Historian: All roads used to lead to Fort Steilacoom

Today’s drivers on Interstate 5, King County’s Military Road and other local routes are traveling paths that once were part of a vast network of 19th century military routes in Puget Sound — all of which led to Fort Steilacoom.

The network will be the subject of a presentation Sunday at Fort Steilacoom by historian and author Karen Meador.

Meador’s talk, “All Roads Led to Fort Steilacoom: The History of the Fort Steilacoom to Fort Bellingham Military Road,” will explain the history of the Army’s late 1850s network of roads.

Meador is a board member of the Association of King County Historical Organizations and was on the Citizens Advisory Committee for the King County Historic Preservation Program.

Begun as wagon routes, the roads were championed by future Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Meador said. Davis was secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce (the namesake of Pierce County).

Fort Steilacoom was the U.S. Army headquarters for the Puget Sound District and the center of road building in the region.

The first military roads in Washington Territory were the Fort Steilacoom to Fort Walla Walla Road and the Fort Vancouver to Fort Steilacoom Road, Meador said. Today’s I-5 roughly follows the same route to Vancouver, Wash.

Based at Fort Steilacoom and traveling by foot, Army Capt. W.W. DeLacy surveyed the wilderness accompanied by Native Americans and settlers. He was guided by a pocket compass and used an ax to mark trees along the route.

The first telegraph line in Washington Territory reached Seattle in October 1864 and followed the route.

Several future Civil War generals were assigned to the Pacific Northwest as junior officers in the 1850s, Meador said. They included Ulysses S. Grant, George S. Pickett, George B. McClellan, Philip Sheridan and Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker.

Construction of the route to Seattle from Fort Steilacoom was finished in October 1860. Army troops camped at the three lakes the road connects: Five-Mile Lake, Star Lake and Angle Lake in SeaTac.

In recent years, the old military route has gone from wagons to automobiles to rapid transit.

Angle Lake is the site of a station for Sound Transit’s southern extension of its Link light rail line. The 1.6-mile addendum from Sea-Tac Airport is under construction with a budget of $383 million.