Des Moines Memorial

15623 Des Moines Memorial Drive

A permanent World War I memorial includes an etched, 84-foot-long wall of rose-colored, South Dakota granite, and bronze plaques.

Park History

It may be the smallest park in King County, but its historical roots go deep. The story of Des Moines Memorial Park is intertwined with that of Mike Kelly, Highline’s first overland pioneer, and with the many twists and turns of “his” road—Des Moines Way. Mike Kelly built the first road from South Park to the area he named Sunnydale in the 1870s. Except for Military Road, the only link between Seattle and the settlers along the Duwamish River Valley, and as far south as Kent, had been by small steamboat.

Sunnydale held some of the richest soil in King County. As more homesteaders arrived, they “traded days” to build one another’s homes. Eventually the Kelly Road became Des Moines Way, a vital commercial and commuter route between Des Moines and Seattle. The area's first school, the Kellys' log cabin, eventually became Sunnydale School—still in use today—site of Des Moines Memorial Park and Monument.

A Tree-Lined Memorial

Des Moines Memorial Way was established as a living memorial to those who gave their lives in World War I. The Seattle Garden Club, supported by many civic groups and prominent individuals, transformed a ten miles into an American Elm-tree-lined road, from the Seattle City limits to the Kent-Des Moines Highway. Each tree was planted in memory of a different man, signifying the community’s losses and its commitment to work for peace. Des Moines Way, inspired by the tree-lined boulevards through which American soldiers marched in France, represents the kind of memorial popular throughout America shortly after World War I.

On Armistice Day, November 11, 1921, members of the Seattle Garden Club planted the first 25 elm trees along Des Moines Way South. A dedication ceremony was held at Sunnydale School, the halfway point between Seattle and Des Moines. On January 14, 1922, planting of the trees began with another dedication ceremony at the school, attended by many dignitaries. The “pioneer highway” was rededicated in 1922 as Des Moines Memorial Drive, with 1,432 American elm trees planted along its shoulders to commemorate Washington state’s World War I dead, including eight Seattle women. Some of these trees still line the memorial highway.

Over the next decade, the Boy Scouts maintained the trees on behalf of the Garden Club. By 1933, this responsibility had been turned over to local American Legion posts. 

A More Permanent Memorial Is Built

Care and maintenance of the elm trees was a challenge through the years, leading to the death of many of the trees. When the trees were originally planted, not much thought was given to soil preparation, maintenance, or watering. Dutch Elm disease claimed many of the trees. Other trees were lost to or pruned inappropriately to make way for power lines, other utilities, and increased traffic.

In 1957, Jud Colburn, “Keeper of the Elms,” negotiated an “armistice” with the companies involved in the pruning. Better pruning was done, where needed, to preserve the beauty and shape of the trees. The county authorities recognized the Legion’s jurisdiction for a while, and would not authorize removal of trees without its consent.

In the 1960s, the veterans organizations and garden clubs replaced the threatened elms with a monument in front of Sunnydale School. This site was donated by the State to the King County Parks Department. 

The permanent memorial is an 84-foot-long wall of rose-colored, South Dakota granite, with two 4-foot high slabs of granite engraved with the names of the 1,428 soldiers, sailors, and marines from Washington state who gave their lives in World War I. The list was compiled from the donor list of trees and carved on the wall alphabetically, along with the donor’s name. The centerpiece of the wall is a five by six-foot granite bas-relief panel depicting the American Elm, taken from a photo of the elm purchased in memory of the Blue Devils, the famous French regiment.

A bronze bell, which called children to Sunnydale School, warned of fire, and rang for church services, had been dedicated as a historical marker in May, 1952.

Funds for the monument ($17,000) were provided by Seattle City Light, Seattle City Water, Washington Natural Gas, Puget Sound Power and Light, and the King County Roads and Parks Department.

Each year, veterans hold Memorial Day ceremonies at the monument. 

Tree preservation efforts continue

Since the 1960s, the community has preserved some of the memorial trees, and restored parts of the road to its original status. The highway was classified as a Scenic Historic Treasure by the State Arts Commission. American Legion Post 134 has replanted more than 90 elm trees. In 1979, the word “Memorial” was added to Des Moines Way, and a signage program begun. The road's name was changed to Des Moines Memorial Drive in 1984.

In 1989, The University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture completed a study of the remaining American Elms—a joint effort of King County, Seattle City Light and Puget Power—to help guide the future of the memorial. The Des Moines Memorial Advisory Committee was created in 2000 by an agreement between King County and Burien, Normandy Park, SeaTac, and Des Moines to oversee preservation of the trees.

Updated April 2, 2020