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

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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Snagboats on the Puget Sound - a brief photo history

This article was originally printed on Inside Passage, April 3, 2017. It is a blog maintained by the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society. It was researched and written by Eleanor Boba, A link to their site will be added at the end of the article where many other articles of local historical interest may be found.

Snagboats on Puget Sound: A Photo Essay

The snagboat Swinomish in Lake Washington, circa 1916. The lowering of the lake to accommodate the new Ship Canal left many snags exposed. The photo is credited to Asahel Curtis.  Photo, Shoreline Historical Museum, #1249.

Snagboats were a familiar sight on the Ship Canal and on Puget Sound rivers from 1885 to 1981. The snagboats Skagit (1885-1914), Swinomish (1914-1929), and W.T. Preston (1929-1981) were charged with clearing snags and other debris from the region’s waterways. Aside from this primary duty, the snagboats were called to serve in many other ways.

For the full story of the Puget Sound snagboats, read Ron Burke's detailed and beautifully-illustrated article for The Sea Chest -- "Heritage of a Snagboat" (June 2001).
The snagboats Skagit and Swinomish side by side in 1915. Their A-frame cranes sit on the bows. 
Photo, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In 1980 and 1981 Pam Negri conducted a series of oral history interviews for the Corps of Engineers with current and former crew members of the W.T. Preston. The men shared a number of stories detailing both their ordinary duties and some unexpected tasks. (Tapes and transcripts in the care of the Anacortes Maritime Heritage Center)


In a 1981 interview, Sandy Welsh Jr. explained that the Preston ended up with the whistles of both earlier snagboats, as well as its own:
The two big steam whistles from the Swinomish and the Skagit, they operated together. Mine was, well I call it a whooper, and it was kind of a steam siren. I operated it independently. You could kind of play a little bit of a tune with them both going. We had a lot of fun. There was a couple other steam boats that had whooper sirens on them. We would whoop back and forth.
People really get a thrill out of listening to the steam whistles. You'll go by, like through the Lake Washington Ship Canal, and people will come out of their offices or on the boat next to you and yell, "blow the whistle, blow the whistle.“ I'll always give an extra toot for a thank you for each of the bridges we go through. Most of the time the bridge tenders will give a little toot back in answer. Especially Bill, who works on the Ballard Bridge up there, he says, "how about a real long one with the bridge opening?" So, I'll give him a little bit extra long one because he really likes to hear the steam whistle. It's really funny though. You'll just see the people, and if you can't hear them you'll just see the arms pump up and down. "Blow that whistle!“ (Oral History, Virgil (Sandy) V. Welsh Jr., Second Mate and Caption on the Preston, 1975-81.  From the archives of the Anacortes Maritime Heritage Center)


Captain William M. Morgan at the helm of the W.T. Preston, 1975. 
Photo, Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society.
Captain William W. Morgan told Pam Negri about part of the job that involved burning derelict houseboats:
We used to do quite a bit of work in conjunction with the Seattle Harbor Patrol. They would assist us, either bring in snags or tell us where they were at. Anyway, we were burning a considerable amount of houseboats, and they were the ones that were towing the boats down to Montlake across from the old canoe house at the U.W. There were times when we would have a half-dozen houses. We would burn them right down to the logs, then pick the logs up and set them on the beach.

This one particular time, we used to go in and open the valves or break the water lines so there was no water remaining to cause any possible explosions. We'd gone through this one house and broke a few lines, opened all the valves we could see. Then we set our fire. Well, it was really burning pretty good. The old tar paper roofs-everything was really going strong. Here comes a harbor police boat heading toward the shore-must have been an emergency. We were all standing on our deck, watching this houseboat burn when all of the sudden there's this terrific explosion. Here goes this hot water tank, shooting out across the water, landing right in front of this police boat coming full out towards it. It was pretty funny at the time, but could have been extremely serious.

[The Harbor Patrol] kind of laughed it off. Particularly one of them that I knew quite well, he said, "Wouldn't that look good on the front page of the PI [Post-Intelligencer], Preston torpedoes Seattle police boat with hot water tank." (Oral History, William W. Morgan (Tape 16), Deckhand, First Mate, Second Mate, and Captain 1952-1982. From the archives of the Anacortes Maritime Heritage Center)


Norman Hamburg began his career as a cabin boy on the Swinomish in 1927 and later transferred to the Preston. In his 1982 interview he told Pam Negri about one little-known aspect of the work:

A lot of times there was a lot of erosion along the [river] banks. The cows would get too close to the edge of the bank eating grass, and sometimes the bank would cave in and down would go the cow in the river. We picked up quite a few cows in the river, set them back down on the bank for the farmer. [How?] Put a rope sling around 'em, just behind their front legs and just ahead of their rear legs, picked 'em right up with the donkey engine and swung them over and set them on the bank. They very seldom hurt themselves; they landed on the soft mud in the river there.  (Oral History, Norman Hamburg (Tape 10), January 15, 1982. From the archives of the Anacortes Maritime Heritage Center)

Crew of the W.T. Preston, 1939. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 


Hamburg explains the effect of World War II on the snagboat business:

During World War II, when they stopped all river and harbor work, they tied the Preston up at the locks wall. They transferred all the laid-off crew that didn't have 15 years of service in. They found other jobs for them, but what I mean [is] they were laid off the Preston. They kept the captain, the chief engineers, myself and the cook. We stayed aboard the vessel for quarters and helped keep the vessel in shape, and we were transferred over to the locks. The chief engineer and I were transferred over to the machine shop -- working for Charlie Seagren. We were outfitting boats for Alaska and a lot of the boats were going up to [Adak?] Island, building the airbase up there. Also, the Alcan Highway [Alaska-Canadian]: we did a lot of work at the locks for the Alcan Highway making different things in the machine shop and the blacksmith shops. They didn't bring the Preston out until after World War II....but they kept us crew aboard in case some emergency would arise.
I remember when we came to work on December 8th [1941]; it was on a Monday morning. Driving down from Mount Vernon, we were stopped at the main gate going in -- soldiers galore. Went through  our suitcases. They went through our luggage and they walked with us down to the Preston to get verification that we belonged to that crew. Our cook -- little Fritz -- fed about, I'd say, 30 soldiers for the meals on the Preston until they had facilities built and they built barracks down at the locks for these soldiers to stay in because they were on guard there -- on duty 24 hours a day. The barracks at that time were built on a wall just west of the administration building. 
One of the first jobs the snagboat had was to lay a cable across from the small locks over to the south end of the spillway to hang a netted, mesh fence on there to stop anything that could drift down to blow up the spillway. Everything was very vulnerable. They had blackouts for all the sawmills, the homes, the street lights -- everything had to be turned out at dusk and you had dark blinds over your windows in the homes. There was absolutely no light on the west coast at all, until they found out just how vulnerable it was. They were afraid of a Japanese attack on the west coast. 
There were a lot of boats tied up in Lake Washington and Kirkland in the area.....Lake Union....and if something would have happened to the locks there, it would have drained the water out of Lake Union and been a real disaster. (Ibid.)

Coast Guard barracks and mess hall at the locks, August 14, 1943. 
Photo, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The last of the Puget Sound snagboats -- W.T. Preston -- was retired in 1981. Such snagging duties that are left on our well-traveled waterways are now carried out by the Puget, a small derrick barge. Two years afterwards, the Preston was acquired by the Anacortes Maritime Heritage Center where she may be seen today.

-- Eleanor Boba

The W.T. Preston, with sternwheel, was an impressive sight passing through the locks, February 3, 1972.
Photo, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

You can visit the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society and find many more articles of local interest here:

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Zombies at the Locks! Oh My!

Every year, the locks receives visitors from all corners of the globe, assuming the globe has corners. Today, the most noticeable visitors were from very nearby ... 6 feet under! Seattle Thrillers provided a free, public performance of Michael Jackson's Thriller dance a week ahead of the annual worldwide simultaneous performance of the same, which will be held at Occidental Park, Seattle, October 28, at 3:00 pm. Thanks to the Seattle Thrillers for their spirited (spirit-less ?) performance, and to the Army Corps of Engineers, for hosting the event.

Most Zombies will happily pose for photos, so feel free to approach them.

King 5 had a crew there and you can see the performance on their Facebook page.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Seattle Thrillers at the Locks

Seattle participates in the world wide Michael Jackson Thriller dance. Note the time has changed from its original time slot. 

Sun 1 PMBallard Locks-Hiram Chittenden LocksSeattle

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Sometimes The Map Itself Is The Treasure

Researched and written by Susan Connole.

An original 1905 “Robinson’s Official Map of the City of Seattle and Vicinity” has recently been discovered tucked behind a door in the Administration Building at the Locks. Depicting ownership of properties from North 85th Street south to Michigan Street and between Puget Sound and Lake Washington, it is an imposing six and half feet square.

The full map unrolled.

Map detail

Robinson’s Maps were well known and published in many cities, mostly for insurance companies and real estate agents. Ours appears to be a real estate version showing property ownership but not any structures on the property, it does note schools, parks and some commercial interests. These types of maps were used during the latter part of the nineteenth century up until the mid-twentieth.

Manufactured by Goes Litho Co. in Chicago it is printed in color on paper, backed with cotton fabric and finished with a varnish coating. The logos and lettering are beautiful examples of the artistic flourishes common in commercial printing of the era. It has had a rough life with evident heat and water damage and extreme wear at the bottom edge from handling and rolling. 

Friends of the Ballard Locks volunteers have begun restoration under the guidance of a professional map conservator, the first step of cleaning both sides of the map is underway, the goal is to eventually have it on public display. The group is also searching for purchase records of the map.

There are many historic maps available online, the Seattle Public Library is a good place to start.

Also the Koch’s Birds-Eye View of Seattle map in the Library of Congress is a delightful representation of early Seattle:


Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Movie and History at the Locks

Those following the events concerning the Centennial of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and Chittenden Locks will want to mark the following date on their calendar. On Sun Sept.10, 2017, local documentary videographer will present his latest movie in the Visitor Center at the locks. The following is from and gives a brief description of what you may expect.

Also on the day, two local authors will be on hand to discuss their recent book on the history of this project which had its roots in the 19th century.  I believe their book is also being carried in the gift shop so it's a great opportunity to purchase a little local history or to do some advance Christmas shopping for the historian on your list.

Many of the projects which have taken place this year have received support from 4Culture and this support is gratefully acknowledged.


Video Screening: “Seattle’s Waterway to the World”

Sun. September 10, 2017 - Sun. September 10, 2017
1:30pm - 3:00pm
Vaun Raymond will present his documentary on the Ship Canal, “Seattle’s Waterway to the World,” Sunday, September 10, beginning at 1:30 p.m. in the Visitor Center at the Locks. The 60-minute comprehensive documentary will be followed by a short mini-documentary, “Behind the Scenes,” about the making of Raymond’s “Legacy of the Locks” series.
David Williams and Jennifer Ott, authors of the book Waterway: The Story of Seattle’s Locks and Ship Canal, will be on hand to assist with post-screening discussion.
Join us as we wrap up a year of commemorating and celebrating the Ship Canal! In the meantime, all of Raymond’s Legacy of the Locks videos (and others) are available here.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Splash! A Centennial Arts Celebration

A special art exhibit is to begin this Thursday evening, August 17th, and will continue until September 15th 2017. Yet another reason to bring friends and visitors to the locks.

As part of the year's activities involving the Centennial Anniversary of the completion of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and Chittenden Locks, there will a temporary art installation in the Administration Building. This will be a unique opportunity to see local artists works in your next visit to one of Seattle's most popular attractions.

From's website:

"Art inspired by the centennial of the Chittenden Locks goes on display August 17 to September 15.
Opening gala Thursday, August 17th, from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. Light refreshments and activities for kids! Plus STRUM — Seattle’s Totally Relaxed Ukulele Musicians — will be playing from 6:00 to 7:30.
Art will be displayed in the Chittenden Locks Administration Building. A portion of sales goes to support renovations to the fish ladder plaza.
For more information call the Locks Visitor Center at 206.783.7059."

Visit Making The Cut 100's website here for more information on this and other events and resources.

Making The Cut 100 has received support and funding from 4Culture and is grateful for the projects made possible by this support.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Centennial Boat Parade

The Adventuress and crowd just before parade start. photo Kyle S.

July 9, 2017 saw a pageant of boats sailing from the Chittenden Locks through the Ship Canal to it's conclusion at the bottom of Lake Union. This was something of a recreation of the parade of boats which took place in 1917, to celebrate the official dedication and opening of the "Government Locks" and ship canal. Several years ago, there was one boat, the Zina, known to exist in the area which had been present for that original parade. Subsequently, two others were found, the Keewaydin, named the Honey Boy in 1917, and the Glorybe. The Glorybe had been burned in a fire and sunk in 2002, but had been rescued, and remarkably restored and still sails in local waters to this day. The Keewaydin, was in a state of some disrepair, but structurally sound, and was bought by a local party who have been restoring the boat to her former classic beauty. Meanwhile, the Zina, which had participated in previous anniversary sailings in the ship canal, was destroyed in a fire, just a few short years before the Centennial. the Roosevelt, which led the parade in 1917, was long since left to the elements in the Panama Canal after suffering too much damage to make repairs feasible.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Take A Part In The Centennial Commeration

Sunday’s (July 9, 2017) Locks Centennial Boat Parade viewing spots include:

Seattle Parks:
11th Ave NW Street-end park (on the Ballard side of the Ship Canal)
Roanoke St. Mini-Park, 1 E. Roanoke St., peek-a-boo view of Lake Union
Lynn St. Mini-Park, 2291 Fairview Ave E; view of Lake Union between the houseboats
Lake Union Park, south end of Lake Union

Other locations:
Evanston Avenue (one block west of Fremont Ave)
Along the Cut between the area under the Aurora Bridge west to 2nd NW
Burke-Gilman Trail (various spots); roaming docents
In front of 2 Nickerson on the canal
The Ballard Bridge approaches

On-street parking is available near most of these locations but we strongly recommend arriving on foot, by public transportation or by bicycle. Most marinas with a view of the Ship Canal or Lake Union have locked gates with entry available only to their tenants, we ask you please respect those.

The following list of participating boats was published by and we're adding it here for those who will be able to view the boats as they make the journey through the canal and into Lake Union. The Glorybe and the Keewaydin were both in the original parade on July 4, 1917! Let's see who will be here in 2117.