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Renton: Ahead of the Curve

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Did you know that Renton is “ahead of the curve?”

That was a civic slogan adopted in the 1990s by this busy city at the south end of Lake Washington. The idea was to celebrate the city’s forward-looking attitude and to pay tongue-in-cheek tribute to the “Renton S-curves,” a sinuous stretch of roadway that used to delay traffic on the Renton section of I-405. Only in Renton.

Since the 1990s, a lot has changed in Renton. The S-curves are nearly gone or less “curvy,” the city is even more forward-looking than ever and that old slogan isn’t necessary anymore to attract people and businesses. 

Fortunately, a lot of great things have not changed in this long-time home to one of Boeing’s busiest factories. Ivar's newly remodeled Seafood Bar has been a mainstay on the waterfront at Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park since 1983.

The entrance to busy Gene Coulon Park in Renton

Gene Coulon Park is the crown jewel of public spaces in Renton. It’s easily accessible from I-405 with 57 acres of land right on the shores of Lake Washington and features swimming areas, a boat launch, playgrounds and walking trails.

On a recent sunny Sunday, families in powerboats pulled alongside the dock and tied them up while others arrived by car and picnicked at shaded tables along the edge of the plaza. A little boy rode a tricycle while couples sunned themselves on comfortable benches. During the busy afternoon, boat landings and launchings took place one after another. Tom, one of the many boaters, had been out since 8 a.m. and caught two cutthroat trout.

Ivar’s has had a restaurant here since the 1980s serving their famous fish ‘n chips and chowder to the masses. The park was dedicated in the 1970s, named in honor of Gene L. Coulon. Coulon directed the city’s Parks and Recreation Department for nearly 30 years, beginning back in the 1940s. 

Ivar’s and Kidd Valley are adjacent to an outdoor plaza, with places to sit and eat, and to enjoy the view

Renton’s history goes back quite a bit further than that. The town was incorporated in 1901 and was named for Captain William Renton, an early Northwest settler and lumber entrepreneur who financed a coal operation in the area in the 1870s. Other European settlers had come to Renton in the 1850s and before that Duwamish people had lived along the banks of the Black River for millennia. 

If you’ve never heard of the Black River before it’s because when the Ballard Locks and Montlake Cut opened in 1917 to connect Lake Washington to the Puget Sound, the level of the lake dropped several feet and Black River dried up. 

The Renton community’s connection to water – Lake Washington, Black River, Cedar River – was important to its growth in its earliest years, and the same is still true today. 

Coulon Park is a popular destination for Lake Washington pleasure boaters

A short half mile stroll from the Ivar’s at Gene Coulon Beach takes visitors to the shopping center called The Landing and to a pedestrian area along the lake next to the recently built Hyatt Regency. From this spot on sparkling Lake Washington, the Seattle skyline is visible in the distance along with a constantly changing assortment of powerboats, sailboats, floatplanes and waterfowl.

The best part of the walk is at the southeast edge of the Hyatt Regency, where visitors can walk right up to a security fence and get one of the nicest up-close views of Boeing passenger jets anywhere in “Boeing Country.” 

Just west of Coulon Park is the waterfront Hyatt Regency Lake Washington; the Boeing plant is right next door, offering pedestrians some of the best up-close glimpses of airplanes in various states of manufacture

On that same sunny Sunday, an aerospace engineer named Alinh stood near the fence with his wife Marie, excitedly pointing out the features of a partially assembled Boeing jet parked just yards away through the cyclone fence.

When asked, Alinh admits that he’s loved aviation and airplanes since he was a child in his native country France.

With a slight chuckle, he stated how passionate he was about the in-progress jetliner and then pointed out several unique features. 

Meanwhile, a steady stream of couples and families made their ways to the Boeing fence, pointing and taking photos. Only in Renton.

While the huge Boeing plant nowadays turns out jetliners, it was originally constructed more than 75 years ago to build planes for World War II. It was in the original version of the giant Boeing building (just south of the shoreline) that more than 1,000 of the famous B-29 Superfortresses, huge bombers that helped turned the tide of the war, were built in the 1940s.

In addition to parked jetliners, smaller aircraft come and go from Renton Municipal Airport, just west of the Boeing plant, and floatplanes are often visible taking off and landing on the lake.

Railroads have also long been vital to Renton, and the tracks that once helped move 19th-century coal to Seattle now carry 21st-century cargo to the Boeing plant. It’s not unusual to see locomotives pulling special railcars through downtown toward the aerospace manufacturing facility, loaded with wingless and tail-less sections of 737s. Even without the gates at the rail crossings, these airplanes-on-a-train would be sure to stop traffic. Once again, it’s an “Only in Renton” experience.

Fuselage sections of 737 jetliners headed to the Boeing plant via rail are traffic-stoppers in downtown Renton

And those old rail lines mean that modern Renton is bike-friendly, because it’s connected to King County’s Regional Trail System via the Eastside Rail Corridor Trail, which goes north from Coulon Park to Bellevue and connects to the trail that crosses the I-90 floating bridge to Mercer Island and Seattle. 

The Eastside Rail Corridor Trail follows the path of the old Northern Pacific Railroad’s “Belt Line,” a route created more than a century ago to bypass rail traffic in Seattle. Renton is also connected to the Interurban Trail, which goes south to the community of Pacific along a route where an early commuter rail system once connected Seattle to Tacoma. 

The railroad’s past and other elements of the city’s pioneer and aviation history are celebrated at the Renton History Museum, featuring indoor exhibits housed in a unique art deco vintage fire station -- just a few minutes from Coulon Beach. Around the exterior of the museum are an assortment of historic artifacts, including a logging rail car designed and built by longtime Renton manufacturer Paccar known originally as Pacific Car & Foundry. 

Skateboarders and bicyclists enjoy the pavement at Liberty Park, right next door to the Renton Library

Just a short walk from the museum is one of the most unusual public buildings in the Pacific Northwest that you will definitely want to check out.  Aside from books, media, meeting rooms and other library amenities, the Renton Library might be the only library in the world built astride a river. In this case it’s the Cedar River, which empties into Lake Washington by the Boeing plant.

On this particular day, kayakers paddled under the library, which was built in 1966, while children played and explored around the columns that support the structure that spans 80 feet across the river.

It’s another “Only in Renton” moment, and after all this activity you may want to head to Ivar’s Seafood Bar at Coulon Beach. As you enjoy your meal, you may realize that Renton is a place that, whether they say it out loud anymore or not, is still pretty darn ahead of the curve.

All photos credit Feliks Banel