King County Parks

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 12/30/2013
  • Essay 10700

King County's parks and recreation division was created in 1938, and initially oversaw the development of 150 acres of small parks and playgrounds. Since then it has grown to encompass 26,000 acres of public land, used for 200 parks and 175 miles of regional trails. The department's biggest boost came in the 1960s with the passage of Forward Thrust bonds, but budget cuts at the start of the twenty-first century led to new challenges for the award-winning system.

A Small Beginning

In early 1937 Washington legislators passed the Acquisition of Camp Sites and Parks by Counties Act, which gave individual counties the right to purchase or otherwise acquire land for public use and enjoyment. Soon afterward, the King County Commission allocated $32,210 -- less than 1 percent of that year's total allocations -- for a new public works, parks, and playground program, which became operational in January 1938.

The King County Public Works, Parks, and Playground department's first order of business was to set up an appropriation of $32,000 in the 1938 budget, to be split into two districts, covering north and south King County. Archie Phelps (1898-1954), a West Seattle businessman and member of the Seattle Parks Board, was named head of the south division, and Herbert Hartzell (1881-1950) was named head of the north division.

Phelps immediately announced a three-year program in which a handful of new playgrounds would be constructed in various South District communities. Each playground would have playfields for football, soccer, baseball, and tennis, and plans were made to have a fieldhouse in each park. With the help of federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) funds, playgrounds with fieldhouses were built in Bellevue, Burien, Des Moines, Enumclaw, North Bend, Preston, and White Center -- but on a shoestring budget.

More People, More Parks

Because the parks department had to serve so many communities, most of the other early parks and playgrounds were little more than vacant lots and road ends. Most of the land was gifted to the county, making it harder to develop a comprehensive park system. By 1948, even some of the WPA fieldhouses were showing some wear. Half of the Bellevue building was boarded up, and roof leaks were common at the others.

In 1949, the Municipal League of Seattle advocated for creation of a county parks board and also for consolidating the two divisions of King County Parks into one. These changes were made, but the King County Commissioners also lopped $60,000 off the Parks Department's $200,000 budget for 1950, at a time when county services were being slashed across the board. Park attendance had trebled over the last three years, and there were concerns that the budget cuts would greatly harm the department, which then oversaw 20 park and playground properties and had just begun organizing a new swimming and recreation program. Some county commissioners even recommended merging King County Parks with the City of Seattle Parks Department, an idea that did not sit well with Seattle boosters.

Advocates of a more robust county park system turned to the voters. In 1952, a $2.5 million park bond was placed on the ballot, but was narrowly rejected. A $3 million parks bond was proposed in 1954, but it too fell short in the polls. In 1956, a more modest $1.1 million bond was placed on the ballot, and this time it won by a wide margin, helped along by the growing number of families during the post-war baby boom.

New Purchases

Newly appointed County Parks Director George Wyse (1918-2001) began looking for new parcels of land to acquire, while also improving the 23 parks currently overseen by the department. Parks programs, such as swimming and crafts classes, teenage dances, and athletic programs, were also expanded. Wyse took a special interest in waterfront property when looking for new parks to develop.

In 1957 the parks department purchased two properties in Juanita, Shady Beach and Sandy Beach, which were adjacent to Juanita Beach Park, purchased by the department the previous year. Juanita Beach had been home to a popular resort since the 1920s, and the new county park quickly became one of the department's most popular summertime destinations.

In 1962, the department took on its most ambitious project to date after King County purchased the Marymoor Farm in Redmond. The farm, originally developed as Willow Moor Farm in the 1900s by Seattle businessman James Clise (1855-1939), was developed into a 412-acre park. From 1967 to 2002, the Clise Mansion in the park was home to the Marymoor Museum of Eastside History.

Forward Thrust

In the summer of 1965, King County Parks set a record with 2 million visitors. However, the King County Commissioners denied the department's request for an additional $1.3 million for acquisition funds for more parks in the county's growing south end. The following year the department requested $3.5 million to bring 39 parks up to standard, but that request was also denied. Once more the park board had to turn to voters for help.

Fortunately for the board, the timing was perfect. Community leaders had already begun working on Forward Thrust, a major King County works program with bond proposals to fund a variety of capital improvements, including mass transit, community housing, a new sports stadium, and more. Parks advocates in cities throughout the county advocated for a massive $118 million bond proposal that would be used for the purchase, creation, and improvement of parks throughout King County.

On February 13, 1968, 64.7 percent of county voters approved the parks bond proposition, allowing the King County Parks Department to fully blossom. Within the first three years of Forward Thrust funding -- which was augmented by matching state and federal funding -- the department added more than 130 new parks and 16 new swimming pools, and doubled facilities at 55 existing park sites.

Trails and Open Space

Throughout the 1970s, Forward Thrust money paid for new projects and programs. In 1971, the county's first urban trail plan was adopted. Over the next 4 decades it would grow to a network of 175 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding -- one of the most extensive multi-use trail systems in the nation. In 1975, biking enthusiasts welcomed the opening of the Marymoor Velodrome, the state's only bicycle racetrack.

By the end of the 1970s, after so much work had been completed on parks, playfields, and recreational facilities, attention turned to the county's natural resources. In 1979, voters approved a $50 million Farmlands Preservation bond issue, one of the first big pushes in the region to preserve open space.

Forward Thrust money finally ran out in 1981, but there was still much work to be done. A growing population meant more park usage, which necessitated an increase in maintenance and programs. In 1982, a $188 million Pro/Parks proposition was placed on the ballot, but it was turned down by voters. In 1984, the parks department began an extensive campaign to rehabilitate 60 parks and 127 buildings in the park system, including some of the 1938 fieldhouses, which were now approaching landmark status. In 1986, King County purchased 1,400 acres on Cougar Mountain for use as a wildland park, but it would be the last large-scale land acquisition for many years to come

New Century, New Challenges

In 1990, the department got a boost from the Seattle Goodwill Games, which helped pay for the King County Aquatics Center on land donated by the Weyerhaeuser company in Federal Way. The 2,500-seat venue subsequently hosted Olympic Trials and national and international swim competitions.

Open-space bond issues were placed on the ballot in both 1990 and 1996, but were defeated each time. Nevertheless, the department expanded its trails system throughout the decade, and acquired the East Lake Sammamish rail corridor in 1998. But the new century saw new challenges, as deep budgets cuts hit every King County department.

In 2001, a $52 million general-fund shortfall led to the closure of 20 parks around the county. Some larger parks -- Juanita Beach Park, Mercer Island's Luther Burbank Park, Tukwila's Fort Dent Park, and Sammamish Cove and Beaver Lake Park in Sammamish -- were later transferred to the communities in which they were located. Some of the swimming pools overseen by the department were also sold. In 2002, the parks department laid off more than a third of its employees.

But after weathering the worst budget crisis in the department's history, the King County Parks and Recreation Division remained an award-winning gem of the Puget Sound region, maintaining more than 200 parks, 175 miles of regional trails, and 26,000 acres of open space. In 2013, the King County Parks Foundation was created with a goal of raising $7.5 million for legacy projects over the next 10 years.

Sources: Session Laws of the State of Washington, 25th Session, January 11-March 11, 1937 (Olympia: Olympia Printing Plant, 1937); "County Budgets $217,073 Above Tax Estimates," The Seattle Times, September 5, 1937, p. 2; "Phelps, Hartzell, for County Park Board," The Seattle Times, January 8, 1938, p. 2; "County Plans Playground System," The Seattle Times, January 16, 1938, p. 8; "County Parks Need Face-Lifting," The Seattle Times, September 19, 1948, Magazine, p. 2; "Counties, Pinched for Money, Ask State Help," The Seattle Times, February 14, 1949, p. 5; "Muny League Asks County Parks Board," The Seattle Times, March 25, 1949, p. 23; "County Budget Pared Sharply by Commissioners," The Seattle Times, October 5, 1949, p. 2; "More Public Services Cut Even as Costs Shrink," The Seattle Times, October 19, 1949, p. 6; "County-City Park System Merger Urged," The Seattle Times, December 2, 1949, p. 32; "Charter, 2 Park Bond Issues Turned Down at Polls," The Seattle Times, November 5, 1952, p. 3; "Street Bond Issue Is Only One to Win," The Seattle Times, November 3, 1954, p. 3; "Civic Center, New Schools, Parks O.K'd," The Seattle Times, November 7, 1956, p. 2; "Varied County Parks Programs Include Style Show," The Seattle Times, May 21, 1957, p. 8; "Total of 635 Ft. to be Available for County Park," East Side Journal, June 16, 1957, p. 1; "King County Buys Marymoor," The East Side Journal, July 12, 1962, p. 3; "Wrong Place to Trim the Budget," The Seattle Times, October 5, 1965, p. 10; "County Parks Bond Issue Contemplated," The Seattle Times, October 5, 1966, p. 58; "Forward Thrust Plans Result of Tedious Work," The Seattle Times, September 26, 1967, p. 3; "Forward Thrust Progress Report" (advertising supplement), The Seattle Times and Seattle Post Intelligencer, April 12, 1970; "Urban-Trail System Charted," The Seattle Times, September 2, 1971, p. A-10; "State's First Bicycle Racetrack Considered for Redmond," The Seattle Times, April 8, 1973, p. B-5; "Parks of '60s Swamped by Today's Population," The Seattle Times, April 7, 1982, p. B-1; "Pro/Parks Bond Issue Loses," The Seattle Times, November 3, 1982, p. E-19; "Rehabilitation of Parks/Buildings to be Explained," The Seattle Times, June 27, 1984, p. G-4; "Voters Turning Thumbs Down on Open-space Plan," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 7, 1990, p. A-6; "King County Parks: Lack of Voters Defeats Measure," The Seattle Times, September 18, 1996, p. C-5. "County Approves Transfer of Parks," The Seattle Times, December 17, 2002, p. B-3; King County Parks and Recreation Division website accessed December 30, 2013 (; Caroline Toobin, "History of King County Parks System," manuscript dated March 17, 1992, Parks, Planning, and Resources Department files, King County Parks Division, Seattle, Washington.

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