Burien -- Thumbnail History

  • By Dotty DeCoster
  • Posted 5/28/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10396

The City of Burien is located in the Highline area of southwest King County, just west of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and about 14 miles south of downtown Seattle. Incorporated in 1993, Burien contains some of the neighborhoods that developed from homesteads settled in the 1870s and 1880s once Military Road was cut through between Fort Steilacoom near Tacoma and Seattle. Roads connecting the neighborhoods grew into a popular highway dubbed the High Line or Highline Highway between Seattle and Tacoma in 1915, and the name Highline has been used since for this portion of southwestern King County. Most Burien neighborhoods were agricultural during the early decades of settlement but beach communities on Puget Sound, and Lake Burien's shoreline, became summer destinations for many Seattleites in the first decades of the twentieth century. While the beach communities had regular service by Puget Sound steamboats, from 1912 to 1929 people in the more inland areas relied on the Highland Park & Lake Burien street railway for transportation to and from Seattle. The permanent residential population began to increase during World War I and has continued to rise steadily since, in part due to proximity of the aerospace industry and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Since incorporation, the city has developed a town center and many parks and continues to be home to the Highline School District. Burien's population in 2010 was 33,313.

Early History

For millennia, the hinterlands of winter towns inhabited by Lushootseed-speaking peoples, including the Duwamish, Suquamish, Muckleshoot, and Puyallup, encompassed the land now occupied by the City of Burien. The towns were located along waterways navigable by canoe, and tribal members had separate summer fishing camps, hunting grounds, and plant-collecting areas. Along the shore of what they called "Salt Water" (Puget Sound), people spent summers fishing, hunting, trading, and later working in the businesses that grew up in the area. The woods, teeming with wildlife, were hunting grounds. The bogs were full of cranberries. Trails between the Duwamish, Black, White, and Green Rivers and Puget Sound were well-used.

Recent scholarship reported by the Highline Historical Society indicates that the first land-owning settler in the Burien area was George Ouelliet (b. 1837), a French Canadian immigrant from near Quebec City. He bought several federal land patents in the area in 1864. Not much else seems to be known about him; even the spelling of his last name is uncertain, with several variations appearing in historical sources.

Every city has an origin story, and Burien is no exception. The story goes that Michael Kelly (1852-1916), son of settlers in the Duwamish River valley, climbed the daunting hill west of the confluence of the Black and Duwamish rivers, expecting to see Puget Sound. What he saw instead was a heavily wooded old-growth forest and a beautiful valley, a place he called Sunnydale. Kelly wanted to homestead there with his bride-to-be, Elizabeth Jane Fenton (1853-1931), but to do that he needed to build a road. He obtained a permit (probably from King County) and he, his future wife, and her family built a road from the Riverton settlement to South Park. Michael and Jane married and moved into a log cabin on their homestead of 160 acres on April 1, 1873. This is the story told in 1972 by Melba Eyler (1909-2005) and Evelyn Yeager (1911-1996) in The Many Roads to Highline, based on a memoir by Jane Fenton Kelly that was included in a prior manuscript by Esther Balzarini (1918-2000) about Burien's early settlers. The area, now the center of Burien, was called Sunnydale for decades.

Lake Burien is a 44-acre kettle lake, which formed during the retreat of the Puget Lobe of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet when a chunk of the glacier calved off and began to melt. At present it is fed primarily by stormwater and secondarily by precipitation. The lake was named after Gottlieb Burian (1837-1902) and his wife, Emma Worm Burian (1840-1905). The Burians came to the United States from Lower Silesia, Prussia (now part of Poland). They arrived in Washington Territory in about 1874 and moved to Seattle in about 1876. The Burians began to make a second home for their family in Sunnydale in 1884, and in 1889 they purchased a 120-acre homestead at the southeast corner of the lake later named for them. (There appears to be no record explaining how the "a" in "Burian" was changed to an "e"). While earlier homesteaders in the area had worked hard to make a living from the land, the Burians were suburban landowners, keeping a home in Seattle but raising their family near the lake.

Getting There and Back

King and Pierce counties were established in December 1852, three months before Washington Territory was created from the northern portion of Oregon Territory. Settlers from the eastern United States began to travel up the Duwamish River and into what is now called Georgetown in 1851, and the Denny Party landed at Alki Point on Puget Sound that same year. The first county seat of Pierce County was Fort Steilacoom (the seat was later moved to Tacoma). Seattle, first platted in 1853, was and remains the county seat of King County.

Most travel in those early years was by boat -- by ship on Puget Sound, and by canoe on the sound and on the region's river system. Indians provided the canoe travel and guides for those who walked. There were trails, but as yet no roads in this newly acquired U.S. territory. Communication was primarily carried out in Chinook trade jargon.

The first road in the area was the Military Road, built from Fort Steilacoom to Seattle and completed as a rough wagon road in 1860. It still exists. Settlers created branches off this road to their properties:

"Mike Kelly's road ... branched off Military Road and continued west of the Duwamish to the Black River Crossing ... [then] led to the adjoining Henry Burton property; it was extended by other settlers to what became 188th Street. The road then wandered toward the Sound to Normandy Park and to the George Gardner homestead. It wound along the beach to Stone Landing at Crescent Beach, and eventually reached Des Moines ... The Kelly Road swung up the hill from about South 146th to the John Bissell place ... [and then] south as far as South 160th. The road then took off to the east side of Lake Burien" (Eyler, 10).

This wandering, branching road created by the settlers in the 1870s and 1880s was the basis for what became the Des Moines Road. The Des Moines Road and the extended 1st Avenue S, which ran from Seattle's waterfront to S 160th, were cedar-puncheon roads and provided access to markets in Seattle for products from the south until about 1900, when King County began more active public road building.

The Highline Road

By 1903, King County was at work improving the roads in south King County. The Riverton Drawbridge was built across the Duwamish in 1903, taking the place of the ferry service. Jacob Ambaum (c. 1866-1935) was hacking roads through the thick growth in northern Sunnydale (now White Center). The road that came to be named for him first appears in King County records in 1909, and was graveled beginning in 1910. Many other roads were developed and improved in the area.

In July 1915 a new "scenic highway" linking Seattle and Tacoma, called the High Line (officially, Bond Road No. 12), was dedicated. The Seattle Times described the road in an illustrated account of an automobile test drive on the new highway:

"The new road ... is a splendid piece of work, being wide, well graveled and offering a maximum gradient of 4 per cent. This is in marked contrast to the narrow and precipitous course of the old McKinley Hill route, which in the early days of Washington was utilized primarily as a military highway" ("New Road to Tacoma ... ").

The new High Line road was also referred to in Seattle Times articles and in King County road documents as the "Highline Road" -- a variation that distinguished King County's Highline area from "High Line" areas near Mount Vernon in Skagit County, and in Montana, Idaho, and elsewhere. "Highline" came to be the name adopted for much of southwestern King County, as the road connected many towns in the area. The name was used for Highline High School, built in 1924 in Sunnydale (now Burien), as well as the unified Highline School District, created in 1941, which continues to offer services throughout King County's Highline area.

Many parts of the 1915 Seattle-to-Tacoma Highline Road were based on the older Des Moines Road. The road today is called Des Moines Way S, with portions specially planted, beginning in 1921, with trees and shrubs as a memorial to World War I veterans and later designated as Des Moines Memorial Drive.

Summer People

While highways connected inland areas, the Puget Sound "Mosquito Fleet" of small steamships served the beach communities of Des Moines, Three Tree Point, and Crescent Beach with connections to Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia. Puget Sound Indians had used what is today called Three Tree Point as a summer camp, trading area, and hunting ground. Early settlers recalled canoes pulled up on the sand and fish drying on racks on the beach. During the 1890s, many of Seattle's wealthy families likewise began to want summer camps away from the city. Real-estate developers explored beach communities with beautiful views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains for sites. In 1895 the Schwabacher brothers, longtime Seattle merchants, and Bailey Gatzert (1829-1893) bought land at Three Tree Point (called Point Pully on navigation charts).

James D. Lowman (1856-1947); Bernard Pelly (1860-1938), who served as Great Britain's vice consul in Seattle; and Charles B. Livermore (1849-1914) -- all Seattle businessmen associated through Lowman and Hanford Printing and Stationery Company and its successors -- formed the Three Tree Point Company. They bought 267 acres with 2.5 miles of waterfront at the point in 1902, and began formal development of a summer resort. Opening in July 1903, the private resort offered accommodations for picnicking, camping, and hunting along the waterfront, accessible by steamer from Seattle and Tacoma. Summer-home sites were also made available. The first of the summer homes was built by Linden Irwell Gregory (1876-1946) in 1902, and many followed.

For a decade or more, Seattleites and Tacomans relied on steamship service to reach this lovely spot. No road was built to connect the point with the Lake Burien area until 1915.

Real Estate and the Trolley

"Bill and Fred Dashley, Charlie Schoening and Homer Crosby were the leaders in promoting [a] privately owned railroad. They were selling property around the lake [Lake Burien] for $60 an acre -- on easy payments. Landowners, seeing a chance to make money, pooled their resources and purchased an electric street car from Seattle ... The line began at Riverside, where it made connections with Seattle Trolley lines. It ambled through White Center and then, with the luck of the Irish and the grace of the Heavens, it continued through trees and brush to the outskirts of Lake Burien, and on to Seahurst" (Eyler, 12).

This new rail line was called the Highland Park & Lake Burien Railway (Highland Park was a residential development in West Seattle). Service began in 1912 but was interrupted by a large landslide at Riverside Avenue and Ninth Avenue SW on November 8 of that year. In 1914 the line was given to the Seattle Municipal Railway Company, and service was restored that May. Through-service to and from Seattle began on September 4, 1919, when an elevated line along Spokane Street and Railroad Avenue was opened to traffic. The nine-mile line initiated at Lake Burien came to be a very profitable 14.14-mile line, carrying both passengers and freight. As automobile use increased, through-service to Lake Burien and Seahurst was suspended in 1929 and in 1931 the line was decommissioned.

Japanese American Families

Sunnydale and the Lake Burien area continued to be largely agricultural until World War II. Families who came to farm often stayed, and their descendants can still be found in the area. Among them were a number of Japanese families who came first to Seattle and then moved south to farm, at least for part of their livelihood. Starting with small farms as early as 1906, many of the area's Japanese American families came to own nurseries and greenhouses, and a few became well known as flower arrangers as well as gardeners.

Hosoe Kodama (1894-2006) was known throughout Washington and in Japan for founding the U.S. chapter of the Ikenobo School of Japanese Flower Arranging and, in 1961, Burien's Chitose-an Tea Ceremony School. She taught for many years in both Burien and Seattle, and she and her arrangements were often on hand for Bon Odori festivals at the Seattle Buddhist Church and for the weekly installation of a fresh flower arrangement at the Seattle Art Museum (now the Seattle Asian Art Museum) in Volunteer Park. Hosoe and Kinsuke (1887-?) Kodama ran a greenhouse business and raised five children in Burien, and their descendants, along with those of many other Japanese American families, still live in the area.

The Ruth School for Girls

On June 4, 1933, the new home of the Ruth School for Girls was dedicated at "Holly Hedge" on the shore of Lake Burien. The purchase of the former George W. Albee residence the previous fall had been funded by a bequest, and renovation was undertaken by a number of Seattle women who donated both time and money to make the move possible. Ruth Kathleen Dykeman (1912-1955), for whom the school had been named when it was founded in Seattle 12 years earlier, was on hand to cut a cake with 12 candles, and members of the board were honored. Lottie Shotwell, the original president of the board, also attended.

The Ruth School for (delinquent) Girls was founded in 1921 on the site of the Girls Parental School at 3404 E (now NE) 68th Street in Seattle's Ravenna neighborhood. It was inspired by the ongoing pleas of Judge King Dykeman (1874-1931), who served on the King County Superior Court bench from 1911 until he retired in 1925.

Among his judicial duties, Judge Dykeman took charge of the King County Juvenile Court in 1913 and carried on a long-term campaign to improve conditions for the court's young charges. He felt a need for a school (and home) for girls who were wards of the court, and this was the charge of the Ruth School at the time. He named the school after his young daughter Ruth, who joined him at the founding meeting of the home in March 1921. The board of the Ruth School originally was all women and represented seven Evangelical Protestant churches in Seattle. A later historian described the school's new Burien home:

"Residents of the school were housed in the stately Colonial mansion, surrounded by sweeping lawns, flower and vegetable gardens, fruit orchards, and a barnyard with chickens and milk cows. Girls who arrived underweight and anemic quickly regained their health. The Seattle Public Schools provided a teacher for academic instruction, while clubwomen volunteered to teach music, art, sewing, cooking and gardening" (Andrews, 306).

The Highline School District took over the teaching in 1955. Over the years, the focus of the school changed, and the Ruth Dykeman Children's Center (RDCC) offered a variety of services for stressed children and their families. On November 25, 2010, RDCC merged with Navos, remaining at its location in Burien and retaining its residential program and name. Jim Dykeman, grandson of Judge King Dykeman and a longtime board member of the center, endorsed the agreement:

"By integrating our resources during these difficult economic times, RDCC will have additional capabilities to provide programs and services to the more vulnerable children in our community" ("Ruth Dykeman Children's Center Merges ...").

In 2012, Navos and RDCC merged with the Seattle Children's Center and work began to implement the merger and improve the Burien campus.

Supporting Aviation

The Boeing Company began to build airplanes in 1915 in a small shop on Lake Union in Seattle. Initially, William E. Boeing (1881-1956) and G. Conrad Westervelt (1879-1956) designed and built a seaplane made of spruce lumber, linen fabric, and piano wire that took to the air in 1917. Successful, as it has been since, the company moved its plant to the old Heath Shipyards on the Duwamish tideflats in 1917.

Not only did Boeing provide employment (800 workers in 1917, increasing to 100,000 during World War II in the Tukwila and Renton plants), in the early decades it used a great deal of lumber. The Highline area of southwest Seattle and King County provided timber both for the airplane industry and for the shipbuilding industry along the Duwamish River turned industrial waterway.

As air transport began to supplant water transport, the Port of Seattle located a new airport at Bow Lake, between White Center and what is now Burien. Officially dedicated as Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 1949, some years after passenger service began, the airport grew significantly over time and is now the busiest in the Pacific Northwest. From the 1930s onward, the Burien area has provided housing, along with businesses and services, for many who work in the airplane, airline, and airport industries.

Expansions of Sea-Tac Airport were among the reasons that several unincorporated areas in southwest King County chose to incorporate, with the City of Normandy Park doing so in 1953 and the City of SeaTac in 1990. Voters in those areas hoped that incorporation would give them more of a voice in airport-expansion decisions.


Sea-Tac Airport's growth, and plans for a third runway, also helped inspire Burien residents to incorporate after repeatedly rejecting proposals to form a city. On the fifth attempt, the City of Burien was officially incorporated on February 28, 1993, as a noncharter code city with a council/manager form of government. The estimated population at the time was 27,700 within the incorporated area of about nine square miles. The boundaries of the new city were: north -- SW 128th Street, 12th Avenue SW, and SW 116th Street; south -- Normandy Park; east -- Des Moines Memorial Drive; and west -- Puget Sound. The incorporation vote, held on March 10, 1992, was about two-to-one in favor.

The previous incorporation attempts came in 1954, 1960, 1961, and 1984. Each attempt was unique: some smaller in area (1954), some larger (1984), and one that excluded the immediate area around Lake Burien (1961). Earlier attempts suggested the name "Highline" for the new city. The successful 1992 proposition recommended "Burien" after the lake and its surrounding neighborhood, which were included this time around. Since incorporation, Burien has pursued annexation of adjacent neighborhoods, often successfully. A major annexation of North Highline in 2012, however, was not adopted by voters.

As of 2013 the following neighborhoods were included in the City of Burien: Burien South, Chelsea Park, Downtown Burien, Evansville, Five Corners, Gregory Heights, Highline, Inglesea, Lake Burien, North Burien, Old Burien, Salmon Creek, Seahurst, Seola Beach, Shorewood, Sunnydale, Three Tree Point, White Center, and Woodside Park. (Only a portion of White Center was annexed to Burien, in 2010, and the city's Highline neighborhood is not the entire Highline area of King County.)

Burien Today

Burien has been the center of the Highline School District since 1941 and home to a public library since 1938. One of the first activities of the newly incorporated city was to develop a new combined City Hall and public library at 400 SW 152nd, a town square next door, and the Town Square condominiums. Currently a farmers market is held weekly in the Town Square between the two buildings, which form a new development in the "center" of Burien. King County Metro's Burien Transit Center is two blocks away.

The Burien Public Art Collection includes a fountain in the library courtyard and a whimsical street clock on SW 152nd, just west of the town center. A little farther west on 152nd is a glimpse of "Old Burien."

A number of new parks have been developed throughout the Burien area. The City of Burien website provides information about these, upcoming events, and city meetings, as well as historical essays. The Burien Library, a branch of the King County Library System, hosts a special Northwest Collection along with other library offerings. The Highline Historical Society has yet to find a permanent home, but maintains an informative and growing website.


Coll Thrush, Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008), 23-24; Esther Balzarini, "Our Burien," manuscript, Seattle Room, Seattle Public Library, 40-42; Melba Eyler and Evelyn Yeager, The Many Roads to Highline (Burien: The Highline Publishing Company, 1972); Mildred Tanner Andrews, Woman's Place: A Guide to Seattle and King County History (Seattle: Gemil Press, 1994), 305-6; Nile Thompson and Carolyn J. Marr, "Martha Washington," in Building for Learning: Seattle Public School Histories, 1862-2000 (Seattle: Seattle School District No. 1, 2002), 303; Doug Shadel, Pam Harper, and Guy Harper, Three Tree Point (Mount Pleasant, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2010), 9-16; Murray Morgan, Puget's Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979), 129-130; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Burien officially incorporates on February 28, 1993" (by David Wilma), "White Center -- Thumbnail History" (by Ron Richardson), "Mathison Park (Burien)" (by Jennifer Ott), "SeaTac -- Thumbnail History" (by Paul Dorpat and Walt Crowley), "Burien Beginnings: Sunnydale Post Office opens on January 20, 1887" (by Greg Lange), "War Memorial Monument on Des Moines Memorial Drive (King County)" (by Peter Blecha, and "Riverton Draw Bridge is built across the Duwamish River in 1903" (by Paula Becker), http://www.historylink.org (accessed April 25, 2013); "Change Home Site," The Seattle Times, May 9, 1914, p. 3; "Home for Girls Urged," Ibid., June 9, 1915, p. 3; "New Road To Tacoma Now Open To Travel," Ibid., July 4, 1915, p. 37; "Seattle Red Cross Jumps Up," Ibid., April 22, 1917, p. 44; "Elect Home Officers," Ibid., March 20, 1921, p. 4; "Ruth School's Home at Burien Ready June 3," Ibid., May 28, 1933; "Residents Celebrate Opening of New Road," Ibid., July 2, 1912, p. 12; Linda W. Y. Parrish, "Burien the Next New City in Area? -- Move Might Give Boost To Stagnant Businesses," Ibid., April 27, 1990, p. F-3; Frank Vinluan, "Hosoe Kodama, 'Doctor of Flowers,' Flourished to 106," Ibid., October 16, 2000, p. 20; "Fifth Time a Charm? -- Undaunted By Failures, Incorporation Backers Are Asking Voters Again," Ibid., February 13, 1992, p.F-1; Charles Aweeka, "5th Time's the Charm; Burien Votes to Be City," Ibid., March 11, 1992, p. A-1; Frank Cimatu, "Immigrant's 102-year-old Life Story Reflects History of U.S.-Japan relations," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 12, 1996, p. C-1; Steve Shay, "New Ruth Dykeman Campus Will Improve Landscape, Services, Navos CEO Assures Lake Burien Residents," The Highline Times website accessed May 10, 2013 (http://www.highlinetimes.com/2013/03/15/news/new-ruth-dykeman-campus-will-improve-landscape-se); "The Ruth Dykeman Children's Center Merges with Navos," Navos website accessed April 14, 2013 (http://www.navos.org/about/news/57-the-ruth-dykeman-chldrens-center-merges-with-navos); "Lake Burien," King County Lake Stewardship website accessed April 26, 2013 (https://your.kingcounty.gov/dnrp/wlr/water-resources/small-lakes/data/lakepage.aspx?SiteID=43); "History & Culture," Suquamish Tribe website accessed April 27, 2013 (http://www.suquamish.nsn.us/HistoryCulture.aspx); "History of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and its Reservation," Muckleshoot Tribe website accessed April 25, 2013 (http://www.muckleshoot.nsn.us/about-us/overview.aspx); "Burien, Washington Neighborhood Map -- Income, House Prices, Occupations, Boundaries," City-Data website accessed April, 2013 (http://www.city-data.com/nbmaps/neigh-Burien-Washington.html); City of Burien website accessed April, 2013 (www.burienwa.gov/‎); Highline Historical Society website accessed April 2013 (http://www.highlinehistory.org/); "Lake Burien Washington: Data Analysis Report," prepared by Herrera Environmental Consultants for Lake Burien Shore Club, March 16, 2010, copy in City of Burien files, Burien, Washington.
Note: This essay was revised slightly on February 20, 2018.

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