Celebrating the Lake Washington Ship Canal Centennial

Did you know the Ballard Locks turns 100 this year? In recognition of the anniversary, we’ve combed through our archives and digitized some of the most interesting maps, photos, postcards, correspondence, and more related to the history of the Lake Washington Ship Canal. You can find the collection at www.spl.org/shipcanal.

Although the official opening of the locks occurred 100 years ago, the idea for a canal dates back even further to 1854 when Seattle pioneer Thomas Mercer proposed the idea of Lake Union serving as a connection point between the Puget Sound and Lake Washington. From that point forward, the canal scheme encountered a series of stops and starts as different parties competed to create a viable passage between lake and sound. Here’s a brief rundown of some of the efforts:

  • 1861: Harvey Pike makes the first attempt at creating a canal, digging a small channel in the area now occupied by the Montlake Cut.
  • 1867-1871: Corps of Engineers employees survey the land, looking for a potential canal route but fail to secure federal funding for the project.
  • 1883-1885: The Lake Washington Improvement Company creates a small portage canal connecting Lake Washington and Lake Union (but without passage to the Sound or ability to handle large vessels).
  • 1891: The Corps of Engineers renews discussion of the canal. They examine several options and determine the present-day Shilshole Bay route would be the least expensive. Again, they cannot secure funding to more the project forward.
  • 1895: With the north canal plans stalled, Eugene Semple and the Seattle and Lake Washington Waterway Company propose the canal follow a southern route through the tidelands and Beacon Hill. In addition to the canal, the company promises to fill the swampy tidelands south of Pioneer Square and create usable land for the quickly expanding city.
  • 1904: Plans for a South Canal came to a halt when proponents of the North Canal route through Lake Union successfully lobby enough support to have the Waterway Company’s water supply shut off, making it impossible for them to continue sluicing dirt away from Beacon Hill to make way for the canal.
  • 1906: Seattle businessman James A. Moore secures funding to create a northern canal.
  • 1907: Hiram M. Chittenden, the new head of the Seattle District of the Army Corps, sidesteps Moore’s plans in favor of a canal plan that meets the government’s needs. The Corps begins surveying the land once again to determine the best route.
  • 1909: Local governments provide funding to enlarge the Montlake Cut.
  • 1910: Federal funding is approved for the creation of the ship canal and locks.
  • July 4, 1917: The locks are officially opened. (Finally!)

Interested in learning more about the history of the canal? Check out HistoryLink’s Lake Washington Ship Canal article for a great overview or take a look at our digitized copy of Dig the Ditch!: The History of the Lake Washington Ship Canal for a more detailed dive.

Want to see some of the digitized materials in person? On June 27, we are offering a Discover Special Collections event in the Seattle Room highlighting the history of the canal. Check out the event listing for details on how to register.

And don’t miss local historians David B. Williams and Jennifer Ott’s visit to the Central Library on July 23 to discuss their new book, Waterway: The Story of Seattle’s Locks and Ship Canal.

~posted by Jade D.

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