Turning Point 11: Borne on the 4th of July: The Saga of the Lake Washington Ship Canal

  • By Walt Crowley and the HistoryLink.org Staff
  • Posted 7/03/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9311
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The 11th essay in HistoryLink's Turning Points series for The Seattle Times reviews the numerous local historical events that occurred on the Fourth of July, including Henry Yesler's fraudulent lottery in 1876; the reburial of Chief Leschi in 1895; William Boeing's first airplane flight* and the dedication of the Smith Tower, both on July 4, 1914; Japanese American William Kenzo Nakamura's heroic battlefield death in 1944; the first photo taken of a flying saucer in 1947; and Ivar Haglund's first fireworks display in 1966. The article focuses on the development of the Lake Washington Ship Canal from the first proposal made by Thomas Mercer on July 4, 1854, through the opening of the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in 1917, to the waterway's completion in 1934. The essay was published on July 3, 2001. [*Since publication of this article, HistoryLink has confirmed with the aid of site visitor Jules James and Boeing archivist Mike Lombardi that W. E. Boeing actually took his first airplane flight on July 4, 1915.]

In addition to its national significance, the 4th of July marks many milestones in Seattle area history.

Pioneer businessman Henry Yesler offered his famed saw mill as the prize in a lottery on that date in 1876 (and then reneged), and Chief Leschi, unjustly hung in 1858, was reburied on the Nisqually Reservation on the Fourth in 1895. William Boeing took his first airplane ride,* from Lake Washington, on July 4, 1914, while in Pioneer Square, the Smith Tower -- "tallest building west of the Mississippi" -- opened its doors for the first time. [*Since publication of this article, HistoryLink has confirmed with the aid of site visitor Jules James and Boeing archivist Mike Lombardi that W. E. Boeing actually took his first airplane flight one year later, on July 4, 1915.]

On July 4, 1944, Seattle native William Kenzo Nakamura, sacrificed his life on an Italian battlefield to save his comrades. It took another 56 years for the nation to award him and 21 other Japanese American heroes of World War II the Medal of Honor.

After weeks of sightings of strange things in the sky during the summer of 1947, a Lake City resident took the world's first photo of a purported "flying saucer," on July 4. And in 1966, Ivar Haglund began exploding spectacular, but identifiable, flying objects over Elliott Bay.

But of all the local firsts on the Fourth, none had more enduring impact on the region than the long genesis of the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

A Great Notion to Link to the Ocean

It began in 1854 when Seattle's few hundred settlers gathered on the south shore of Lake union for the town's first recorded the Fourth of July picnic. According to historian Clarence Bagley, pioneer Thomas Mercer chose this occasion to a make stirring and prophetic speech.

First, he proposed that new names be given to the area's lakes, beginning with the largest. This was then known to natives and settlers alike as hyas Chuck. A few also referred to it as Lake Geneva or D'wamish. Moved no doubt by the patriotic symbolism of the occasion, Mercer proposed that it be renamed Lake Washington to honor the father of the republic.

As to the immediate body of water, then called tenas Chuck, Mercer had a more inspired suggestion. It should be christened Lake Union, he declared, because it was only a matter of time before a canal would connect it with Lake Washington on the east and with Salmon bay on the west, creating a navigable passage between fresh and salt waters unequaled in the world.

Achieving Mercer's vision not as easy as it sounded. Lake Washington was blocked by a natural dam at Montlake, later partially breached for a log canal to supply mills along Lake Union. On the west, a shallow stream flowed from Lake Union to Salmon Bay. Opening this would require significant dredging and a system of locks to help boats rise and descend the 30 vertical feet separating the higher Lake Washington from sea level.

The U.S. Navy was eager to establish a freshwater shipyard for a future Pacific Fleet and endorsed the idea of a Lake Washington canal as early as 1867, but it did not specify where or how it should be built. Mercer's route was not the only contender: alternatives included dredging the Black River slough which was then the lake's only outlet via the Duwamish, an Interbay canal from Smith's Cove to Salmon Bay and Lake Union, and a canal through Beacon Hill.

Former Territorial Governor Eugene Semple actually started work on this last passage in 1895, but politics and finances (not to mention geology) halted the project nine years later. Till from the dig was used to help create Harbor Island and fill in the tide flats that once stretched south of Pioneer Square.

A Man, a Plan, a Canal...

The Lake Union route had both powerful friends and enemies. Its foremost allies were Great Northern Railway magnate James J. Hill and his local agent, Judge Thomas Burke. The Great Northern entered Seattle from the north, and development of the canal would greatly enhance the value of its local land holdings. Ballard lumber and shingle mill owners opposed the plan because they feared that they would lose use of what had become their private log pond.

After decades of false starts and infighting (sound familiar?), the Navy despaired and located its Puget Sound base at Bremerton. The fact that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers endorsed the Lake Union route in 1891, and the State Legislature concurred in 1900 (two years after Thomas Mercer's death) didn't expedite matters. Developer James Moore tried to dig a Salmon Bay channel with private funds but soon gave up.

Finally in 1906, a new Corps district commander Hiram M. Chittenden took charge. He outlined an improved canal design with a pair of concrete locks at the throat of Salmon Bay, and no lock at Montlake, which thereby lowered Lake Washington by 9 feet to equalize it with Lake Union.

Chittenden's plan both scuttled and buoyed various suburban maritime ambitions. The lake's drop dried up the Black River and doomed Columbia City's ambition to become a Southeast Seattle seaport via Lake Washington's Wetmore Slough, but it also made possible future shipyards in Kirkland and a whaling boat station on Meydenbauer Bay. Seattle would gain the most, of course, with the opening of miles of previously landlocked waterfront to marine commerce.

Although he retired after only two years, Chittenden lobbied to secure $2, 275,000 from Congress in 1910. Work began the following year, the Montlake Cut was opened in 1916, and the locks were completed a year later along with new bascule bridges at Ballard and Fremont.

On July 4, 1917, polar explorer Admiral Peary's flagship, the Roosevelt, led a ceremonial flotilla through the new Government Locks at Salmon Bay. Chittenden, who helped to establish the Port of Seattle in 1911 and served as its first director, died soon after, but the job was not yet done.

King County directed completion of most of the rest of the waterway, while Seattle built new bridges to link the University District and Eastlake in 1919 (later expanded) and then to span the Montlake Cut in 1925. Dredging and shoreline improvements continued for nearly another decade.

The Lake Washington Ship Canal was finally declared finished in 1934 -- a mere 80 years after Thomas Mercer's Independence Day address on the south shore of Lake Union.

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