Harvey Pike starts to dig a canal connecting Seattle's Union and Portage bays in the 1860s.

  • By David B. Williams
  • Posted 2/06/2017
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3404
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Sometime in the 1860s, Harvey L. Pike (ca. 1842-1897) begins work on cutting a channel between Union Bay on Lake Washington and Portage Bay on Lake Union. Pike does not progress very far and soon abandons his work but not the idea of canal. In 1869, Pike will file a plat of the isthmus between the two lakes, on which he will include space for a 200-foot-wide canal connecting the lakes. Like his earlier attempted connection, this is little more than a dream as Pike will do no work on what he calls the Union Canal. However, Pike's goal will ultimately be realized. The Montlake Cut -- one segment of Seattle's Lake Washington Ship Canal linking the freshwater lake to the saltwater of Puget Sound -- will be dug across the isthmus near where Pike started digging half a century earlier.

Link via Lake Union

Look at a map of the Seattle landscape and a geographic quirk leaps out -- the link via Lake Union between the saltwater of Puget Sound and the freshwater of Lake Washington. Although we don't have specific archaeological evidence to prove it, geography and the dense forest that grew around the lakes and the Sound makes it logical to assume that the Native inhabitants of the region must have traveled by boat and portage between the two larger bodies of water via the smaller lake located midway between them (and conveniently near the center of what much later would become the city of Seattle). If so, then the corridor has been in use for at least 12,000 years, which is the date for the Bear Creek archaeological site in Redmond, the oldest dated site of human habitation so far located in the Seattle area.

Thomas Mercer (1813-1898) was the first non-Native settler to recognize the potential of this route. At a Fourth of July picnic in 1854 at his property on the lakeshore, he suggested the name "Union" for the lake where he and his fellow Seattleites stood, a short distance north of their new settlement on the saltwater harbor of Elliott Bay. The lake had previously been known in Chinook, the local trade jargon, as tenas chuck, or "little waters." Mercer's reasoning was simple as he noted the possibility "of this little body of water sometime providing a connecting link uniting the larger lake and Puget Sound" (Bagley, 371). He also proposed bestowing the name "Washington" on that larger lake, which was then known as Lake Geneva, Lake Duwamish, or hyas chuck, Chinook jargon for "big waters." Several weeks later, at a more formal gathering, the little town's citizens officially voted to bestow the new names.

Harvey Lake Pike

A decade or less later, 19-year-old Harvey Lake Pike was the first to take up Mercer's idea. He was born in New York but eventually ended up in Princeton, Illinois, where in 1852 his father, John Henry Pike (1815-1903), joined a westbound wagon train that also included Thomas Mercer and two other notable early Seattle pioneers, Dexter Horton (1825-1904) and Daniel Bagley (1818-1905). The Pike family spent several years in Oregon before arriving in Seattle in 1858, initially settling near where the Smith Tower was later built. The family subsequently moved north and lived on the street that now honors them with the name Pike Street. John worked as a carpenter at the University of Washington and Harvey was a painter, also for the university.

In June 1861, Harvey Pike bartered $242.75 of manual labor clearing land for 161.83 acres between the two lakes. The transaction was negotiated by Daniel Bagley, president of the university's board of commissioners. Pike probably knew of the land because of his connection to the university which, although then located downtown, owned the property. After Washington became a territory in 1853, property had been set aside for a university, and its board of commissioners was selling parcels to generate money for the nascent school.

Sometime after acquiring his land, Pike began to cut a channel using a pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow. When exactly Pike commenced his quixotic endeavor is unknown. Early Seattle historian Clarence Bagley (1843-1932), who knew Pike and had been on the wagon train west with his father, wrote that Pike began digging his canal in 1860. He provides no evidence and it does not necessarily make sense for Pike to begin work on the project a year before he obtained ownership where he was digging. Perhaps he did but we have no direct primary source to substantiate Bagley's claim, which was first published in 1916.

Nor do we know what motivated Pike, but one possibility is an article in the March 1, 1864, Seattle Gazette. The article described the coal beds on the east side of Lake Washington and noted the challenges of obtaining and shipping the coal to Elliott Bay. Its unknown author proposed that the best route would be a short canal between Lake Union and Lake Washington. "The water in Washington Lake is said to be several feet higher than in Lake Union and it is contended that a mere ditch through which to turn the water is all that is required, and the canal will make itself" ("The Coal Region ...").

Pike did not get very far with his tools. Or did he? An account written by James M. Clapp, Assistant Engineer in the Army Corps of Engineers, asserted that Pike in fact connected the two lakes with a six-foot-wide, shallow ditch. "It could not be learned that any work was constructed or even designed for the control of the flow of water through it, and the ditch took more the form of a small creek, the amount of water flowing through it depending on the level of the water surface of Lake Washington" (Clapp, 2-3). But Clapp's document was not written until 1903. No other account describes Pike's work as anything more than a minimal effort. One of the challenges of the early history of the Lake Washington Ship Canal is that few contemporary documents exist.

Ambitious Ideas

No matter how much land Pike did, or didn't, excavate, he clearly had ambitious ideas. On June 24, 1869, he filed the Plat of Union City on land where the Montlake neighborhood is now crossed by State Route 520. Pike reserved space on the plat plan for a 200-foot-wide canal running between Lake Washington and Lake Union, which bent to the north in order to connect the closest shorelines. Pike's Union City plat also included 147 lots, the first of which he sold to his mother, for $50. Over the next two years, he laid out additions to the north and south of Union City and continued to sell pieces of property. The plat for Pike's First Addition to Union City was filed on December 6, 1870, and was to the north of the original plat. On January 11, 1871, he filed for a second addition, which abutted the first plat's southern edge.

Pike also helped form the Lake Washington Canal Company (often listed incorrectly as the Lake Washington Canal Association, a different entity that incorporated in 1907) on January 6, 1871, which had stated the goal of building a "Canal from Lake Washington in King County, Washington Territory to Lake Union and from Lake Union to Puget Sound" (Articles of Incorporation). Pike's fellow investors were James McNaught (1852-1919), a Seattle lawyer and entrepreneur; James R. Robbins, a Seattle businessman; and two men from the area around The Dalles, Oregon -- John H. Fairchild and Orlando Humason (1827-1875). Four days later, on January 10, Pike sold several pieces of property to the LWCC and Robbins and McNaught for $1,500. The company, however, never started any work on the canal and eventually dissolved.

Pike appears to have abandoned his plans for a canal. In 1875, an article in the Puget Sound Dispatch reported that he had invented a hay press, followed the next year by a report in The Northern Star of a working model of an improved davit for lowering boats. But he may not have totally given up his dream of better water-based transportation, for in 1882 he filed a patent for a hydraulic dredger "for dredging bars and shallow places in harbors, rivers, and other places" (Patent 263,429). Pike eventually returned to his old line of business and worked as a painter. He died in Seattle in 1897 at Providence Hospital.

Pike's dream of a canal connecting freshwater and saltwater was finally realized two decades later. The Lake Washington Ship Canal and Government Locks opened to boat traffic in 1916, and a grand-opening dedication ceremony was held on July 4, 1917.


Clarence Bagley, History of Seattle from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1916), 371; Lucile McDonald, "Pike Family Left Its Name in Seattle," The Seattle Times, August 5, 1979, magazine p. 7; Eugene Smith, Montlake: An Urban Eden (La Grande, Oregon: Oak Street Press, 2004), 11-17; J. M. Clapp to Major John Millis, November 23, 1903, Lake Washington (598), 3-5, 1903, Box 16, Letters and Reports Received Relating to Specific River and Harbor Improvements, 1892-1906, SEA-17, Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, Records Group 77, National Archives, Seattle, Washington; "The Coal Region and Its Approaches," Seattle Gazette, March 1, 1864, p. 2; Lake Washington Canal Company Articles of Incorporation, January 6, 1871, Reel 1, Series 75, County Auditor Corporation Filings, King County Archives, Seattle, Washington; "Hay Press," Puget Sound Dispatch, August 19, 1875, p. 3; The Northern Star, January 22, 1876, p. 3; H. L. Pike and A. W. Ferguson, "Hydraulic Dredger," U.S. Patent 263,429, August 29, 1882, copy available at Google website accessed February 6, 2017 (https://www.google.com/patents/US263429); "Harvey Pike: Death of a Seattle Pioneer from Whom a Prominent City Street Takes Its Name," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 24, 1897, p. 2; David B. Williams, Jennifer Ott, and the Staff of HistoryLink, Waterway: The Story of Seattle's Locks and Ship Canal (Seattle: HistoryLink, 2017).
Note: This essay replaces an earlier essay on the same subject.

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