boeing launched the first of many B-17 Flying Fortresses from its Georgetown runway on July 28th 1935.[4] Around this time, a conversation began concerning the creation of a new airport to alleviate increasing congestion at Boeing Field. In addition to congestion safety was also a concern, with the proximity of the growing City of Seattle and nearby ridgelines being the primary focus.[5] Immediately in the wake of the attack at Pearl Harbor, the otherwise slow production and testing of the B-17s at the site would increase to a frenzied pace, clogging the runways of Boeing Field and breaking the inertia of bureaucratic decision making . 

    Ground was broken for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 1942 on a high ridge overlooking Puget Sound, near the present day city of SeaTac and immediately adjacent to Pacific Highway South. It was chosen, undoubtedly, because of the ready availability of empty land, its proximity to both Seattle and Tacoma, and because the ease of access provided by the highway. The impetus of war was a stern taskmaster and demanded the immediate completion of a functioning runway - the first landing came on October 31st, 1944, though the official opening would not come until 1947 and the passenger terminal dedication not until1949.[6] While the promise of a new airport implied that the area between Tukwila and Federal Way would no longer be the rural hinterlands of the region’s major urban centers and a blink of an eye along the region’s major highway, the opening recreated the area as a destination in its own right. 

    The construction of SeaTac Airport and the concomitant shift of the northwest’s air transportation locus from Boeing field directly and undeniably impacted the growth of populations and economies along this short stretch of highway. Though this relocation was less than seven miles, moving traffic and commerce away from the developed areas of southern Seattle necessitated a growth of support services around the new airport. Motels, gas stations and restaurants grew prolifically along with airport bound traffic – these services, and their predecessors continue to dominate the commercial face of the highway. Staffing a major regional airport and the long-term construction efforts required to create it necessitated a large and ready supply of labor, and this labor force needed to be fed and housed, their gas tanks needed to be filled. Though many undoubtedly commuted from their homes in the established towns and cities nearby, others would begin buying plots of land and building new homes closer by, populating rural villages like Des Moines and Federal Way, priming the pump of widespread suburbanization that was soon to follow.

Photo: Des Moines Historical Society

Half Way House on Highway 99 north of Kent-Des Moines Road: one of the many eating establishments popular with local residents and travelers on Highway 99 before the completion of the I-5 freeway in the mid-1960s

    Born from a combination of physical geography, regional expansion and demands made on local industry by the nation’s embroilment in WWII, the construction SeaTac International Airport must be considered as a local reflection of broader national trends, just as the highway along which it was constructed must be.  The airport was made possible by the existence of the major highway that serviced it.  In turn, the airport entrenched the importance of Pacific Highway South as both a transportation corridor and a conduit for economic growth.  During the years immediately following SeaTac’s construction, neither the airport nor the highway would have grown as they did without the existence of the other.  Likewise, neither would have grown as they did without distinctly local conditions being colored by larger national themes. The Pacific Highway South would enjoy a position of primary importance as the feeder road for the region’s air transport hub for a brief period. Soon another highway, constructed as the answer to national economic expansion and shifting cultural and political ideologies would usurp this position, forever altering the role Pacific Highway South played in the Tukwila-Federal Way corridor.

            On June 29, 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into laws the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways Act – a discrete moment of national significance that would affect a lasting impact on the physical and cultural geographies of the stretch of Pacific Highway South.  The act authorized the construction of 41,000 miles of national, multi-lane, limited access superhighways and made available federal funding equivalent to 90% of the cost of construction.  Aside from the obvious benefit of increase individual mobility, Eisenhower’s plan also provided for efficient strategic maneuvering in case of Soviet invasion – highlighting a growing anti-communist paranoia that would come to define American political and popular culture of the mid- to late 20th century.  Now that the nation had expanded from sea to shining sea, and was connected from north to south, it was time to assume a defensive posture and protect what we rightfully and naturally controlled - “The Road” constituted in strategic defense of America’s manifested destiny.


A simplified map of the Eisenhower Interstate System
Courtsey of Chris Yates
The Eisenhower Interstate System, authorized by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, was constructed as not only a conduit for individual travel but also as a means to mobilize the nation's military in case of attack.  Growing anti-communist parinoia, America's new national cultural ideology, directly informed its creation.  In Washington State, highways funded by the act would supplant existing ones as primary corridors of transportation and commerce, forever impacting the regions through with the older highways - such as the Pacific Highway South - ran. 

    It is doubtful, however, that anti-communist rhetoric was the impetus for Washington State almost immediately seeking funding for the construction of the Seattle Freeway, a 20 mile long stretch of superhighway that had been in planning since 1953.[7] Between 1940 and 1950, the population of King County grew by almost 50 percent, and would nearly double by 1960.[8] A majority of this growth occurred in the rapidly suburbanizing areas bounding the city of Seattle. As with the construction of the Pacific Highway South, the need to move a rapidly expanding population and their automobiles between the home, work, places of commerce and recreation prompted the demanded for bigger, faster and more efficient transportation corridors. Here we see the localized manifestation of the nation’s trend of post-War expansion. The Seattle Freeway, which received funding in 1957, was the regional planner’s answer. This freeway would eventually become the urban core of King County’s stretch of US Interstate 5. 

    Ten years later, on January 31, 1967 King County’s final section of I-5 was completed between roughly Dearborn St., south of downtown Seattle, and the Kent-Des Moines Road, north of Highline Community College.[9] This would link Seattle and Tacoma with a limited access superhighway and allow for the bypassing of the rapidly growing and suburbanizing areas between Federal Way and Tukwila. Factors similar to those that affected the creation of the Pacific Highway South – the growth of populations and automobile usage, the of dominance of national cultural and political ideologies in public discourse, and the availability of federal funding for road construction – lead to the construction of I-5 and, ultimately, the recreation of the Pacific Highway South from dominant regional and international highway to an inter-urban arterial and future strip mall.


[1] To situate this historical growth in the local setting, please refer to Annotated Photograph 1 – “Roadside Lodgings”, and Annotated Photograph 2 – “Big Tree Inn” at the end of this paper.

[2] This information was found in Alan J. Stein’s essay “Federal Way – Thumbnail History” at History Link.

[3] A history of the dedication and construction of Boeing Field, written by David Wilma, can be found at History Link.

[4] See “The Boeing Log Book: 1933-1938”, which can be found at

[5] See Paul Dorpat’s authoritative Building Washington, pages 406-409, for histories of both Boeing Field and SeaTac.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See p. 6 of the “Routes Chronology of Major Events in the Evolution of Public Transportation in Metropolitan Seattle” complied by Llewellyn Ligocki, former supervisor of Metro Transit’s Community Relations. Available online at

[8] The US Census Bureau determined the population of King County to by 504980 in 1940, 732992 in 1950 and 935014 in 1960. This information was accessed through the National Historical Geographical System at

[9] See essay 1354, “Interstate 5 is completed from Everett to Tacoma on January 31, 1967” written by David Wilma. Available online at