100 Years of History for Seattle’s Ship Canal and Locks

The Lake Washington Ship Canal and the locks that connect Lake Union to Puget Sound is such an integral part of the city that it’s practically impossible to imagine life without them. Whether you are boating, paddling or just strolling along the water’s edge, you can appreciate that Seattle’s navigable inland waterways are an engineering marvel and a great source of local pride.

It was one hundred years ago, in 1916, when the pioneers’ dreams became a reality after the Lake Washington Ship Canal and the Hiram Chittenden Locks opened. They rapidly changed the face of Seattle in the 20th century, turning Lake Union into a bustling seaport, ship and yacht-building center.

Credit for the first public mention of the idea went to Thomas Mercer, one of the first Seattle commissioners, who gave a rousing Fourth of July speech in 1854 on the south shore of the lake. He boldly promoted the name “Washington” for the bigger lake and “Union” for the smaller because it would one day join the inner city with the coast.

But the decision whether to build the whole eight-mile long system of cuts, canals and locks and where to put it was the subject of a huge civic and political debate that lasted for over 50 years. In the 1850’s, at a time when most roads were no more than dirt tracks, Lake Union covered 700 acres and had the immediate advantage of easy transit by water, an advantage that worked surprisingly well for the next 60 years before the canal was completed.

By the 1870s, the south shore of the lake had become the industrial base of the young city, first for milling lumber floated in via Lake Washington from the forests to the east of Seattle. There was even a short-lived boom in coal mined in South King county and trans-shipped to saltwater docks by wagon, barge and the first short railway in the Northwest. The lakeshore became the home of mills and coal wharves, a tar plant, dye works, iron works, brick kilns etc.

It was a noisy, smelly and polluted place, as you can still see at the last vestige of this era–the Seattle Gas Light Company’s gasification plant at the north end of Lake Union. This opened in 1905 and supplied fuel for streetlights and cooking stoves until 1957. Today, it’s been transformed into a wonderful park, but if you wander around its pipes and stacks, you can still imagine its grim origins.

On the opposite shore sits Lake Union Park. It too is an oasis of greenery, where the city’s first garbage incinerator was built in 1908 to run a steam-powered laundry and asphalt plant. But a hundred years ago, the lakes were not a place you would want to stroll along, let alone go boating—trust me! The pollution that poured into the water, the stench it caused, and the smoke from the factories and fireplaces made it a place to avoid…

The Canal-Building Mania Strikes!

The canal-building mania that had struck the north-east U.S. in the early 1800’s and inspired the 350-mile Erie Canal hit Seattle in the 1880’s, promoted by dreamers and schemers who combined self-promotion, subterfuge and politics to achieve their goals. In 1883, the Lake Washington Improvement Company contracted with the Wa Chong Company to provide immigrant Chinese labor to dig the mile-long Fremont Cut from a low wooden dam near today’s Fremont Bridge to Salmon Bay.

This was an important achievement that maintained the level of Lake Union, but was not navigable until the locks were opened in 1916. In 1885, the laborers moved on to complete the log sluice at the Montlake Portage; all this work was accomplished solely with hand tools. However, the route of the canal was actually not decided until a decade of acrimonious debate in the 1890’s. The three options were to run south up the Duwamish River, due west from Lake Washington across Beacon Hill, or begin in Lake Union and run south-west to Elliott Bay.

While the debate continued, there was also a move afoot that threatened the existence of Lake Union. In 1910-12 serious consideration was given to filling the south end of the entirely to provide about 500 acres of industrial land! There was plenty of fill available from re-grading Seattle’s hills, and the lake is fairly shallow with an average depth of approximately 30 feet.

A Year-Long Celebration

The Lake Washington Ship Canal Centennial Steering Committee has been working to coordinate and publicize a year-long commemoration of this massive engineering project and its effects on the region’s landscape, economy, and people. Projects in the works include: a 60-minute documentary, a HistoryLink book, a song-writing contest, a boat parade/festival, historical exhibits, boat tours etc. culminating in the centennial of the official opening of the Locks on July 4th, 1917.

Making the Cut”

When the Corps of Engineers’ final plan was published. Everyone from tug owners to land speculators predicted a boom in commerce. Construction began on the “Government” Locks on August 6, 1911. (The local inhabitants quickly dubbed it the Salmon Bay Locks.)The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers excavated over 1.5 million cubic yards of earth for the locks and dam alone, then filled the resulting basin with 227,000 cubic yards of high-strength concrete.

This coincided with the completion of the Panama Canal In August,1914, by far the largest American engineering project to date. This marathon project paved the way for the Emerald City’s canal, which included two locks: the smaller 30′ x 150′, the larger 80′ x 825′. The design also included a 235′ spillway with six gates and a fish ladder.

It was finally named after U.S. Army Major Hiram Martin Chittenden, the Seattle District Engineer for the Corps of Engineers from 1906 to 1908. (That name was quite a mouthful, so local boatmen once again re-named it after the town growing on its north bank, Ballard.)

The first development along the canal was the Fishermen’s Terminal, which opened in 1915 for freshwater fishermen, and continues to house a large and varied fishing fleet from gillnetters to factory trawlers that head through the locks to fish in Alaska every spring. In the early years, spring was marked by the departure of cod schooners on their way to the Bering Sea. Another classic type was the smaller halibut schooner, built locally. The dozen remaining boats celebrated their first century in 2015.

Each fall they all returned with full cargoes and wintered on the lake to prepare for the next season. Supplying, repairing and maintaining all these vessels still employs a lot of boatyards, chandlers and employees. This provides a commercial incentive to preserve the working waterfront on the canal and keep the entire waterway in good shape.

The operation of the locks and the dam in 1916 gave the Corps of Engineers the ability to proceed with the next stage of the plan, to equalize the water levels of Lake Washington and Lake Union. The Montlake dam was breached and the level of Lake Washington was lowered nearly nine feet between July and October 1916. This left acres of muddy shore filled with piers that no longer reached the water, leaving some landowners high and dry.

But businessmen with the pioneer spirit and Yankee know-how only saw this change as another opportunity. In a boathouse on the Portage Cut, an ambitious young flyer set up a workshop to build his first seaplane. His name was William Boeing, and his new seaplane design soon took off. In late 1917, the U.S. entered World War I and Boeing knew that the U.S. Navy needed seaplanes for training. So he shipped two of his new Model Cs to Pensacola, Florida. The Navy liked the Boeing design and ordered fifty more. So the company moved its operations to a ship-building yard on the lower Duwamish River.

At the same time, and on the same tide of enthusiasm, a veteran tug skipper named Cap Webster founded Fremont Tugboat on the north end of the lake. He hoped to capitalize on the growth of the lumber business and the increase in marine traffic. Three years later, Lake Union Drydock was founded and today is one of the older businesses in the area. It’s collection of old wooden shops is clustered around an original wooden pier where many large fishing and processing vessels moor.

The Lake Union Dream

For most of its existence, LUDD has worked on commercial vessels, but in the 1920’s it was the inventor of a 42′ motor cruiser it called the “Lake Union Dreamboat.” This classic design consisted of a round-bilged displacement hull with a plumb bow, raised foredeck and a squared-off house aft– varnished of course!

The boat perfectly fitted the need for a simple, comfortable cruiser with an affordable price. Although the name was copyrighted, it was soon adopted to describe any similar craft. LUDD had an efficient way of mass producing them and built from 1924 to 1930. The Blanchard Boat Company’s product was a 36 footer and 25 were launched. About 20 dreamboats survive, most of which can be seen around Puget Sound during the summer.

As city folk discovered the new sport of pleasure boating, Captain Webster found competition was fierce in the mosquito fleet of small tugs and ferries. He found it was easier to rent space in his moorage to yachtsmen, so set up a second business, the Fremont Boat Market, to rent, buy, or sell boats of all kinds. He was successful enough to make a run for city council in 1928.

Seattle Discovers Yachting

Boatyards were springing up all round the lakes to supply the demand for pleasure boats, and men with names like Blanchard, Grandy, and Prothero built fine sail and motor yachts up to 100 feet long. They are gone today, but fortunately, the Vic Franck and Anchor Jensen yards are keeping the tradition alive by maintaining and repairing classic wooden craft.

This boom in boating encouraged an enthusiastic young man named O.H. “Doc” Freeman to find a job at the Fremont Boat dock on evenings and weekends. The Fremont boat business he bought from Webster has been a part of the life of the lake ever since, still run by the Freeman family. Today, they operate a private yacht moorage, but are best known around the lake for Fremont Tugboat that turned 100 last year. This fleet of small yellow and white tugs see all sides of boating on the lake from houseboats to factory trawlers between the lake and the locks.

O.H. Freeman successfully navigated his business through the Depression of the 1930s when the demand for tug services took a downturn. He kept his company afloat by finding yachts, tugs, and launches at bargain prices. He would repair them for his own use or to sell, as well as selling boats on consignment. As the economy improved, he opened his own boatyard and built some fine motor yachts, and the Kenworth Motor Truck Company got its start building heavy-duty trucks on the south shore!

A small fleet of square riggers was laid up in the middle of the lake, stranded first by World War I, then the Depression. They were joined by surplus wooden freighters built for the war, and some old whaling ships. The sailing ships were the Monogahela, Tonawanda and Moshulu. They were all piloted under the new George Washington bridge in 1932 to preserve their rigs. One of them, the Moshulu, is still afloat in Philadelphia as a restaurant. (Note that another long civic name was replaced with the much catchier Aurora Bridge.)

Under the Aurora Bridge

In 1938, Freeman purchased the moorage that still bears his name near the Aurora Bridge and an old car ferry that he turned it into a floating office, shop, and home for his growing family. The Freeman family wasn’t overly concerned when the US Coast Guard commandeered the  ferry for a barracks in 1942. They packed up and moved into a two-story fish-buying barge for the next five years.

World War II brought new naval construction to shipyards like Lake Union Dry Dock, where 136’ wooden minesweepers were built—18 of them! Despite their dangerous role, most survived and were put to many fascinating uses. One became Jacques Cousteau’s world-famous dive ship Calypso. On the south shore, the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) built the imposing school for Advanced Naval Training to meet the wartime need.

Doc Freeman’s Chandlery

After the war, Doc attended all the government auctions and became a dealer in war surplus boats including minesweepers, tugs, landing craft, launches, and lifeboats by the dozen. By 1947, he could afford to erect a new building onshore at his moorage with room for his chandlery business on the ground floor and the family on the second floor.

The chandlery was sold to the employees in 1952 but kept the name “Doc Freeman’s” and had a loyal following for many years. Northwest Yachting founder Dan Schworer went to work there early in his career in the boating business. Doc Freeman’s ran into financial troubles and was declared bankrupt in 2003.

Freeman’s son Mark grew up here in the shadow of the Aurora Bridge and was at home on the water from an early age. In 1948, when he was 14, he bought his first workboat for $99. It was a surplus ex-Navy dory that he soon paid for by salvaging logs around Lake Washington. Mark attended the University of Washington for a year and a half, where he got “an A in sailing,” he says with a smile.

When his draft notice came, he naturally chose the US Coast Guard and was posted to Grays Harbor 1955-59. He wasted no time on his return to civilian life; he bought the Fremont Boat business in 1959 only three years before his father’s death. It was popularly referred to as the “boat lot” and was a popular destination for would-be boaters on weekends.

The docks could get crowded with people inspecting as many as 80 boats for sale: “From $25 rowboats to $100,000 freighters up to 180 feet long,” as one newspaper reported. After four years, he finally accepted he was not cut out to be a salesman, sold most of the inventory, and turned the property into a private moorage so he could devote himself to tow-boating full-time.

A Delicate Balance

By 1962, according to the city’ parks’ booklet Making History Together at Lake Union Park: “the city became conscious of Lake Union in the wake of the Century 21 Exposition when the Space Needle was erected and locals saw their city through new eyes—the many eyesores on Lake Union, joining dilapidated warehouses and wharves, closed factories and mills, in a neglected Seattle backwater.

In 1968, Dick and Colleen Wagner, who lived on a houseboat at the south end of Lake Union, decided it was time someone tried to preserve the heritage of small wooden boats that was quickly disappearing from the waterfront. They opened the Old Boathouse on a small cove behind their moorage. with a handful of boats for rent. Volunteers quickly showed up to give sailing, seamanship and boat-building lessons.

They soon had a flood of community support moving them forward and the non-profit Center for Wooden Boats was officially established in 1976. The first Lake Union Wooden Boat Festival filled the docks with traditional craft the next summer. Today, there are a number of Blanchard Junior Knockabouts, a 20′ keelboat that is still a great trainer.

Between 1970 and 1985, the lake was dramatically re-imagined, and redevelopment began. Slowly, Lake Union became less a derelict post-industrial working lake, and more an urban amenity. The dominant Naval Reserve Armory was decomissioned in 1998, and after more debate underwent a major renovation in 2012, to create a new home for Museum of History and Industry at the center of the new Lake Union Park,

Today, the MOHAI dock is home to a collection of historic ships like the 1889 Oregon-built Arthur Foss, one of the oldest wooden tugs still running on the West Coast, the 1904 Swiftsure, a lightship stationed off Washington’s coast , and the Virginia V built in 1922, at Maplewood, the last of Puget Sound’s “Mosquito” Fleet. (The Virginia V is open for viewing throughout the year and is well worth a visit. I found its original steam engine to be a fascinating relic.)

Behind the old Armory, the CWB plant to begin construction of a new Education Center providing additional classroom and exhibit spaces. The first floor will feature the Bill Garden Boatshop, a tribute to the designer and the huge legacy of plans he created. It’s easy to take all this for granted, as if it was inevitable, but I hope I have shown how it has taken a remarkable century of participation to preserve parts of the “working waterfront” into the 21st century.

Today, boatyards, houseboat moorages and maritime industries share the shoreline with apartments, offices, and marinas. Take a trip along the canal by boat, bike or foot and you will see that business is thriving, and you might even get a view of one of Fremont Tugboats nine small tugs going to and from another task.

This is a remarkable balance rarely seen in the modern urban world, and only achieved because generations of boaters, citizens and politicians have been convinced of the value of maintaining the lake’s historic character. Having weathered its first century, and remained a base for mini tugs and mega yachts, kayaks and houseboats, the canal and the locks look ready to handle whatever the future brings. That’s something you can’t say about any other transportation system!


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