Three essays about the Ship Canal

Because of the work that my pal Jen Ott and I have done on our book about the Lake Washington Ship Canal and Locks, I have been helping to update a few essays on Here are summaries of the ones that were posted today.

Essay 1 – The Lake Washington Ship Canal’s opening was celebrated on July 4, 1917, exactly 63 years after Seattle pioneer Thomas Mercer (1813-1898) first proposed the idea of connecting the saltwater of Puget Sound to the freshwater of Lake Washington via Lake Union. For five decades following Mercer’s suggestion, local citizens, business leaders, government officials, military officers, and entrepreneurs discussed where to build the connection and how to pay for it. Finally, after Hiram M. Chittenden (1858-1917) took charge of the Seattle District of the Army Corps of Engineers in 1906, plans were made and federal funding obtained. The ship canal Chittenden designed consisted of two cuts, the Fremont Cut between Salmon Bay and Lake Union and the Montlake Cut between Lake Union and Lake Washington, and a set of locks at the west end of Salmon Bay. The canal’s construction lowered the water level of Lake Washington by nine feet and raised that of Salmon Bay behind the locks, changing it from a tidal inlet to a freshwater reservoir.

Essay 2 - On July 4, 1917, the SS Roosevelt passed through the Government Locks in Ballard, kicking off celebrations to dedicate the locks and Lake Washington Ship Canal, which had been open since mid-1916. The ship paused at the locks for dignitaries to make speeches that highlighted the importance of the great day. Additional speeches followed at the Fremont Bridge and then the Roosevelt led more than 200 boats on a grand parade through the Montlake Cut and down Lake Washington to Leschi Park in Southeast Seattle. One newspaper estimated that half of Seattle’s population lines the shores for the festivities.

Essay 3 – Sometime in the 1860s, Harvey L. Pike (ca. 1842-1897) began work on cutting a channel between Union Bay on Lake Washington and Portage Bay on Lake Union. Pike did not progress very far and soon abandoned his work but not the idea of canal. In 1869, Pike filed a plat of the isthmus between the two lakes, on which he would include space for a 200-foot-wide canal connecting the lakes. Like his earlier attempted connection, this was little more than a dream as Pike did no work on what he called the Union Canal. However, Pike’s goal was ultimately realized. The Montlake Cut — one segment of Seattle’s Lake Washington Ship Canal linking the freshwater lake to the saltwater of Puget Sound — was dug across the isthmus near where Pike started digging half a century earlier.

Lake Washington Canal Association

Yesterday, I was fortunate to meet Carol Whipple, great granddaughter of one of Seattle’s more important early citizens, Roger Sherman Greene. Greene had arrived in the state in 1870, when President Ulysses Grant appointed him to be associate justice to the Washington Territory Supreme Court. Greene moved to Seattle in 1882, where he became involved in civic politics and activities. In particular, he was well known for trying to prevent a lynching of two men in Pioneer Square and for standing up to white mobs during anti-Chinese riots in the city in 1885. Greene was also a principal player in the efforts to build a ship canal and locks in Seattle.

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 7.39.16 AMDuring our discussion, Carol showed us her ancestor’s personal stock certificate for the Lake Washington Canal Association. Formed in 1907 by people such as Greene, Thomas Burke, former governor John McGraw, and J.S. Brace, owner of the biggest mill on Lake Union, the LWCA was created to foster the building of the canal. It did so primarily by obtaining the rights to the canal, which had been given to developer James Moore. (Moore’s plan called for as single, much-too-small wooden lock, but he was unable to meet his obligations so transferred the rights to the LWCA.) The LWCA then transferred the rights to King County, which was responsible for building the canal.

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 7.38.35 AMHolding the certificate was certainly my day’s highlight, though Carol’s story Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 7.38.54 AMabout finding her ancestor’s glass eye in a collection of family memorabilia was a close second. It is a lovely document. In particular, the etching that shows the canal system is a true work of art, beautifully depicting Green Lake, Lake Washington, and the cuts at Montlake and Fremont. On the right side is another symbol of Seattle from the era, the totem pole that had been erected in Seattle in late 1899.

Known as the Chief-of-All-Women pole, it had been carved earlier in the century to honor a Tlingit noblewoman of the Ganaxadi Raven Clan in southeast Alaska. The pole had made its way to Seattle when a group of Seattle businessmen had cut it down, stolen it, and brought it by ship to the city. In the words of the Seattle Post Intelligencer, it was “a great and wonderful thing and a grand acquisition for the city.” The pole would be burned down anonymously in 1938 and replaced with one carved in Alaska.

The LWCA ultimately succeeded in their goal. The canal officially opened on July 4, 1917, a date that is being commemorated this year and next.