King County Superior Court approves condemnation of land along a proposed route of Lake Washington Ship Canal (later the route of State Route 520) on November 25, 1898.

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 12/30/2012
  • Essay 10186
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On November 25, 1898, King County Superior Court approves the condemnation of land along the proposed route of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in Seattle. The court is acting on a petition from the King County Board of County Commissioners, which was created to meet a requirement laid out by the federal government. An act passed by Congress in 1894 authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to begin planning to build a ship canal between Lake Washington and Puget Sound, once the land was secured. This is not the first, nor will it be the last right-of-way reserved for a canal, which will open in 1917, to the north of the 1898 route. During the 1960s, the highway that becomes State Route 520 will be built over land obtained in the 1898 condemnation.

Difficult Routes

When American settlers arrived in Seattle in the 1850s, there were two ways around the hills between Elliott Bay, where ships could load cargo, and Lake Washington. The lands surrounding Lake Washington offered a wealth of resources such as coal and seemingly endless forests full of timber. One route followed the Duwamish and Black rivers, located south of downtown, to the lake. The other passed through Lake Union just north of downtown and over the Montlake Portage across an isthmus between today's University District and Capitol Hill. Both routes had long been used by Indians, who relied heavily on water routes to travel in part due to the many hills and thick forests covering much of the land.

Both routes posed difficulties for settlers who wanted to carry large amounts of cargo to Elliott Bay. Indians from around the region had also regularly moved resources between the mountains and the sound for trade, but in smaller amounts that could be managed on the rivers or carried over the portage. The rivers posed difficulties for moving tons of coal or log booms (the first resources brought to market) because of ever-changing channels, tidal influence on river depth, and shallow water at the mouth of the Duwamish River in Elliott Bay. The portage, although short, still required extensive, costly cargo handling to transfer freight between the lakes.

Digging Ditches 

Early efforts to develop transportation systems focused on the rivers, but the portage also drew attention. Sometime in the 1860s, Harvey Pike (1841-1897) began digging a canal, with a shovel and pick, on land he owned on there. The enormous difficulty of the task stymied his efforts, but he did not give up on the idea. In 1869, when he filed a plat for Union City on the portage, he reserved a swath of land for a canal reserve. It ran between the two lakes, in an arc just south of the current route of SR 520. In 1871 Pike, along with J. R. Robbins, J. H. Fairchild, O. Humason, and James McNaught (1852-1919) incorporated the Lake Washington Canal Company to build a ditch to allow logs to pass through. Pike and his wife Mary sold to the company the entire reserved canal tract from the plat, which became known as Pike's Canal Reserve, and some land north of it.

In 1883 David T. Denny (1832-1903), J. W. George, Corliss P. Stone (1838-1906), Thomas Burke (1849-1925), Frederick H. Whitworth (1846-1933), H. B. Bagley, Benjamin F. Day (1837-1904), Erasmus M. Smithers (1830-1905), G. M. Bowman, Guy C. Phinney (1851-1893), John W. Van Brocklin (d. 1940), and William H. Llewellyn organized the Lake Washington Improvement Company. The firm hired Chinese immigrant laborers through the Wa Chong Company, a labor contractor, to dig a ditch wide enough to allow logs to pass between the lakes. The ditch took advantage of the natural drop in elevation between the lakes to pull the water, and the logs, through it. A set of locks controlled the water flow. This ditch was located north of Pike's Canal Reserve from the Union City plat, about where SR 520 is today.

Government Canal Reserve

In 1894 the federal government again considered building a canal between Puget Sound and Lake Washington, as it had several times since the 1860s. The Army Corps of Engineers decided it would move forward with plans if a right-of-way was secured by local interests. The Board of County Commissioners passed a resolution authorizing the King County Prosecuting Attorney to acquire the right-of-way. The condemnation proceedings concluded, for the most part, in 1898. In them, the county acquired a tract of land encompassing the Lake Washington Improvement Company ditch across the Montlake isthmus. It also obtained a strip of land surrounding a similar ditch that the company had dug between Salmon Bay and Lake Union. The county transferred all the land to the federal government for canal use.

Further studies and delays followed over the next decade. In 1907 the route of the canal was shifted north to the north margin of the portage, just south of the University of Washington campus. The state owned this land and the state legislature ceded it to the federal government. The northern route offered a straighter, shorter route that was better aligned with the canal between Lake Union and Salmon Bay.

The federal government decided to retain the 1898 canal reserve "for the use of the Government in the accommodation of whatever floating plant it may have in connection with the canal" (Puget Sound-Lake Washington Waterway, 7). The land was not needed, but was retained nonetheless. In 1908 a portion of the eastern side of the reserve was used by the City of Seattle to build the University Extension (later Lake Washington Boulevard and Montlake Boulevard) to connect Washington Park with the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition grounds at the University of Washington.

In 1925, the federal government leased the remainder of the canal reserve east of Montlake Boulevard to the City of Seattle for park use, as an extension of Washington Park. In 1949, the federal government deeded that land to King County, which then deeded it to the city. The city continued to use it for park purposes and set aside a tract for the Seattle Historical Society, which built the Museum of History & Industry on it.

In 1930, the federal Bureau of Fisheries gained control of the land in the government canal reserve on the west side of Montlake Boulevard and used some of it for a laboratory. The laboratory complex grew over the years and is now part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

State Highway

When, in the early 1960s, the state Department of Highways needed a right-of-way for a new state highway to connect with the planned Evergreen Point Floating Bridge across Lake Washington, it looked to the relatively undeveloped land of the former government canal reserve. The City of Seattle granted the state a permanent easement over the property, retaining slivers of it for park land on the north and south sides of the highway. McCurdy Park and the Museum of History & Industry were encroached upon on the north side of the right-of-way, as was Lake Washington Boulevard to its south.

When the new highway, the Evergreen Point Branch of Primary State Highway 1 (later SR 520), opened in 1963, it entered the portage area from its southwest corner, taking advantage of an undeveloped tract of the former Pike's Canal Reserve to avoid the Bureau of Fisheries buildings, then headed north slightly to align itself with the former government canal right-of-way for the remainder of the route across the isthmus.


Clarence Bagley, History of Seattle from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, Vol. 1 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1916), 378-393; Neil H. Purvis, "History of the Lake Washington Canal," Washington Historical Quarterly, April 1934, pp. 114-127, and July 1934, pp. 210-213; Puget Sound-Lake Washington Waterway, Washington (Committee on Rivers and Harbors, House of Representatives, U.S. Congress, Document No. 953, 60 Cong., 1 sess., May 20, 1908); 1907 Wash. Laws, Ch. 216; Annual Report of the Chief of Engineers (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1898), 518; The County of King v. the State of Washington et al, November 26, 1898, King County Recorder Judgments, Vol. 232, p. 511, King County Archives, Seattle, Washington; H. L. Pike to Lake Washington Canal Company, January 10, 1871, deed, Vol. 4, p. 348, King County Recorder Deeds, King County Archives, Seattle, Washington; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center" (by Jim Kershner) and "Lake Washington Ship Canal (Seattle)" (by David B. Williams) , (accessed March 4, 2017); Union City Addition, Property Abstract Records, Department of Planning and Development, Seattle, Washington; Union City Addition Plat, July 10, 1869, Instrument No. 187503160039, King County Recorder's Office, Seattle, Washington; "Washington Park Arboretum Historic Review, September 2003," University of Washington Botanic Gardens website accessed September 19, 2012 (, 37, 93.
Note: This essay was revised slightly on March 4, 2017.

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