Hydroplane racing on Green Lake commences on July 20, 1929.

  • By Louis Fiset, Green Lake Park Alliance
  • Posted 1/01/1999
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2678
See Additional Media

On July 20, 1929, at a time when water sports are becoming the fastest growing sport in the country, the hydroplane craze hits Green Lake. For the next half century, hydroplanes hurl their roostertails around the lake. But crowds and noise became disturbing to neighbors, and throughout the 1960s and 1970s, protests mount. In 1984, community complaints and a suspicion by many that noise led to the death of a snow leopard cub tips the scales against the races, and that year the Board of Park Commissioners bans them.

The Birth of the Races

On July 16, 1929, George Hill, president of the Green Lake Commercial Club, sought permission from the Park Board to erect bleachers on the northeast side of the Lake, near the new Field house, for the thousand people expected to attend the upcoming Northwest speed boat races on July 20th and 21st.

The success of that event drew the attention of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, which spearheaded an annual Water Festival Week as a way of drawing national attention and tourist dollars. Aided by an emergency appropriation of $2,000 from the City Council, amateur and professional drivers hurled their hydroplanes and outboard runabouts around a circular, one mile course in front of thousands who lined the Lake shore. The 1931 Seattle Speed Boat Regatta established boat racing on Green Lake for the next half century.

Two years later Green Lake hosted the Pacific Coast Championship Regatta before 45,000 enthusiasts who witnessed hydroplane and outboard runabout speeds exceeding 45 miles per hour. The lake's setting proved ideal because of its small size and relatively placid waters.

But enthusiasm was not universal. Area residents began to grumble about the nerve wracking noise reaching their front doors, and a few complained to the Park Board. As the demand for Green Lake as a race course increased, opposition grew. In 1938, the Associated Clubs of the North End urged the Seattle Park Board to deny outboard racing on Green Lake because it was not in the best interests of the district and stirred up the algae in the Lake.

The Lake Washington Races

But the mania continued throughout the next three decades, increasing in intensity as breathtaking speed records continued to be set. It was helped by the growing presence in the 1950s of unlimited class hydroplanes on Lake Washington. There, drivers from Seattle and Detroit vied for the coveted Gold Cup while piloting boats with unforgettable names like Slo Mo IV, Gale V, and Miss Bardahl.

In 1962, more than 300 boats competed in the ongoing annual Seafair outboard and inboard regatta. The size of this three day event, combined with an increasing frequency of smaller racing events throughout the year, slowly intensified the upset in the surrounding neighborhood. Complaints reaching the Park Board were finally enough for it to rule in 1963 that only races associated with Seafair should be permitted to continue. But the Board departed from its new policy the very next year, allowing the Seattle Inboard Racing Association to run a Memorial Day race.

Green Lake and Wallingford area residents continued to fume, but did not organize their opposition to racing until the mid-1970s. In 1976 the Green Lake Community Council surveyed 1,000 homes, finding 73 percent of the residents to favor modifications to the racing program or elimination of it, altogether. Area residents complained about noise, parking and traffic jams, and closure of the Lake to swimming and other activities during the races. In February 1976, the Board issued a report that recommended limiting the number of regattas to three non-consecutive weekend days a year, and that racing be prohibited throughout the summer. This compromise to accommodate racing while protecting the privacy and peace of residents around the lake kept the two sides satisfied until 1984 when a death at the Woodland Park zoo galvanized public opinion and led to the end of power boat racing on the Lake.

The Death of a Leopard

On May 23, 1984, Sasha, a five year old snow leopard, gave birth to two cubs. After four days of constant attention to her offspring, she stopped attending the cubs with the first hydroplane race of the Memorial Day weekend. Leaving the den box and frequently looking toward the source of the noise, she never returned to the cubs. One of the cubs died two weeks later.

In response to a public outcry, the Park Board held an open hearing on August 4, 1984, at which the zoo veterinarian, Jim Foster, appeared. He tesifed that a necropsy had established that the cub was premature, undeveloped, and had a bacterial infection. This led him to conclude that hydroplane noise was not a determining factor in its death. Nonetheless, many opponents of the races continued to insist that there was a connection between the races and that sad event.

Petition and letters were submitted, and other oral testimony was heard. At its August 16th meeting Board members instructed the park department staff to come up with options within the next three to four months to relocate the races. Members agreed that hydroplane racing was no longer compatible with the usual activities at Green Lake.

The emotional impact on city residents of the snow leopard cub's demise, even in the face of Dr. Foster's testimony, was the death knell for hydroplane racing at Green Lake. On November 15, 1984, the Park Board voted 5-2 to recommend a permanent ban. Park Superintendent Walter Hundley followed the Boards recommendation, but softened the blow by asking it to review the ban in three years.

Hydroplane racing has not returned to the Lake. Enthusiasm for the sport appears to have waned after a half century, and sponsors have moved their regattas to other venues. Nevertheless, today's bucolic environment on Green Lake still gives way to regatta loving fans. People come to enjoy rowers power their canoes, shells, and whimsical boats made out of milk cartons. Only semi-annual Lake Sammamish Ski Club water ski competitions, using boats with well muffled inboard engines provide an occasional reminder of the power boat mania that once existed at Green Lake.


The Seattle Times, August 16, 1931; Ibid., September 25, 1933; Ibid., August 22, 23, 24, 1959; Ibid., September 28, 29, 30, 1962; Ibid., March 22, 1964; Ibid., February 20, 1976; Seattle Post Intelligencer, June 12, 20, 1984; Ibid., August 3, 17, 18, 1984; Ibid., November 16, 22, 1984; Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation, "Board of Park Commissioners Minutes" (5800-01, 9365-01), City of Seattle Municipal Archives; Don Sherwood files (5801-01), City of Seattle Municipal Archives.
Note: This essay was supplemented on July 20, 2017, to include the opinion of Woodland Park's veterinarian regarding the cause of death of the snow leopard cub.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You