Many of us probably drive Westlake Avenue in Seattle without considering how odd it is. The street cuts diagonally across the normal, rectangular street grid. Few other streets do this. The diagonal originally started at Denny Way and ended at Fourth Avenue and Pike Street, which is why Westlake Mall is also not a rectangular space. Westlake north of Denny, or Rollin Avenue as it was originally known, had long extended north to Lake Union and continued on a trestle system around the lake to Fremont.
Planning for Westlake Boulevard started in 1901. Early articles noted that it would be expensive, primarily because of condemnation; run through several houses; and be a bureaucratic mess. Early plans called for dirt from the Second Avenue Regrade on Denny Hill to be used in areas that needed to be filled but it is not clear how much dirt was used. Work began in March 1905.
“When work starts on the south and all the buildings within the right-of-way from Pike Street north will be razed at the same time. There are several, which private persons have purchased, yet to be moved away, but many of the smaller structures will be town down and piled in a heap to be burned,” wrote an unnamed Seattle Times reporter on March 28, 1905. The contractor expected to have Westlake opened by the end of the year.
This 1904 map and accompanying text are from an advertisement in 1904. It gives a flavor of what the road’s proponents hoped would happen. In addition to increased property values they also hoped it would open up transportation routes to the north, which it did. For many years, at least one trolley traveled up Westlake.
Following up my map showing the planned for but never executed South Ship Canal through Beacon Hill, I have a map that shows other potential ship canals. These are for the north end of the city. Map is from History and Advantages of the Canal and Harbor Improvement Project Now Being Executed by the Seattle and Lake Washington Waterway Company (1902).
All of these routes were put forward in an 1871 description by Brig. Gen. Barton Alexander titled “Ship-Canal in Washington Territory.” The United States government was interested in a canal to facilitate naval vessels docking in Lake Washington’s less damaging fresh water, instead of in the salt water of Puget Sound. For each total length is from foot of Yesler Way to deep water in Lake Washington.
1. Pike Street Route – South end of Lake Union up Westlake Avenue (which did not exist at the time) to Pike Street to Elliott Bay = 6.5 miles
2. Mercer Farm Route – Direct route to Lake Union at about Battery Street = 6.9 miles
3. Smith’s Cove (Interbay) Route – Total length = 10.5 miles
4. Salmon Bay to Lake Union = 16.9 miles
Despite having to make a 119-foot-deep cut for his favored routes (Mercer Farm and Pike Street), Alexander rejected a canal connecting Lake Union and Salmon Bay because it required too much dredging and would suffer from exposure to the “cannonade of an enemy in time of war.” In his conclusion, Alexander observed that the Puget Sound region offered one of only three places on the Pacific coast to build a secure port for the United States navy but the area possessed too few people and resources to justify further study.
Not until 1917 did a ship canal open. Of course, that is the modern one from Salmon Bay through Lake Union to Lake Washington.