Renton -- Thumbnail History

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 1/14/1999
  • Essay 688

The city of Renton, located 15 miles southeast of Seattle along the southern shores of Lake Washington, has been a manufacturing center for the Pacific Northwest for more than a century. Over the years it has been the hub of many transportation corridors -- from rivers to highways, from rails to skyways.

Long before white settlers came to the area, the Duwamish Indian tribe had a village at the present site of Renton, near the confluence of the Black and Cedar rivers. The Cedar River flowed from the southeast into Lake Washington, with the Black River carrying runoff into the White River. The Black and White rivers merged into the Duwamish River, which flowed north towards Seattle. Much later this configuration was to be changed by human engineering, but at the time the rivers were important resources and avenues of commerce.

In 1853, Henry Tobin paddled up the Duwamish River and upon seeing the meeting place of the waters, staked a claim. The running waters were a perfect location for a mill, and access to the lake provided potential for all kinds of business opportunities.

This was even more true a year later, when Dr. R.H. Bigelow, who had settled next to Tobin, discovered a coal seam on his property. The mill was built to provide timber for the mines, and Tobin and Bigelow were in business.

At first, the Indians were fascinated with the mill, having never seen one before. Soon, the influx of white settlers into the region created havoc with the Indians' way of life. Some tribes tried fighting back in what became known as the Indian Wars, which lasted for only a few months during 1855 and ended with the resettlement of all the Indians within the territory.

During the short war, the mill was burned to the ground and settlers were driven away. Tobin died of ill health, warriors in the Cascade Mountains killed some of his backers, and Bigelow decided not to stay. The dreams of success were left for someone else to cultivate.

In 1857, landowner Erasmus Smithers met Tobin’s widow Diana, who still owned the patent on her husband’s claim. They fell in love and soon married, and between them ended up owning nearly 500 acres of land. More settlers began moving to the area, and in 1875 Smithers filed the first plat for the Town of Renton.

The town was named for Captain William Renton, who had formed the Renton Coal Company a few years earlier. Captain Renton, a lumberman better known for his successes with the famous Port Blakely Mill on Puget Sound, had purchased the mine from Smithers and had the financial backing to expand it even further.

Other coal mines dotted the hills and mountains east of Renton, but access to the lake and the rivers allowed Renton to become the hub of local coal industry. This beehive of activity created a need for better transportation routes, and Renton was one of the first outlying communities to be connected by road to Seattle. By the end of the nineteenth century, Renton was also a railway hub.

The productive agricultural land in the river valleys also made Renton a commercial center. Other industries included brick and tile plants, a cigar factory, a glass-making facility, and lumber mills. By the early 1900s, Renton was a prosperous town in many ways.

The town was incorporated on September 6, 1901. Earlier, it had been known as a rough-and-tumble community, due to the heavy industry. In 1885 there were nine saloons and no churches. Incorporation led to a more organized and civilized community, and by 1910 the town had churches, schools, newspapers, and a bank. A bottle factory, icehouse, and more lumber companies had been built, leading the Chamber of Commerce to refer to Renton as the Town of Payrolls.

Renton underwent a topographical change in 1916. In that year, in Seattle, the Montlake Cut was completed for the canal between Lake Washington and Lake Union to the north. As the waters merged, Lake Washington’s water level fell by about nine feet. This caused the Black River to dry up, never to be seen again.

By this time coal mining had started to taper off, but Renton’s future was still bright. Not only were other businesses in town, such as the Pacific Car and Foundry, known today (late 1990s) as PACCAR, still thriving, but the Interurban train also allowed Renton to provide a bedroom community for Seattle workers and their families. Roads were constantly being improved. Even throughout the Great Depression, Renton still experienced moderate growth.

Probably the largest influence in Renton’s success came in 1941, when The Boeing Company moved in and set up shop. During World War II, the Boeing Renton plant was turning out B-29 planes at a peak rate of six per day. At the same time PACCAR was churning out 30 Sherman Tanks a month. Since most of the men had gone off to fight the war, women did much of this tough work.

After the war, the men came home and took back the jobs women had held during the war. Much of the military work was gone, but this slowdown was only temporary. Within a few years, Boeing would begin developing jet transportation, but in the meantime federal funding provided Renton with millions of dollars toward housing, street repairs, and infrastructure work. By the time Boeing entered the jet age, Renton was there to meet the challenge.

Today, Boeing and other industries still pump millions of dollars into the local economy. Some refer to Renton as the “Jet Capital Of The World.” Over the past 100 years Renton has gone from a confluence of waterways to a hub of roads and rails and beyond into the skies.


Clarence B. Bagley, History of King County (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co, 1929) Vol. I, 743-764. Also see: David M. Buerge, Renton -- Where The Water Took Wing (Windsor Publications, Inc., 1989); "City History," City of Renton website accessed April 25, 2017 ( Additional Information Provided by The Renton Historical Society.
Note: This essay was corrected on April 25, 2017.

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