Locks Centennial

Today begins a 17-month-long commemoration of one of the great events in Seattle history. On July 4, 1917, the Lake Washington Ship Canal and Locks officially opened. It was the culmination of a multi-year project to connect Puget Sound to Lake Washington via Salmon Bay and Lake Union. I have written previously about this endeavor but would like to highlight one of the more significant, early construction milestones.

On February 2, 1916, fresh water from Salmon Bay entered the bigger of the two locks in the canal system. The lock was filled in 32 minutes with enough water so that it was equal to the level of Salmon Bay. As you can see from the second photo, there was enough pressure on the lock gate from Salmon Bay to push the gate open slightly. The February 3, 1916, Seattle Times called the event “the opening of the world’s greatest tidal basin.” (As you can see from the photo, snow covered the ground from one of the biggest snowstorms in Seattle history.)

Courtesy Army Corps of Engineers
Courtesy Army Corps of Engineers
Courtesy Army Corps of Engineers
Courtesy Army Corps of Engineers

After filling the locks, the Army Corps of Engineers opened the gates completely. This then became the route for tidal water to flow into Salmon Bay. At high tide, salt water would enter the bay and flood it. At low tide, water would drain out, exposing several acres of tide flats.

Prior to February 2, tidal salt water had entered Salmon Bay on the south side of the locks, where the present day spill gates are located. With the gates open, the Corps closed off the south side route and began to build the spill gate system, which is basically a dam helping to keep Salmon Bay at a constant level between 20 and 22 feet above sea level.

On February 3, the first boat, the Orcas, entered the locks and passed through to Salmon Bay. The locks would remain open until July 12, 1916, when the dam/spill gate was finished, and the Corps began to flood Salmon Bay with water from Lake Union. Salmon Bay would soon become the reservoir we now know.

Courtesy Army Corps of Engineers
Courtesy Army Corps of Engineers



Putting Bertha in Perspective

So she’s not moving again. A few days ago Bertha’s barge got tippy, then on Tuesday, the ground near her started to give way and a massive sink hole appeared. Today, we have Governor Inslee putting out a cease and desist order, immediately stopping any further work by Bertha. The old gal cannot get a break.

I’d like to put this project in a bit of historical perspective. I am not apologizing for the slowdown but would like to point out that we have had a few projects that took more time.

Lake Washington Ship Canal and Locks – 63 years from conception to completion. Thomas Mercer was the first to propose a linkage between Lake Washington and Puget Sound via Lake Union, way back on July 4, 1854. The canal and locks officially opened on July 4, 1917. During the six decades it took to complete the project, there were federal reports, engineering reports, and naval reports. Attempts to dig the canal were made by lone individuals, speculators, Chinese work crews, and private corporations. And finally six different routes, including one through Beacon Hill, were proposed. Not until federal funding came through was the canal completed and it still took five years to complete the work.

Filling in the Duwamish River tideflats – At least 23 years. Seattle’s citizens had been dumping material in Elliott Bay since the upstart town’s earliest days but formal filling in of the tideflats didn’t start until July 29, 1895. In what was called the “greatest enterprise yet inaugurated in this city,” a dredge began to suck sediment out of one side of the tideflats and deposit it behind a barrier 2,000 feet away. By 1917, more than 90 percent of the tideflats had been filled, creating the monumentally unstable land of SODO and Harbor Island. Work had been stopped by lawsuits, the principal dredge company running out of money, and the occasional mechanical breakdown.

Denny Regrade – 33 years from first to last removal of sediment. It took five regrades to get rid of the great mound of Denny at the north end of downtown. The first was in 1897, followed by work in 1903, 1906, 1908-1911, and 1928-1930. There were workers who were electrocuted, who were attacked by children, who lost their arms, and who were crushed by landslides. A child taking a shortcut through the project died when dynamite being heated over an open flame exploded. Citizens sued the city and corporations. Corporations sued back. And, they even had problem with barges, which sank and ran into docks, shutting down the regrade. But on the plus side, they did find fossils from a mammoth, and they did complete the project.

So next time Bertha experiences a few delays, remember, she has a long way to go to break any record for most enduring Seattle project.

Material for for this story comes out of research I have done for my new book on Seattle – Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography.