Preserving the History of the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Seattle, Washington

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Christmas Ships through the Locks Tomorrow

Check out the annual trip of the Christmas ships through the Ballard Locks tomorrow, 12/15/2010 around 8:10 PM, swinging around to Golden Gardens just after 9pm. Christmas Ships to Sail Around Ballard

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Locks Then and Now

One participant from this years classic auto exhibit.
This summer I had the opportunity to bring some vacationing relatives around Seattle and showing off the city. One stop for virtually every visitor is the Ballard Locks and if it happens to be summertime you're likely to get the most from the experience. The Carl English Botanical Gardens will have the majority of its plants in bloom, there will be weekend concerts, classic cars exhibits, and even an occasional play free to the public and of course the juvenile salmon make their transition from their fresh water habitat journey out to sea, while the "grownups" are returning to start the next generation or provide a tasty meal for any of several species who look forward to this time of year.

Arguably, the greatest attraction is in fact the primary purpose of the facility, which is to assist boats to go from the inland waterways out to the Sound (and locations beyond) and vice versa. Being summertime there will be the usual assortment of working boats such as fishing vessels, barges, tugs and research vessels and a wide variety of pleasure boats as well. From canoes and kayaks on the humbler end, to yachts befitting the "Gotrocks" of the world, you're bound to see a non-stop parade of boats locking through.

For those of us who have lived in Seattle a while and who have made many trips to the locks it is difficult to imagine the facility not being there and to bring guests for a visit does reawaken an appreciation for what it really is. There is however, at least one person who remembers quite vividly the days before the locks were built. Her name is Rosetta Cleary, born 1904, and she has been a Ballard resident since the early 1900's! Her father was a carpenter with the U.S. Corps of Engineers and was working at Fort Warden when he was offered a position here in Seattle to work as a carpenter in the construction of the locks which took place between 1911 and 1916.

Here's how Rosetta remembered it in an interview I had with her:
The lock in mid construction. Circa a long time ago.

Tom: And, so he moved over here, do you remember when that was, it was before the locks, were they still working on them?

Rosetta: "No they hadn't started them, that's how we came to Ballard. Papa was in charge down in Port Townsend. And then they transferred daddy up here to work on the locks. And he worked from the very beginning when it was just a hole but he was in the carpenters shop. He didn't have to push and carry and roll those big old wheelbarrows. They were terribly heavy, because you know cement, when it mixed is very heavy and so they had to have very heavy things to carry it in so on top of the heavy lift that they had, they had to push these great big, heavy wheelbarrows. It was like a parade the way they had to work. They all worked in a row and there was a certain number of them I can't remember how many it was that was regular form they had for the wheelers. And when they wanted a drink of water they couldn't even go for it. They had to stand alongside of the wheelbarrow and they had water boys and when they wanted a drink the men held up their hands and stood by the wheelbarrow. They never left that wheelbarrow and got their drink. And then they would go on their way. But they could not leave the wheelbarrow".

During the interview she referred to the arduous nature of the work she would see when would go down to the site to watch the progress of the construction. Her dad was in charge of the carpentry shop as she mentioned and two of her brothers also worked briefly as "water boys".

Construction crew working with concrete.

Rosetta: "There was quite a number of them working there and there was a lot wheeling the wheelbarrows because it took two to wheel those wheelbarrows. They were so very heavy."

Construction crew at locks.

Notice all the hand tools in use. The safety hats seem to be either felt fedoras or tweed caps commonly seen in old movies worn by newsboys and which, at best, could only provide some small bit of protection from an errantly thrown newspaper!

Later in the interview she discussed watching the boats from the walls alongside the locks.

Rosetta: "And we had railings and only one handrailing across them and you weren't encased and you had to go across with one railing. Oh I didn't like that either. (laughing) I don't know why they were so expensive that they couldn't afford to put them up. There must have been a reason why. They would line up along the brink of the bridge and they never had a fence or anything there. You just stood right at the edge. Now they've got it all fenced off, you know. I used to be nervous when I would stand there to see the boats go through because there was nothing to protect you".

View from canoe in small lock. Notice the single railing.
Perhaps because of their familiarity with the locks and the frequency of their visits during its construction the family did not attend the opening ceremonies when the locks were officially dedicated on July 4, 1917. We will have to content ourselves with the descriptions preserved in the local papers of the day but it would be well worth anyone's time to read the accounts preserved on microfilm.

All photos by permission of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers except the "View from canoe in small lock" which is courtesy of Pat Carlton. 

Friday, September 3, 2010

Last Free Concert at the Locks This Summer

We are nearing the end of the 21st year of free summer concerts at the Chittenden Locks!

Beginning in June and continuing through Labor Day, the concerts attracted thousands of listeners to the Locks to hear a wide variety of music- jazz to gospel, salsa to bagpipes-- along with flower shows and an antique car exhibit. Bicyclists stop to listen, couples dance on the grass, kids clap hands; everyone enjoys the music in the beautiful setting of the gardens.

Catch the last concert of the season tomorrow at the Locks!

Folding chairs are available at 1:30 p.m. (first come/first served basis) and the music begins at 2:00 p.m.

Monday, Labor Day, September 6 - Michael Clune/Sleep Til Noon Band

Come and enjoy!

Some great pics from other summer highlights, including the fuchsias and cars:

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

It's Silver Time!

Coho salmon are commonly called silvers because of their shiny appearance. The coho run usually starts in mid-August and will peak around the second week of September, it is the last of the 3 salmon species to use the Lake Washington Ship Canal fish ladder.

Adult coho average 6 to 12 pounds and are identified by the fine spots on their back and upper tail lobe. If you have difficulty telling a coho from a Chinook, look at their mouth--the coho will have pale color flesh along their gum line while the Chinook will have dark color flesh at the base of their teeth (hence, young Chinook are sometimes called ‘blackmouths.’)

Coho return to spawn in their natal stream when they are about 3 years old, like all salmon species, the males develop the very distinctive hooked upper jaw (called a kype) and teeth in order to fight for dominance in the spawning beds. Some of the coho run will be returning to the hatchery in Issaquah, others will spawn in the local creeks where they were hatched.

Coho are found along the Pacific coast from San Francisco to Alaska.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bebb & Gould Plaque

Excerpted from the Friends of the Ballard Locks website. For full article, see: Administration Building Plaque: Bebb & Gould & Molten Metal.  

Recently, we discovered some background information about the artist who sculpted the original artwork for this plaque. We'll include that here at the beginning of the original article posted back in 2010.

Gary Westwood

A self-trained visual artist, Gary Westwood had a hand in many iconic images of the 1980s, including the Puyallup Fair mascot (a wearable pig’s head made of latex), a panda head and boots for the Kent Police Department’s mascot, a wax caricature of famed sportscaster Wayne Cody for the promotional “Watch Wayne Disappear” diet campaign, and the crab legs worn by singing waiters in a commercial for the Sea Galley restaurant (available on YouTube!).

Westwood’s work on the plaque was more solemn. His daughter, Tisha ValWes, recalls that the two of them visited the raptor exhibit at Woodland Park Zoo to photograph and sketch the eagles resulting in the majestic bird that spreads its wings at the top of the tablet. Westwood also created most of the other elements of the plaque, sculpting them in clay before the images were cast in bronze.

... the following was the original post from 2010 ...

Although originally designed by Bebb & Gould in their plan for the locks buildings and grounds, it was not until 1985 that the Plaque on the East side of the Administration Building was completed. You may have visited the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks many times and observed the plaque, but not know its story. The plaque shown above is attached to the east side exterior wall of the administration building. Although work on the original ship canal buildings and grounds, designed by the firm of Bebb & Gould, was completed in 1922, the plaque was not created until 1985. When the locks underwent an $8 million rehabilitation from 1982 to 1985, the Corps rediscovered the original design drawings for the plaque and decided to have the work completed. The design of the plaque is rich in symbolism including: 1. The Eagle, emblem of the United States, used by the Corps of Engineers in its Coat-of-Arms. 2. The French term “Essayons” which is the motto of the Corps and means “let us try”. 3. The Castle, the symbol of the Corps of Engineers since 1839. The plaque was dedicated in a ceremony in August of 1985 commemorating the rehabilitation project. Completed nearly 70 years after opening of the locks, the plaque looks to the future with a commitment to continuing service to the public. Excerpted from the Friends of the Ballard Locks website. For full article, see: Administration Building Plaque: Bebb & Gould & Molten Metal.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

All Hail the Kings!

The Chinook salmon are beginning to arrive at the Locks fish ladder.

Commonly called ‘king’ salmon because they are the largest of the Pacific salmon species, they are about 36” long and average 15 to 20 pounds. Seeing them in the fish ladder viewing gallery they are easily distinguished from the sockeye by the spots on their back and tail (sockeye have no spots.) The Chinook will also be larger and sometime have an olive green sheen on their bodies. The run will peak around the second week of August.

About 80% of the Lake Washington Ship Canal Chinook run is returning to the hatchery in Issaquah, the other 20% of the run will return to whichever river or stream where they were hatched 3-5 years ago. Hatchery fish are identifiable by the absence of their adipose fin (the tiny fin in front of the tail;) this fin is clipped off in the hatchery before the fish is released. Wild Chinook salmon are on the Threatened Species List.

Chinook salmon range along the Pacific coast from Alaska to California and they are prized as both a commercial and as a sport fish.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Help Us Confirm: Who's In First?

Researched and Written by Tom O'Grady.

On July 4, 1917, the Government Locks of Seattle were opened to great celebration and fanfare.

Although the locks had actually been open and locked thousands of vessels through by this time, this national holiday was chosen to officially mark the completion of a project contemplated for decades and under construction for some five years. The President had sent the Roosevelt, a steamship used by Admiral Peary on his arctic expeditions, to be the head of a nautical parade and thus the first vessel to "officially" use the locks. To send such a noteworthy vessel to attend these ceremonies is clear indication of the importance of the opening of the locks.

While the Roosevelt was tied up in the lock several speeches were delivered by local dignitaries and prominent citizens. In addition a congratulatory telegram from President Roosevelt was also delivered. It read as follows:

"I heartily congratulate Seattle and Washington on the completion of the canal. It is of great consequence commercially and may become of at least as great consequence from the navy standpoint. The event you celebrate is of consequence to the whole country.
Theodore Roosevelt"

Hundreds of boats, canoes and rowboats of all sizes were to join the parade and were waiting in Salmon Bay to join the flotilla as it emerged from the locks and accompany it to the final inland destination inside Lake Washington. Thousands of onlookers had gathered to watch this spectacle all along the canal and there were several spots where the boats stopped to deliver speeches by dignitaries. Exhibitions and entertainment were staged along the route as well. This is how the events of the day have widely been reported.

So far so good.

Enter Elmer N. Reed.

Elmer was a local outdoor enthusiast with a particular passion for canoeing. There are many photos of that day showing dozens of canoes and rowboats among other small craft, all of which had come out to share in the celebration. Elmer was in one of these.

We were recently contacted by his daughter, Pat, who informed us that Elmer had always maintained that in fact, when the gates of the lock were opened to allow entry into the canal to Lake Union, it was actually he who paddled through first!

The history of naval exploration has produced numerous competitions as many nations and individuals sought to be the first to be able to claim they discovered or successfully navigated a particular waterway. Seattle has joined the list of contested naval claims with this new information and it's time to resolve the conflict over who was in first.

Was it Captain E. Blerd who piloted the Roosevelt or the Northwest's own Elmer N. Reed paddling his own canoe?

Do you have any light to shed on this?

Any old photos or other information from the day?

While the picture below clearly shows the Roosevelt from water level and demonstrates that Elmer was in the water on the day, we're looking to find a photo showing the boats leaving the locks.

So, all you historians out there, this is your chance to rewrite history and give Elmer his due.

Photo of the Roosevelt sailing through canal is courtesy of USACE.
Photos of Elmer Reed and his view of the Roosevelt are taken from Pat Reed's family photo album.

Sources for this article include:
Seattle Post Intelligencer, July 4 and 5, 1917
Seattle Times, July 4 and 5, 1917 and
The Ballard Locks by Adam Woog.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Great Free Concerts at the Locks!

The weather finally cooperated for the concerts at the Ballard Locks last Weekend. On Sunday, The Microsoft Orchestra treated the crowd of over 300 people to a couple of sets playing under the grand red oak trees. The selection included lots of classics, such as Gershwin and Sousa, as well as a new score of music featured in the video game Halo.

Check out next weekend's music schedule for Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday, July 3 from 2-4 pm,Dissonance Jazz Combo will play. Sunday, Independence Day, the Seattle Civic Band will play some stirring marching music from 2-3 pm.

There will be lots more free music at the Ballard Locks all summer!

See the previous post or check out the most up-to-date schedule at the USACE events page.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Sockeye Swimming Up the Ladder

Just like clockwork the salmon are returning to the fish ladder at the Chittenden Locks.

Of the 3 Pacific salmon species that use the fish ladder, the sockeye are the first to return each year, coming back from the Gulf of Alaska where they have been feeding for the last 2-3 years. The majority of them were hatched on the Cedar River and are returning there to spawn.

When we see them at the Locks they are silver color, called 'ocean phase,' and are easily identified from other salmon species by the lack of spots on their backs. Sockeye will average 6-8 pounds and 24-30 inches long. As they journey through fresh water to the spawning beds their bodies will take on the distinctive red color called 'freshwater phase.'

Moving through the Canal and lakes they will reach the spawning beds in late September/early October. Each female will lay several thousand eggs in the gravel of the riverbed where they remain for 3 months until hatching into tiny fish called alevins. Both male and female salmon die after spawning, thereby becoming an important part of the ecosystem as their decaying bodies return essential nutrients- nitrogen, phosphorus- to the soils along the streams.

The fish ladder viewing gallery is open daily from 7 a.m.-8:45 p.m., there are displays there and in the Visitor Center (10 - 6:00 daily) with additional information on the salmon life cycle.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Bagpipes on Sunday

Ballard offered up real Scottish weather for the Elliott Bay Bagpipe Band concert at the Locks last Sunday. A small, hardy audience braved the 'highland mist' to hear the band's annual Father's Day performance.

More free concerts to come!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Fish Ladder is Open! Sockeye are Swimming!

A source at the Ballard Locks has informed us that the fish ladder is open and sockeye salmon are swimming upstream.

Pictures and more words coming soon...

Monday, May 24, 2010

Spring Cleaning: Preparing the Fish Ladder for Salmon!

We're spring cleaning & getting ready for guests--the salmon are coming!

The fish ladder at the Chittenden Locks will be closed May 24-June 4 for annual cleaning, inspection and maintenance; the fish viewing gallery will be closed to the public during this time.

There actually was a fish ladder constructed in 1917 with the spillway dam; it was very primitive as we didn't know much about salmon migration in those days. The ladder was not very effective and many salmon moved upstream through the locks and were injured by boats and propellers or by hitting the barnacle-encrusted walls and gates.

In 1976 the Corps of Engineers completely rebuilt the ladder, increasing the number of weirs (steps, or waterfalls) from 10 to 21, and increasing the flow of water. The rush of water out of the base of the ladder attracts the salmon away from the locks, as salmon instinctively know to go against the flow to trace their way back to their natal stream. The smell and taste of their home stream in genetically imprinted while they are young and they follow that unique smell/taste back upstream to spawn.

Moving quickly up the waterfalls the salmon jump each step or swim through tunnel-like openings between each weir. Weir 18 of the ladder was elongated to make the fish viewing gallery possible; here the salmon often spend a few hours resting and acclimating to fresh water before continuing their journey upstream.

The sockeye salmon is the first salmon species to return to the Lake Washington Ship Canal each year, the early ones usually show up around mid-June and the run normally peaks in early July. The word sockeye is a corruption of "sukkai", the name for the fish used by the Native Peoples of southern British Columbia.

Chinook (king) and Coho (silver) salmon runs follow during the summer months.

Check back often for more information and updates on the salmon runs at the Chittenden Locks!

All photos courtesy of USACE/Historical Collection Lake Washington Ship Canal

Monday, April 26, 2010

Opening Day of Boating Season!


Wow! It’s hard to believe that Opening Day of boating season is just around the corner.

Traditionally, opening day is celebrated on the first Saturday in May. In 2010, that's this coming Saturday, May 1. However, you'll see boat traffic through the locks increase all week as boaters make their way to the lakes & ship canal.

Seattle has a rich maritime tradition; opening day is to boating what robins are to spring.

Now is the time to pull your boat out and get it ready for another exciting season on the water. If you visit the locks you’re sure to see hundreds of boats making the passage.


Many of these boats are on their way to cheer on their favorite team at the Windermere Cup races held in the Montlake Cut. If you’ve never experienced this special day you should make plans. It’s hard to imagine a better place to see a race up close where you can see the strain as each rower gives their all.

Below is a slideshow of some pictures of boats through the locks and ship canal.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Ever wonder what those big white metal tubes were on the spillway dam at the Locks? Read on.

The Corps of Engineers has installed those tubes; they are smolt flumes designed to help juvenile salmon safely bypass the Locks on their migration out to the ocean.

Studies had shown that smolts (juvenile salmon) were having a difficult time going through the Locks, which is their only passageway from the Lake Washington basin out to Puget Sound. Fish would get injured or killed when pulled into the filling tunnels or going over the spillway dam. In 1995 a prototype flume was installed to determine their feasibility, when deemed successful the current models were built at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and installed in May 2000.

The 4 flumes are different sizes to better regulate the outflow of water from the freshwater lakes. The narrow outer ends of the tubes contain an electronic screen to read the PIT tags that are implanted in some of the smolts. PIT is "passive integrated transponder," a microchip type of tracking device.

Standing on the spillway dam late April to early July you may see dozens of small (4"-6") fish shooting out of the flumes with the water, these are the sockeye, chinook and coho smolts headed out to the ocean. What looks to us like a dizzying fall is "just another waterfall" to a smolt and is actually safer than going through the Locks. The cords strung across the spill basin help increase smolt survival by detering seagulls from diving down to feast on the young fish. The smolts remain in the lower basin area for a few weeks acclimating, feeding and growing before they continue their journey to the Pacific.

The term smolt comes from the word "smoltification" which is the biological process the juvenile fish go through which enables them to make the transition from fresh to salt water.

Note: The fish ladder will be closed June 1-11 for its annual cleaning in preparation for the return of the salmon. Stay tuned!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Pump Out: The Small Lock's Turn

If you are meandering through the Chittenden Locks next week you'll see an amazing sight.

The small lock will be empty! No, they didn't forget to pay the water bill--it is time for the annual inspection, cleaning, and maintenance of the small lock!

Starting at low tide on March 8, the water remaining in the chamber will be pumped out so the lower walls and floor are accessible.

The pumps for this operation are located underneath the Administration Building. If you peek in the basement windows, you may be able to see some of the plumbing for the pumps.

It takes about 4 hours to drain the small lock whereas the large lock (pictured left) requires about 10 hours to pump dry. See previous entries on the Large Lock Pump Out and More Pump Out Pictures.

Barring unforeseen findings, the small lock is scheduled to re-open to boat traffic by March 20.

For current information about the Lake Washington Ship Canal, check out the information from the USACE Seattle District.

Next on the "to-do" list is installation of the smolt flumes on the spillway dam in April and fish ladder cleaning in June.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Friends of the Ballard Locks Meeting Thursday, February 18th, 6:30pm

There will be a meeting of the Friends of the Ballard Locks this Thursday!

We meet at the locks at 6:30pm. Parking is free after 6pm in the main locks lot.

If you'd like to join us, please fill out our volunteer form or drop a line to We'll send you directions to the meeting & make sure you can find us!

Friday, January 29, 2010

In Bloom: Smelling and Looking Good

Can You Smell the Chocolate....or is it Vanilla?

This week we are still experiencing a warming trend and even a bit of sunshine as this article is composed.

All the plants mentioned in the last garden update are still blooming, but this week you can almost snack your way through the garden. You will have to use your imagination, but read on to understand what we mean.

Camellias at entrance -- help us identify the type!

As you come into the garden at the entrance on the left you can see the red flowers of one of the many Camellias that grow through out the garden. We are not sure the specific name of this Camellia – and we welcome any leads (comment on this post if you have ideas!).

Camellia x williamsii 'Bow Bells'

At the Visitor Center entrance the Camellia x williamsiiBow Bells’ is in full bloom. The single rose pink flowers stand out against the dark green foliage.

Across the main lawn you will be able to see one of the first Rhododendrons blooming.

Rhododendron 'Rosamundi'

Light pink flowers cover Rhododendron ‘Rosamuni’.

Daphne mezereum

Further along the promenade on the right side at the pathway to the band stage the two Daphne mezereum (February Daphne) are blooming with white and purple flowers. This plant is deciduous so look for small flowers on branches of the small shrubs.

Daphne odora 'Marginata'

The evergreen Daphne odora ‘Marginata’ (Winter Daphne) at the pathway should have open flowers by the weekend if the warm temperatures continue. There will be a sweet scent on the air when that happens.

Helleborus orientalis

So you may be ready for your snack by the time you get to the Fuchsia bed where you will see Helleborus orientalis (Lenten Rose) blooming. (You are in front of the Administration building).

Azara microphylla

Back up a bit and wander a few meters east towards the machine shop to the Azara microphylla and look at the under side of the branches. Under the very small evergreen leaves you will find tiny yellow flowers that have been opening up all week. This is where your nose will smell a different kind of sweet scent on the air.

Each person has their own interpretation on the scent, but most often the survey says it is chocolate or vanilla. If you missed the Camellia reticulata on your last visit you should see it now – the entire bush is covered in big showy pink flowers. Can you find? (Check out the previous garden article for the location.)

Camellia japonica 'Magnioliaflora'

Walk around the east end of the rose garden and follow the front edge of the warehouse toward the lock wall at the end of that planting bed is the Viburnum x bodnantense we featured in the last post--right across from that you will find the Camellia japonica ‘Magnoliaflora’ blooming. It has semi double blush pink flowers and is often referred to as Peach Blossom Camellia.

As you work your way back towards the promenade you can glance out over the lawn and see that the Cherry trees are starting to bloom.

Enjoy your visit.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Friends of the Ballard Locks Meeting Thursday, January 21, 6:30pm

There will be a meeting of the Friends of the Ballard Locks this Thursday!

We meet at the locks at 6:30pm. Parking is free after 6pm in the main locks lot.

If you'd like to join us, please fill out our volunteer form or drop a line to We'll send you directions to the meeting & make sure you can find us!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

In Bloom: Something Smells Good in the Locks Gardens

Notes from the Carl S. English, Jr. Botanical Garden for January 2010.

Just back in December before that week of cold weather we had over 20 plants blooming. Some were blooming out of season, but now we are seeing the usual mid winter blooms.

Last Thursday while walking past the Administration Building, a fresh sweet scent was on the air. It took a few minutes to locate the source but we finally did.


The Sarcococca in bed 305 planted under the Idesia polycarpa (tree #7 on 'World Tour') is currently blooming and sending the sweet smell along the promenade.

Chimonanthus praecox

In bed 318 near the warehouse east of the rose garden the Chimonanthus praecox (Winter Sweet) is opening up its pale yellow flowers. Just above that is Hamamelis japonica (Witch Hazel), which is not quite ready to bloom.

Camellia reticulata

Surprising at this time of the month is the one pink red bloom of the Camellia reticulata that is right up against the same building.

Viburnum x bodnantense

In planting bed 319 the Viburnum x bodnantense on the corner of the building has lots of flowers, though many are starting to fade.

Garrya elliptica 'James Roof' (not the exact one mentioned)

In the north nursery to the right just after the main entrance you can find a nice example of Garrya elliptica, the long catkins hanging down showing why the common name is Silk-tassel bush.

At the top of the stairs from the lock wall to the right of the house in the rockery (bed 119) the Osmanthus heterophyllus (False holly) is just opening its tiny white blooms. The fragrance is weak, but as more flowers open there should be more fragrance wafting on the breeze.

Over the next few weeks we will see more plants starting to bloom. We will keep you posted via this blog.

See Also
The pamphlet "Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden World Tour" is available in the Visitor Center.