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

Contact us at

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Annual Inspection of the Large Lock


Looking west over large lock during inspection
The large lock is undergoing its annual inspection and maintenance which should conclude by November 20. This is also referred to as the Corps' Annual Cell Phone Scavenger Hunt due to the number of phones recovered when the lock is drained. Numerous other types of objects are also found but cell phones are among the most common. As the water is drained out, fish and other marine life have to be carefully moved to exit the lock before it completely emptied. This year found the usual assortment of fish, starfish, seals, otters, and an octopus. All removed safely to the sound so the work could begin.

The locks are each drained once a year to inspect all critical components and perform some maintenance necessary for the fish migration which is a crucial part of the Locks mission. To begin the process, emergency gates are lowered in sections by crane inside the east gates.

One section of emergency gate being lowered into position

Once these are solidly in place a scaffold will be assembled on the lock wall and then lowered by crane to rest on the lock floor. While the crane is still providing support for the scaffold, two personnel climb down the scaffold to secure the locking mechanism at the bottom of the legs. These individuals are called the “Short Straw” men. The scaffolding now secured below, the crane releases its hold and the scaffold will then be securely fastened against the lock wall for the rest of the crew to descend to perform their daily tasks.

"Short Straw" men head down
Scaffold assembled
Lowering scaffold

All working components of the lock will be inspected and if necessary, repaired. For the most part, it's routine maintenance which is required. The locks were originally finished in 1916 and the aging process means attention to detail is critical. Over the years improvements were made, new technology replacing old technology, but by and large it is looks substantially the same today as it did when completed. Most of the visible changes have been made for safety reasons, hand and guard rails, lighting, etc., and the mechanical upgrades are largely well out of sight of the visitors.

Spot welding on gate

The culverts, through which the water moves from lakeside to sound, become encrusted with barnacles just as the lock walls do. Because many of the salmon will use them for their migration crews will spend days scraping the barnacles from the culvert walls to prevent harm to the salmon as they brush against the side. Some estimate that as much as 47% of the salmon will use the locks instead of the fish ladder to reach their spawning grounds but it is widely believed this number to be highly inflated. It is probably boaters leaning over the sides of the boats while locking through that deposits most of the cell phones, with the rest simply being dropped by visitors on foot while taking pics or videos. But if you can hang onto your smart phones you can get some great shots of salmon leaping and the occasional seal among the boats during the height of the salmon season. There was once a minke whale who ventured in, but that's a story for another day.

The inspection should be finished by around November 20. While the large lock is under maintenance, the smaller lock is still operational so visitors can still enjoy watching the process. The large lock will provide only a few glimpses of the work underway but you can always watch the birds fighting over barnacle meat and wrigglers they are feeding upon.

Here are some pics of the maintenance in progress. You can click on any to see an enlarged view.

The large lock drained.

Working with the gates.
Small bulldozer lowered into lock to scoop mud and debris and scrape barnacles from walls.

An idea of the scale of the lock.
The inside gates open.
















November 20, 2012 (Update)

The next two photos were taken Nov. 20 by Corps employee Katie Mcgillvray at high tide. With all the rain we received it contributed to the 12' tide level and you can see the water seeping through the outer lock wall. The work has been finished and the large lock is back in operation. For those who did not see the locks during this maintenance period you can mark your calendars for next November and see the lock as you rarely can.




A Look Back

The two pictures below are of some interest as well. Notice the water spilling over the gates and into the emptied lock and the scaffolding showing in the right lower corner. We are still attempting to gather more information on when exactly this might have been taken. A search through old issues of the Seattle Times turned up a reference to water spilling over the gates during a storm on Jan. 27, 1983. The large lock is usually drained in November however so this raised a few questions. Was the lock being inspected at a different time of year or was there another reason to empty and inspect it so soon after the November event? The same article mentioned that the tide was measured at 14.8 ft which tied a record previously set in 1977. These were the two largest high tides recorded since 1898. It might be worth noting the high tides in the upcoming months and making a trip to the locks. You never know but you just might see a scene like these below.

Jan 27, 1983 ??

Below is a link to a past inspection. Enjoy.

Here is a link to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chittenden locks Facebook page. You can find more photos and info on other goings on at the locks.

The two bottom photos are supplied by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

July Friends’ Meeting: Tour the Locks!

LTC Cavanaugh and assistants pose in front of the newly
constructed Administration Building, Feb 1916.
For July's monthly meeting, the Friends of the Ballard Locks will host an historical overview of the locks and the key people who made it the extraordinary place that it is today.  The tour is scheduled for Thursday July 19th and will begin 7:00 pm at the Visitor Center. Please enter through the south doors.  The tour will take about an hour and will end in the Administration Building. The tour is open to the public. An RSVP is not required, but if you would like more information about the evening tour or the Friends of the Ballard Locks organization, contact or check with the Hiram Chittenden Locks Visitors Center.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

This Fourth of July Marks 95 Years

Researched and written by Tom O'Grady.

Seattle Daily Times July 5, 1917 

July 4, 1917: The Official Opening and Dedication of the Government Locks

The picture above shows the parade of boats as they navigate the ship canal into Lake Washington and back to the Sound on July 4, 1917. The locks had actually been in operation for several months by this date but it was decided to have a grand celebration to commemorate a project that required decades of planning and 5 years of hard work to complete.

Every July 4 features celebrations of the anniversary of America's Independence and this day was even more memorable by the locks official opening, coming as it did only months after the U.S entered World War l. The navy had originally planned to build a base at this location and the locks were to be an integral part of this decision.

How the locks appeared in 1917. Seattle Daily Times

The day featured military parades in downtown Seattle, swearing in ceremonies for new citizens and music and entertainment all around the city. The Roosevelt was to be the first “official” vessel to make the journey from Puget Sound to inland lakes and back out to the Sound again, accompanied on this day by more than 200 parade vessels, and joined afterwards by Seattle-ites with anything and everything that would float. Tickets were available which would allow interested parties to be a part of the procession.

Seattle Daily Times

The image to the left is of an ad from the Seattle Daily Times offering passage on the steamer Sioux as part of the parade. The price was $1.00 which was not an insignificant sum in those days. At least one ad from this year referred to a Union Mechanic's wages as $8.00 per day.

According to Newell, ed., McCurdy Marine History, the Sioux was the first commercial vessel to pass through the locks during the opening ceremony on July 4, 1917.

The Sioux circa 1912. Photo from the U.W. Special  Collections. PH Coll 794.55
On the right is a picture of the Sioux taken several years before. It was built by the Moran Co. in 1910 and its founder Robert Moran will be mentioned later in this article as he was a strong supporter of the Locks project and a local dignitary.

The Locks celebration started in downtown Ballard with a parade headed by the Ballard Boosters starting at 1:15 pm and proceeding to the Government Locks (the official name at the time). After arrival, there would be a concert by the Seattle City Band, speeches by Col. Cavanaugh, Capt.Coontz, Maj. Dent and several judges. A street carnival and rose show would follow. The water parade would begin at 2:30 pm with the Roosevelt being the first "official" ocean going ship to make the inland journey into Lake Union and Lake Washington. Then to end the evening there would be prizes awarded for the rose entries and a dance starting at 9:00 pm.

The Roosevelt heading the parade.
The Roosevelt was in fact the ship that Admiral Peary had sailed in his successful trip to reach the North Pole and so it was fitting that such a noted vessel would be selected to lead this historic event. Or perhaps it was Elmer Reed in his humble canoe who seized the moment. More on that later. With the Roosevelt in the lead a slow procession of ships, boats, tugs and just about anything which could float started up the canal to its eventual destination at Leschi Park . It was estimated that well over 100,000 people were scattered along the Ship Canal in order to witness this once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Seattle's population at the timed was reported to be 360,000, so this represented the largest single gathering in the city so far.

With the rest of the vessels in line behind the Roosevelt, the parade proceeded along the canal headed for Leschi Park. As mentioned earlier there were 200 plus official vessels in this parade and a strict and orderly distance of 150 feet was to be kept between all. It took over one hour for the entire parade to pass any specific point and this was not including all the private vessels who took to the water and joined in the celebration.

The first three boats in parade.
While approaching Leschi Park it was discovered that one of the government dredges used on the canal had moored at the only available pier, making it impossible for the Roosevelt to tie up along the shore. The passengers on the Roosevelt would have to be taken on tugs so as to take part in the activities on land. While heading to pick up a second load of dignitaries, one of the tugs rammed a rowboat which was carrying one Senator Landon with two other unnamed gentlemen. The Senator saw the oncoming tug and realizing a collision was inevitable abandoned the rowboat, diving headlong into the lake. According to the newspaper, "The Golden Gate (tug) carried the rowboat fully 100 feet away, but Landon swam to it and was pulled out, shedding water and maledictions impartially." A phrase worthy of Mark Twain himself.

More speeches and proclamations were given and one of the earliest Boeing airplanes (the biplane in top picture) circled overhead to add to the already impressive spectacle. Another curious mention in the paper was of the female guests on board the Roosevelt. No names were given, but simply a mention that they were guests of the officers of the ship. Rank has its privileges!

By now evening was at hand and it was time for the return portion of the journey. Some of the unofficial vessels in the parade dropped off along the route to take part in various activities which were taking place all over Seattle but the length of the procession was still like nothing seen before or since. Considering the number of vessels taking part in the day's events it is noteworthy the almost total absence of mishaps. But then the day was not quite over.

Robert Moran, retired owner of Moran Co., successful businessman, past mayor of Seattle, and long a champion of the canal project, had been near the front of this flotilla on board his yacht Sanwan. He had retired to what has become known as Rosario Resort (in the San Juan Islands), in a mansion built to celebrate the retirement years of a very successful man. He was representing the Seattle Yacht Club, sailing his latest creation launched a year before. The day had been a resounding success and after completing the locks transit and heading back for his home on Orcas Island, the Sanwan ran aground approximately where 60th St NW would be. Three tugs were dispatched in an effort to free the vessel but were unsuccessful and had to wait until 2:30 am and the rising tide to do what the tugs couldn't.

Robert Moran's yacht Sanwan.

The evening would have the requisite fireworks and all the excitement they always bring out, but without question the singular event of this Independence Day was the parade celebrating the completion of Lake Washington Ship Canal. Succeeding anniversaries would be memorable but of course nothing compared to the first one. We will have to see what might happen in 2017, which will mark the centenary anniversary of the Chittenden Locks.

Seattle Daily Times ad July 5 1917.
The Roosevelt in the large Lock July 4, 1917.

The Seattle Daily Times
The Seattle Post Intelligencer
U.W Special Collections
All photos courtesy of The United States Army Corps of Engineers except where noted.
The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks (formerly The Government Locks) located in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, Washington is an active site managed by of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Remember Elmer Reed? Here's a link to an article describing his claim to fame at the Chittenden Locks on July 4, 1917

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Locks at “the Narrows” Gets the Green Light

By Kyle Stetler

On June 25th 1910, 102 years ago, the 61st U.S. Congress passed the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1910. Within the act was the congressional authorization which approved the construction of “a double lock, with the necessary accessory works, to be located at “The Narrows” at the entrance to Salmon Bay”. Obtaining this approval, as well as monetary support from the federal government, was quite an accomplishment considering that the project had been proposed as far back as the early 1870s. While the Corps and local Seattle leaders recognized early on the significance of connecting Lakes Washington and Union with the Puget Sound it’s doubtful that they could have imagined that the process to construct the locks and ship canal would take over 40 years to complete.

The complete language from the Act is shown below:

Additionally, while the initial authorization and subsequent appropriations went a long way toward the construction of the locks, in the River and Harbor Appropriation Bill of 1917 the Corps requested an additional $348,000 to complete the project. In 1917, when the locks and majority of the associated ship canal was nearing completion, the construction costs were estimated to be $3.5 million for the entire project. In 2012 dollars, that translates into almost $63 million. For comparison, new locks under construction have estimated costs of several hundred million dollars. 
New locks construction on the Ohio River.
Early dredging on the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Rock Planters Rock

On your last visit to the Carl English Garden at the Hiram Chittenden Locks, you might have noticed three rock planters in the courtyard beside the Visitor’s Center.  I was curious about the plants there, as they didn't look like they were native to the Seattle area.  Turns out, there’s a bit of history on display in those planters as well as several varieties of rock garden plants.

The person behind the rock garden planters is Stephen Munro, a gardener who works for the Corps of Engineers at the Ballard Locks.  Stephen says that “The genesis of the planters began with my desire to have on display Claytonia megarhiza var. nivalis, which was discovered by Mr. Carl English Jr.” Although the plant was discovered by Carl English, it was not currently in the garden’s collection.  

Stephen had first attempted to start the plant from seed collected in the Wenatchee Mountains.  But unfortunately none of the seeds proved viable.   Then Stephen made contact with the Northwestern Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society, in which Carl English was active.  A member of that organization, a recognized worldwide expert in the cultivation of alpine plants (who wishes to remain anonymous), was most generous.  He donated three samples of Claytonia, but also Lewisia Columbiana var. rupicola “Saddle Mountain” variety (another discovery of Carl English), and other plants native to the Wenatchee Mountains.

These specialized plants grow mainly under certain geologic conditions in certain locations.  In fact, the presence of these plants is a key indicator of specific geologic events.  To grow them, Stephen had to attempt to recreate the soil and climate conditions in which they are found.  Stephen says, “The planter attempts to reflect the natural habitat of Mount Stuart with two large granite boulders in the middle with serpentine rocks encircling the sides.  There are some plants native to the Wenatchee Mountains thrown in as well.”

Mr. English recognized the unique specialization of these plants.  In fact, he believed that Lewisia Columbiana var rupicola should be its own species, Lewisia rupicola.  He based this on the evidence that when the variety rupicola is crossed with columbiana the progeny does not produce seed.  English was overruled by other botanists, but many agree with him to this day.

As you might have already deduced, each plant at the Carl English Jr. Botanical Garden has several stories to tell.  There is a horticultural story of course, and often, there is a historical tidbit as well.  Our thanks go out to Stephen Munro for telling us the stories behind the rock garden planters.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Fish Ladder Reopens and the Sockeye are here!

After a thorough annual spring cleaning, the fish ladder at the Ballard Locks reopens tonight, just in time for the arrival of the sockeye salmon and Memorial Day weekend.  The sockeye are on their way.  Our insiders tell us that four sockeye were recently spotted in the area.

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 two to three years. The majority of the sockeye that pass through the Ballard Locks were hatched on the Cedar River and are returning there to spawn.

When we see the sockeye at the Locks they are silver in color.  It’s called the “ocean phase.”  The sockeye in this phase are easily identified from other salmon species by the lack of spots on their backs.  Adult sockeye will average from 24 to 30 inches in length.  They weigh from six to eight pounds.  As they journey through fresh water to the spawning beds their bodies will take on the distinctive red color called the “freshwater phase.”

After moving through the Ship Canal and lakes Union and Washington, the sockeye salmon will reach their spawning beds in late September or early October.  Each female will lay several thousand eggs in the gravel of the riverbed.  Salmon die after spawning, becoming an important part of the ecosystem as their decaying bodies return essential nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus to the soil.

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, May 2, 2012

The White Sands passes through the Locks, October 4, 1975

Researched and Written by Tom O'Grady

The dry dock White Sands entering the lock Oct. 4, 1975

On October 4, 1975 this would be what you would see if you were down at  the Ballard Locks between 1:00 and 5:00 pm. The full story behind this photo has not been told and is only known by a few but we are attempting to gather the complete details concerning this day at the Ballard  Locks.

What you are seeing in this photo is the dry dock  "White Sands"  being towed stern first into the large lock by the Josie Foss, captained by Bob Hayden and  the Dorothy Foss, captained by Lee Crider (just behind the dry dock).   This was the second attempt to bring the dry dock into Lake Union. The  first attempt on Sept. 9th failed when one of the barges attached to  the hull broke loose. The barges were used as part of the plan to angle the dry dock sufficiently so as to clear the walls of the lock. We are still looking for others with information concerning the failed first attempt. Any tug operators,  pilots, crew or witnesses to the event are invited to contact us with  your memories of the day. It is worth noting that this was just the latest in unique events involving the dry dock, and some of that history we can tell here.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Small Lock Pumpout Completed

It is time for the annual inspection, cleaning, and maintenance of the small lock!

On March 13, the water remaining in the chamber was 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.

Without unforeseen findings, the small lock re-opened to boat traffic by March 23.

See the Official Hiram M. Chittenden Locks page for the most current updates and information about the locks and the ship canal.

Next on the "to-do" list usually is installation of the smolt flumes on the spillway dam around April 16th and fish ladder cleaning in June.