Even though Burien incorporated in 1993, there has been a Highline community that incorporated the Burien area since the late nineteenth century. The first road in the area was a rough wagon road, the Military Road, built by the US Army from Fort Steilacoom through Seattle and on to Bellingham in 1860.  Settlers created branches off this road to their properties. Burien still contains several neighborhoods that developed from homesteads settled along Military Road.

The roads through the area were eventually dubbed the High Line or Highline Highway as a counterpoint to the “low” or “valley” roads to the east.  They served as an important connector between Seattle and Tacoma. 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 wealthy Seattle residents 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 inland areas relied on the private Highland Park & Lake Burien railway, “the Toonerville Trolley,” for transportation to and from Seattle.

The residential population began to increase during World War I and has continued to rise steadily since due to The Boeing Company and associated subcontractors and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport being located nearby.

For millennia, Lushootseed-speaking peoples, such as the Duwamish and Muckleshoot, had occasional encampments on land now occupied by the City of Burien.

Local waterways were 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.

Puget Sound Native Americans 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.

Burien’s Origin Story

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 eventually called Sunny dale. Kelly wanted to homestead there with his bride-to-be, Elizabeth Jane Fenton (1853-1931), but to do that he needed to be 19 years old and clear 160 acres of land. He obtained a permit cleared the land, and moved into a log cabin on their homestead on April 1, 1873. The adjoining wagon track initiated by local settlers leading through the woods and down the hill to the Duwamish River eventually became known as Des Moines Memorial Drive.  The area, now near the center of Burien, was called Sunnydale for decades.

Lake Burien, a 44-acre, spring-fed glacial 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 the 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 and living as a prosperous tavern owner, but spending holidays and summers with their family near the lake.

Early Transportation

Mike Kelly's road 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 wound south as far as South 160th. The road then took off to the east side of Lake Burien.

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.

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.

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. Portions of the road from South Park to Des Moines were specially planted, beginning in 1921, with trees and shrubs as a memorial to World War I veterans. The road was later designated as Des Moines Memorial Drive.

Beach Communities

During the 1890s, real-estate developers explored beach communities with beautiful views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains for sites for summer homes. 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 also went on sale. The first of the summer homes was built by Linden Irwell Gregory (1876-1946) in 1902, and many followed.

For a decade or more, residents of Seattle and Tacoma relied on steamship service to reach the beach community. No road was built to connect the point with the Lake Burien area until 1915.

A.F. Pope, W.C. Talbot, and Cyrus Walker purchased most of what is now Seahurst Park on May 15, 1869. Walker was a lumber mill manager on the Kitsap Peninsula. William C. Talbot, of Maine, and his partner, Andrew J. Pope, built a steam sawmill at Port Gamble on Hood Canal. The mill operated for 142 years—longer than any other in the U.S.—from 1853 to 1995. Pope & Talbot was a major forest products enterprise in Western Washington throughout the 20th century.

The area now known as Seahurst Park was a popular picnic spot in the early 1900s. Charles Hughes, an early Burien resident, recalled: “After the berries were picked and the hay gathered in, his folks would take the kids to the beach in a wagon. No one lived from Salmon Creek to Three Tree Point, so campsites were plentiful.” They picked wild berries, dug clams, and caught fish from driftwood rafts.

In 1915, the Seahurst Land Company owned 200 acres from 16th SW to Puget Sound, north of SW 152nd St. This parcel contained 12 to 14 springs, many of them in Seahurst Park. Pumps, used to get the water into small tanks, were installed near SW 142nd St. and 21st Ave SW.

World War II brought new homes to the area served by the springs. This led to larger pumps and tanks, which were moved to SW 146th St. Several of the springs, as well as the remains of a pumping station and pipes, can still be found in the area.


In the early 1900s, a portion of the park land became the Fox family estate. There was a merry-go-round on the property. Robert Fox, one of the Fox children, eventually owned the Ford dealership on 146th and First Ave. S.

In the 1950s, Howie Gwinn and others planned to develop the Hurstwood community. At the last minute, King County Parks, through Commissioner Ed Munro, acquired Gwinn's property, plus the adjoining parcel, for a total of 2,000 feet of waterfront. Munro found the money to buy the Seahurst Park land by selling the Burien Fieldhouse site to Westside Federal Bank for use as a headquarters.

Real Estate and the Trolley

In the early twentieth century, local landowners pooled their resources and purchased an electric street car from Seattle. The line began at Riverside, where it made connections with Seattle Trolley lines. They established a new rail line was called the Highland Park & Lake Burien Railway.  It crossed through White Center and continued through thick forest to 152nd in Burien, and west to Seahurst. A freight spur continued south for several blocks from 152nd for the use of merchants or contractors needing to move large amounts of materials to the rapidly developing area.

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 and eventually grew to 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.

A Diverse Community

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

The Ruth School for Girls (largely unwed mothers) 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.  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. The judge named the school after his young daughter Ruth, who joined him at the founding meeting of the home in March 1921.

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.

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.  Successful, as it has been since, the company moved its plant to the old Heath Shipyards on the Duwamish tide flats 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.  Officially dedicated as Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 1949, 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.

Incorporation and Annexation

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.

Since incorporation, Burien has pursued annexation of adjacent neighborhoods, often successfully. In early May 2009, both King County and the City of Burien passed resolutions to place an annexation vote on the August 18 primary ballot. The annexation area voted on consisted of southern North Highline and had an area of about 1,600 acres and approximately 14,000 residents. The ballot issue was approved by a majority of southern North Highline residents, and on April 1, 2010, southern North Highline became part of Burien. After the annexation vote, a special census was conducted, and it was determined that the newly annexed area had 14,292 residents. This resulted in a new population total of 49,858, making Burien the 23rd largest city in Washington.

Recent Historical Milestones

1993       February 28, Incorporation Day

1995       Groundbreaking and dedication of Lake Burien Memorial Park

1997       City assumes ownership of King County parks properties in Burien City’s first 
               Comprehensive Plan adopted 

1998       Annexation of 2,500 residents of Manhattan & Woodside park areas Park Board & 
               Arts Commission formed

2000       Downtown Town Square Task Force begins meeting to plan a Town Square first 
               annual outdoor concert series held at Lake Burien School Park 

2001       Burien’s Skate Park opens

2002       Work begins on SW 152nd Street improvement project

2003       Broadcasting of Burien City Council meetings begins

2004       City Council begins study of possible annexation of North Highline area
Conceptual site plan for 20-acre Town Square development approved

2005       Work completed on removal of south seawall and beach restoration at Seahurst 
               Dedication ceremony held for Burien’s Eagle Landing Park

 2006       Dedication ceremony for Mathison park, first park development east of 1st Ave S.
                Groundbreaking of Town Square Park
                City Hall moves to new temporary location on Ambaum Boulevard  SW

 2007       Jacob Ambaum Park opens on Ambaum Boulevard SW
                Demolition of former Gottschalk store marks beginning of construction of Burien 
                Town Square

 2008       City initiates new economic development initiative to build on the “cluster” of 
                medical service providers in Burien
                City adopts biennial budget process

 2009       New City Hall and Library opens
                Town Square Park opens
                Radio-free Burien begins broadcasting
                Groundbreaking of South Correctional Entity Regional Jail (SCORE)
                Burien Interim Art Space has year-long run
                Work completed on phase one of 1st Ave S. improvement project

 2010       Public Works maintenance crews brought in-house
                Community Center opens in newly remodeled former library
                Burien contracts to begin Burien Animal Care and Control
                Annexation of 14,000 Highline residents

2011        SCORE Regional Jail opens
                City Council develops, adopts Vision for Burien
                Metro/Sound Transit parking garage opens downtown
                City’s major arterials are resurfaced
                Work begins on phase two on 1st Ave S. improvement project

 2012       Community Animal Resource and Education Society (C.A.R.E.S.) opens in Burien

 2013      Phase two of 1st Ave S. improvement project completed
                Work begins on Seahurst Shoreline Restoration Project, north seawall removal
                Burien becomes a Safe Place City
                Arbor Day Foundation names Burien a 2012 Tree City USA

 2014      Seahurst Restoration Project concludes and receives Livable Communities Award
                for “Overall Excellence in Protecting Natural Resource Area” 

2015      NERA Stormwater Facility and Miller Creek Greenway Project Phase One concludes
               King Country Metro Transit opens shuttle in Burien 
               Ground breaks on Merrill Garden developments to complete Town Square
               Burien Magazine launches

2017       Town Square complete with construction of Maverick Apartments and Merrill Garden complex.

2018      City celebrates its 25th anniversary of incorporation.