February 25, 2016   Benjamin Harter
From the August 1990 issue of 48° North
By Hewitt Jackson

Morning on Lake Union: The barquentine “Forest Pride” rides quietly at anchor flanked by a four masted schooner to starboard and a hulked windjammer to port. Photo courtesy of the Center for Wooden Boats (permission granted 1990).


Those of us who lived on or near the water were on or in it as much as school and chores allowed – and sometimes a good deal more than that. Parents and those on the docks and lake steamers readily accepted this. Our truancies, minor trespasses and high spirits were considered a normal part of growing up rather than as the delinquencies of today. There was none of “you can go down to the lake, but don’t get your feet wet” stuff. We were taught by one and all to respect the waters and how to look out for ourselves.

Our first lone excursion would be to fish in some supposedly proper spot. A twig, a bit of string and a bent pin would be the gear. This was about as productive as catching the “pigeons” on the ferry dock by putting salt on their tails – a sport that the big boys took delight in introducing us to. As we learned, this led to more ventures on the water. Swimming came naturally and boat handling just as easy and hence ventures onto the log booms and about the docks.

The old Leschi Boathouse was moored at the Lake end of the Yesler Way Cable Car run from downtown Seattle. Photo courtesy of the Center for Wooden Boats (c. 1990).

The old Leschi Boathouse was moored at the Lake end of the Yesler Way Cable Car run from downtown Seattle. Photo courtesy of the Center for Wooden Boats (permission granted 1990).

Watercraft were no problem. A couple of logs, some scrap lumber and spikes were free for the taking on the beach. A raft good enough for two boys and a dog was soon at sea. Boats of all descriptions were to be had and the first thing our betters did was to teach us how to handle them properly.

Sailing naturally followed and any rig that could be scrounged was tried on whatever was available. Good sense and judgment were picked up the hard way.

Lest we get ahead of ourselves it would be well to consider the changes and developments of the waters in and about Seattle. They have not suffered the devastation of many of the great seaports of the world and remain attractive and accessible to a reasonable degree. The old timer will recall many of the changes as having happened in his lifetime – or in that of his family or close acquaintances. The newcomer uses the waterways as accepted fact with little thought of the changes of the relatively recent past.

The areas of Elliott Bay, Shilshole, Salmon Bay, and Lakes Union and Washington have undergone considerable and interesting changes over the years. Logging, lumber and shipping were paramount in the young city’s interests and as the close-in forests were soon cut over – the rich stands of timber about Lake Washington attracted attention. The sawmills were on tidewater and Lake Union and the question was how to gain access to that resource. And also there was coal close to the east side of the lake.

As early as 1869, one H.L. Pike had founded a community at the portage between the two lakes. A ditch of sorts was dug through to the present Portage Bay so that logs could be sluiced through. Over the intervening years this was enlarged and developed into a small canal with locks to handle the reported twelve-foot difference between Lakes Washington and Union. This enterprise managed to severely strain or bankrupt a series of investors over the years. About the turn of the century control of this canal was held by J.S. Brace who received ten cents for every thousand feet of timber floated through. The Brace Mill, consuming a good share of the timber, was located at the south end of Lake Union at the present sites of the Naval Reserve Center, the Northwest Seaport, and the Center for Wooden Boats. The foundation for the lofty smokestack can still be seen along the waterway and some of the later lumber company buildings are still in evidence.

Salmon Bay, 1921: The 1904 schooner "J.W. Clise" loads a cargo of lumber at the Canal Lumber Company dock just inside the new Government Locks. The Ballard Bridge can be seen in the background. The many smoking stacks were the accepted and welcomed sign of good times and prosperity. Courtesy of Washington State Historical Society (permission granted 1990).

Salmon Bay, 1921: The 1904 schooner “J.W. Clise” loads a cargo of lumber at the Canal Lumber Company dock just inside the new Government Locks. The Ballard Bridge can be seen in the background. The many smoking stacks were the accepted and welcomed sign of good times and prosperity. Courtesy of Washington State Historical Society (permission granted 1990).

At one time the Navy investigated the lakes as a desirable freshwater port and there were several other proposals to extend the existing canal to salt water. Eventually the proposal of the Army Engineers for the present canal and locks was accepted and the work extended from 1911 through 1916 with a grand formal opening on 4 July 1917, though there had been some traffic before that.

Without going into an excess of historical or engineering detail, the changes and requirement can be easily described. The mean level of Lake Washington was lowered about eight feet and equalized with Portage Bay and Lake Union through the Montlake Cut, which is a bit south of the old portage and early “canal.” The Fremont Cut allowed fresh water to flow westward to Salmon Bay, which had been tidewater before the construction of the Government Locks, thus raising the level of the Bay to that of the lakes. The mills in the areas had cofferdams built about the broiler rooms rather than rebuilding to accommodate the new water levels. The Lake Washington Ship Canal and the Hiram Chittenden Locks became the outlets of the lakes.

The previous outlet had been through the Black River at Renton, which flowed south and west to its junction with the Duwamish River and thence to Elliott Bay. To provide the major source of water for Lake Washington and the operation of the Government Locks, the Cedar River was diverted into the old Black River channel and into the lake. The Black River ceased to exist, though the channel and some bridge piers could be seen until recent years.

Aug-1990-page1Smith Cove was a shoal but suitable anchorage in the early years and extended well up into the Interbay railroad yards. There was an Indian canoe passage through to Salmon Bay then, thus making the Magnolia area an island if one wished to be strict with his definition. A landfill closed this waterway and additional fill was needed as the canal was built.

One of the interesting and dramatic side effects of the lowering of Lake Washington was the exposure of the tops of sunken forests in different parts of the lake. The largest areas were on the west side of Mercer Island, another on the east shore north of Juanita. Several of the lake steamers were damaged, and one lost, by striking these snags. The government sang boats were kept busy for some time sweeping off the tops of these ancient trees down to a safe depth for navigation. [Check out a 2012 underwater video of one of the submerged forests here – 48N jen]

Aug-1990-2Years later, while I was working at the Department of Oceanography at the University, one of these trees was recovered from the depths for study. It was, as those around it, still standing erect, evidence of a massive and sudden land subsidence of well over a hundred feet. Scientific dating studies placed this event at about 1,200 years ago.

The Canal (with Locks being second only to the great locks of the Panama Canal), the widely heralded engineering feat of the concrete road around the lake (the Lake Washington Boulevard), and the Smith Tower (the second tallest in the Americas) all focused a great deal of national attention upon the region and attracted the beginning flood of motoring tourists to head west.

Aug-1990-3In those days the first of the cross-country roads to the Northwest was the “Yellowstone Trail” – a rather primitive road that began somewhere “back east.” It touched at Yellowstone Park and meandered its way west to the Cascades, snaked its way down from Snoqualmie Pass and ended at the ferry dock in Kirkland. The “Trail” was marked by yellow bands painted on power and phone poles along the way – if there were any. The weary and worn travelers were greeted by the boys at the dock hawking the “Times, Star, and Union Record,” the first metropolitan newspapers to be had in about a thousand miles. The dock was the center of town and all activities, the link to Seattle beyond, the goal of the tourists.

Those not blessed with the relative affluence of a paper stand or route worked the dock during the summer season. Diving for coins from the ferry slip were soon developed into an art and paying profession. The cry of “penny, nickel, dime, street car hickey” would produce some limited generosity from the local folks but it was the motoring tourists, tired by a thousand miles of dry land, that could be counted on for a profitable stint on the slip. A dime was common, two bits better and four bits on occasion. A big shiny “cartwheel” would create absolute Pandemonium.

Aug-1990-4The ferries and lake steamers were our conveyance to the city and further adventures, though pecuniary considerations often dictated sailing, rowing, or paddling. The great attraction was Lake Union, which was filled with retired and laid-up ships of all descriptions. The most enticing being the lofty square riggers and the not quite so grand barquentines and schooners. At first we found a skipper of watchman on board as they fully expected a charter and a return to sea “tomorrow or next week” and things were kept in order. When it became obvious that the days of merchant sail were over they lay unmanned and abandoned and we roamed unmolested, reading the log books that remained on board and letting hopes and imagination have free rein. Soon the wharf rats looted the shops of canvas, cordage, tools and anything that could be hocked or sold and it was not long before they were towed out, one by one, to the shipbreakers.

Aug-1990-5Further on was Ballard and Salmon Bay where the local and Alaskan fishing vessels lay in their off season. A number of boats and shipyards were constantly building or repairing the wooden vessels of the day. There were also the ship chandlers and shops that supplied their needs. There was ready access to the yards and we were welcomed as long as we behaved ourselves – something that we had learned to do as our adventures carried us further afield. This was an area of production and organized work and an introduction to a realistic working world. Fine working tools and machines attracted attention and practical ambitions began to be developed. This experience could well have been had earlier at the close by shipyard at Houghton, but the Lake Washington Shipyard was too close to home to be considered.

Our mentors or heroes during this youthful peregrination were the older men – captains, seamen, fishermen, boat builders, riggers, and the like. What they did was to introduce us to the best of our maritime heritage tradition, develop a lasting interest in all things nautical and a love of ships, the sea, and sailing.