War Memorial Monument on Des Moines Memorial Drive (King County)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 2/16/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8936

On Armistice Day, November 11, 1921 (the third anniversary of the end of World War I), members of the Seattle Garden Club, led by President Lillian Gustin McEwan, planted the first 29 elm trees along Des Moines Way S. (later renamed Des Moines Memorial Drive) -- the beginning of a living memorial to "American men who gave their lives for the country" during WWI.

The idea of tree plantings to honor the fallen dead (mostly from King County, it seems) came from Colonel F. W. Galbraith Jr., Commander of the American Legion. Burien Post No. 134 and Seattle Legion Post No. 1 helped plant and maintain the living memorial.

The winding eight-mile-long rural lane (which was once, as the "High Line Road," the main route from Seattle southward to the nearby town of Des Moines) passes through the tiny old community of Sunnydale, on the eastern edge of Burien (formerly Glendale), in south King County -- and it "represents a type of memorial popularized throughout America shortly after World War I and inspired by the tree-lined boulevards that American soldiers marched through in the French campaigns" (Highline Historical Society).

The Road of Remembrance

Among the 13 million battlefield deaths during World War I (1914-1918) were 37,000 Americans and among those were the 877 Washington state citizens lost, and within that figure a subset of about 355 from King County who perished. Included in that last total were more than a dozen women from the area who gave their lives for the cause. Yet when the planting of those trees along what was the informally called the "Road of Remembrance" began in earnest on January 14, 1922 -- after the nursery was finally able to provide additional saplings -- it was only the fallen men who were initially honored, an oversight that would however, quickly be rectified.

The 8-to-12 foot-tall trees that were planted alongside the road had been acquired through a public fund-drive with subscriptions purchased by many community members -- including some of the area's most prominent: Col. C. B. Blethen, William E. Boeing, Judge and Mrs. Thomas Burke, Mrs. John Collins, Lawrence Colman, D. E. Frederick, Mrs. Joshua Green, Samuel Hill, Ezra Meeker, Mrs. D. E. Skinner, Mrs. Thomas Stimson, and Mrs. Henry Suzzallo. In addition, numerous area organizations and businesses contributed, including local chapters of the American Legion, the American Red Cross, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Seattle Council of Minute Women, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Washington Regiment of the National Guard, the Women’s Democratic Club, and the Young Men’s Business Club, among others.

It was on January 14, 1922 that a second ceremony was held out in front of the Sunnydale School -- this one attended by Governor Louis Hart, diplomatic personnel from England, France, Italy, Belgium and Japan, various American military brass, and numerous members of organizations including the Disabled American Veterans of the World War, Gold Star Mothers -- and the Boy Scouts of America whose young members attached small flags to each tree along the route. A highlight of the day was an appearance by France's esteemed Field Marshall Joffre who personally planted an elm to honor the memory of the heroic American military men who fell upon the battlefields in defense of his land.

Women Also Honored

Interestingly, although the Seattle Garden Club's membership was predominantly female, its original plans for the memorial somehow overlooked their own sex's  valiant contributions during the war. Perhaps that situation was a natural result of the fact that prior to World War II, women soldiers were not eligible for military commissions or benefits and therefore were not considered veterans. In any case, the slighting would be promptly addressed at a meeting of Seattle's Ex-Service Women's Club and on February 22, 1922, the Seattle Times reported that:

"DEAD SEATTLE EX-SERVICE WOMEN TO BE HONORED

"Smiling faces and courageous hearts, tender hands and soft voices which ministered to the sick and wounded, cheered the gloomy and homesick, suffered and died in the cause of freedom -- women 'soldiers' from Seattle -- will be honored tomorrow afternoon by the Ex-Service Women's Club, whose members will dedicate trees to their memory along Memorial Highway near Des Moines."

The women duly honored with their own trees, it has turned out, were not all from the Northwest, and many seem to have served as American Red Cross nurses (Heitman). Compiled below are the names of those women who served with distinction -- or gave their lives in service to this country -- and are memorialized:

 1.  Miss Daisy Adams

2.  Jeanette V. Barrows

3.  Hannah Lora Burden

 4. Edith Cavell

 5. Jessie Noyes Chisholm

6.  Etta Coover

7. Mrs. Elizabeth Davies

 8. Alice Stevens Drisko

9. Obeline Maillard

10. Lottie Brainerd MacDonald

11. Amanda Needles

12. Mrs. Alice Nellis

13. Amelia Tilda Thorkelson

14. Harriet Frances Carter Voderberg

The Memorial Wall

By the 1960s -- when a debilitating outbreak of Dutch Elm disease, increasing automobile traffic, and the installation of water mains, among other problems,  dictated removal of some of the trees -- the veterans' organizations and the Seattle Garden Club began planning for an appropriate permanent replacement for the original 1,200 trees (many of which had been planted without specific dedications to any one individual). With $17,000 in construction funding provided by King County's Roads and Parks Department, Puget Sound Power and Light, Seattle City Light, Seattle City Water, and Washington Natural Gas -- and a site (donated by the King County Parks Department) located right in front of the historic Sunnydale School (at Des Moines Memorial Drive and S 156th Street) -- the memorial project moved forward.

On Sunday September 15, 1963, a ceremony was held at the new spot. Here a beautiful 84-foot-long expansive rose-colored granite memorial wall was erected. (Today it is nearly in the looming shadow of the controversial "third runway" at the Sea-Tac International Airport.) The monument features several bronze plaques -- including two to the Unknown Soldier -- and the engraved names of about 354 men and women who died (including a dozen way back in the Spanish-American War of 1898).

Ongoing Honors...

The commemorative stone wall also bears, at center, a large bas-relief sculpture of an American elm -- a nod to the original trees. By the late-1960s most of these trees had been disfigured by car-wrecks or by maintenance work by Puget Sound Power and Light or destroyed during infrastructural projects conducted by King County's Department of Public Works, and other county and city governmental agencies.

Over the years, awareness of the Memorial's significance has grown. In 1979 King County Councilman Paul Barden appointed a citizen’s committee to study the situation, and after that the road was renamed Des Moines Memorial Drive.

However, as the Highline Historical Society states: "Unfortunately, the stone memorial, though beautiful, is poorly sited along the roadway. It has become virtually invisible to speeding motorists; it is not, and never has been, a focal point." With ongoing improvements being made to area parks and walking paths -- not to mention the street's sidewalks which are currently being marked with a bronze star imbedded at the former site of each original elm tree -- there is still hope for the well-intentioned installation.

Every year veterans' groups hold Memorial Day ceremonies at the site. The public is welcomed to attend.


Sources: One Hundred Years of the "Waterland" Community: A History of Des Moines, Washington ed. by Richard T. Kennedy (Des Moines: City of Des Moines, 1989), 141-146; Mildred Tanner Andrews, Woman's Place: A Guide to Seattle and King County History (Seattle: Gemil Press, 1994), 307-308; Beth Williams, "Women In World War I For Whom a Memorial Tree Was Planted Along the Des Moines Memorial Highway," research report on the Des Moines Scrapbook (originally compiled by Mrs. McEwan and Mr. Colburn) was submitted on January 20, 2009 to the the Highline School District Museum, acessed via Highline Historical Society, Seahurst, Washington; "Des Moines Memorial Way: Road of Remembrance," Highline Historical Society website accessed January 18, 2009 (http://www.highlinehistory.org/des_moines_drive_english.html); Herrick Heitman (Washington State Library, Office of the Secretary of State), email to Kitty Milne, January 22, 2009, copy in author's possession; author's conversations with Kitty Milne (Trustee, Highline Historical Society), January-February, 2009.

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