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

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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Touring the Ship Canal

Thanks to support from 4Culture, two cruises aboard the Virginis V were offered to the public. As the year 2017 will mark the Centennial of the formal opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and the Chittenden Locks, it is hoped that more of these cruises will be made possible and it will provide an opportunity to participate in events organized to celebrate the anniversary.

Virginia V a 1922 National Historic Landmark vessel.

Virginia V

The Virginia V is approaching its own centennial in a few years and is one of the last surviving members of what was known as the "Mosquito Fleet" operating around Puget Sound from the 1800's and into the early decades of the 20th Century. It has been lovingly restored and is truly a unique experience to tour the ship not to mention the thrill of sailing on a vessel along parts of the same route it sailed a hundred years ago. You can find more history of the boat and a schedule of public sailings at their web site: Virginia V Foundation

MOHAI and The Center for Wooden Boats

The vessel is moored at the historic ships dock alongside MOHAI. Personnel from MOHAI also helped in organizing the cruises and contributed to some of the history shared during the cruise, MOHAI also offers many exhibits into the area's history and the creation of the Ship Canal played a major part in the growth of businesses here. Lake Union was ringed with many lumber mills and boat yards which saw tremendous expansion in the years following 1917. You can also find some surviving relics, ships lights, and the ship's wheel, salvaged from the Roosevelt which led the marine parade of hundreds of vessels on July 4, 1917 when the official opening of the locks and canal were celebrated. A visit to MOHAI always adds to the enjoyment of our regions history. You can also find an extensive online photo library with many historic images on their web site: MOHAI

Right next door to MOHAI is the Center for Wooden Boats, another member of the Making the Cut group which is organizing many public events between now and the anniversary in 2017. The Center for Wooden Boats has a rich history of working with many groups and individuals in the maritime industry which has existed here since Seattle was founded. They offer classes and lectures and organize public sailings free to the public. One of their more unique projects is to research and identify the many boats which have been sunk and now reside on the lake bottom. Look at all they have to offer at their web site at: Center for Wooden Boats

Originally a mine sweeper, the Gypsy Queen lies on the bottom of the lake.

Once the cruise departs we follow a path heading west along the canal and out through the locks and return again. Optimally, it will last a few hours, however, delays are always possible when dealing with hundreds of boats plying the same waters and the locking portion may take additional time depending on boat traffic.

Lake Union, Once Dominated by Shipyards and Lumber Mills

As we depart the dock along side MOHAI, you could think back to the 1936 UW rowing crew who rowed one of Pocock's latest shells, from the university down to the south end of Lake Union, where they lifted the shell out of the lake and carried it downtown, where it would then be shipped to California for a competing crewing team. They each earned a dollar for their efforts. This was the beginning of their spectacular upset victories over the other US teams and thus earning the UW team the right to compete in the Berlin Olympics and their eventual triumph. The shell was called the Husky Clipper and can be seen today at the University. Shell house at the UW

The 1936 Olympic Gold medalists. photo:UW digital collections

As the Virginia V starts up the lake, you can see the Lake Union Drydock on the southeast shore. Here is the White Sands drydock, which is the subject of one of the more spectacular feats of engineering and determination in this area's history. You can read more of the details of this remarkable accomplishment here. The White Sands Adventure

The White Sands coming through the locks in 1975. It was tilted to fit the 81' dock through the 80' wide lock.
The White Sands today - untilted.

At the top of the lake is one of Seattle top visitor spots, the historic Gas Works Park. From the early 1900's, it was used to supply synthetic gas originally made from treated coal, switching to petroleum in the '30s until it finally closed up shop in 1956.

The remnants of the Gas Works plant.

The Fremont Cut

The completion of the canal had an immediate impact on the timber industry of the region. Wood was in high demand all along the west coast as populations were expanding rapidly. The ability to send large log booms from Lake Union out through the locks and to destinations worldwide led to a immediate productivity increase.

Left at Portage Bay pre-canal. Log boom in large lock in 1916.

In June 1911, a groundbreaking ceremony was held in Fremont to begin the excavation which would eventually become the Fremont Cut. The speakers platform was at the intersection of Phinney Ave and Ewing St. which would be just south of the Theo Chocolate building.

1911 The start of the Fremont Cut. photo from the  MOHAI collection reprinted Seattle Times July 23, 2016
The cruise passes under several of Seattle's bridges. Aurora, Fremont, Ballard and the BNSF railroad bridge are all part of the ship canal's history. The railroad bridge was actually relocated in 1914 to allow for the construction of the Chittenden Locks, and the Fremont and Ballard Bridges were completed in 1917. The Aurora Bridge did not come into existence until 1932 and we found a picture of it prior to completion.

Aurora Bridge under construction in 1931.

Local documentarian Vaun Raymond has contributed many mini films concerning the history of the Ship Canal and his latest is on the bridges. There will be more films to come so be sure to visit the site for updates.

The Chittenden Locks

The Roosevelt enters the Ship Canal on July 4, 1917

After passing numerous ship yards, marinas, and houseboats, including the famous "Sleepless in Seattle" houseboat, we come upon the Chittenden Locks, originally simply called Government Locks when it was finished in 1917. At the time it was the second largest lock system in the world, after the Panama Canal, which was finally completed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1914. The Lake Washington Ship Canal, long a dream of many, was finally completed, opening unparelleled opportunity and growth to the fledgling city. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that the construction of the canal caused severe upheaval and removal of many local businesses and individuals, and drastically changed the world of the native inhabitants who lost homes, fishing grounds and burial sites to this project.

A view of Rainier after leaving the locks.

Making the Cut is a group of local organizations who are organizing events celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Lake Washington Ship Canal. Explore their web site for historic maps, links to videos, schedules of upcoming events and much more as the Centennial approaches.

Making the Cut