On March 9, 1882, Lake Union Lumber and Manufacturing is incorporated. The company owns the first sawmill in Seattle that is not located on Elliott Bay and marks the beginning of the shift northward of industry that will eventually encircle the lake. At first the company mills logs from the forests surrounding Lake Union. After 1885, when the Lake Washington Canal Company digs a log canal across the Montlake Portage, a swath of land that separates Lake Union from Lake Washington, the mill, then known as the Western Mill Company, will process logs floated in from forests around Lake Washington and Lake Sammamish. Other mills along the shores of Lake Union and Salmon Bay, connected by another log canal to Lake Union, will cut lumber, doors, sashes, shingles, and other wood products. In 1916, the Lake Washington Ship Canal will replace the log canal with canals cut through the Montlake Portage (now called Montlake Cut) and between Lake Union and Salmon Bay. The Lake Washington Ship Canal can accommodate log booms and ships, and it will serve the lumber mills on the lake and bay into the 1950s.
Moving Logs and Coal
Natural resources, coal, lumber, and fish in particular, drove early Seattle's economy. Local demand in the rapidly growing logging, mining, and farming communities and outside markets, particularly San Francisco, led to rapid construction of sawmills and fish processing operations on Puget Sound's bays. In the early years, the lack of an adequate transportation network hindered development of the coal mines and logging operations in the Cascade foothills because no roads or railroads connected the interior with Puget Sound, the rivers draining Lake Washington were ill-suited for moving large loads of coal or log booms because their navigable channels changed often due to changes in river flow and tidal influences, an extensive estuary at the river mouth in Elliott Bay posed navigation challenges, and the Duwamish River's meandering route lengthened the distance traveled between the lake and the sound and made it difficult to maneuver log booms and barges.
Henry Yesler (1810-1892) opened the first sawmill in Seattle in 1853. It was perched over the tidelands because steep hills rose from much of Elliott Bay's shoreline, making it difficult to find enough level land for mill operations adjacent to the deep water where ships could load the lumber destined for markets in San Francisco. Over the next two decades about 10 mills would be built along the town's Elliott Bay waterfront. They took advantage of the bay for transporting logs to the mills and for holding them until they could be cut into lumber.
According to Seattle historian Clarence Bagley, Lake Union Lumber and Manufacturing, owned by Luther M. Roberts, Thomas Hood, Nicholas Davidson, and Isaac A. Palmer, opened the first sawmill in Seattle not located on Elliott Bay. The mill was located at the southern end of Lake Union, just south of today's intersection of Westlake Avenue and Valley Street. This was the old shoreline, before it was expanded to its current location with sawmill debris and other fill.
The mill would have several owners and several names over the next couple of decades, including Western Mill Company, part-owned by city founder David Denny (1832-1903), and Brace & Hergert Mill Company. It milled logs from around the lake that could be rolled into the water and floated to the mill's dock.
In 1883, Denny, who then owned and operated the Western Mill Company, along with 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, formed the Lake Washington Improvement Company. All the company's owners owned land along Lake Union and wanted to develop it. They decided to dig a canal between Salmon Bay and Lake Union and another between Lake Union and Lake Washington. The canals were wide enough to allow logs and small boats to travel between the lakes. A set of locks controlled the flow of water between the lakes, which moved swiftly enough to carry logs through the portage because Lake Union lay about nine feet lower than Lake Washington.
Lake Washington Ship Canal
After the 1889 fire destroyed a large swath of downtown Seattle, including many of the sawmills that operated on the waterfront, most of the mills relocated to Salmon Bay, in what would soon become Ballard. Salmon Bay offered access to saltwater (before construction of the Chittenden Locks, it was a saltwater inlet of Puget Sound) and access to the lakes, via the Lake Washington Improvement Company canal. The location also offered more room to operate and grow.
Between 1901 and 1916, the federal government widened the small canals built by the Lake Washington Improvement Company and added a double lock at the mouth of Salmon Bay. The new ship canal was wide enough to allow large ships and log booms to pass through, greatly increasing its utility. For decades, mill companies would benefit from the ship canal.
By the end of World War II, most of the sawmill operations were gone; economic difficulties after World War I and during the Great Depression had led to many mill closures, followed by a shift to military operations and shipbuilding along the lakeshore during World War II. In the post-war era, a general shift away from large industry led to further shuttering of the few remaining mills. The last plywood mill closed in the mid-1980s.