1917 Locks Opened Seattle's Inland Waters to Trade

The opening of Seattle’s Lake Washington Shipping Canal on July 4, 1917 transformed the city’s maritime industry and its geography in one fell swoop. Ocean–going vessels could now reach the city’s freshwater lakes, making it possible to move vast quantities of wood and coal quickly to West Coast and Asian markets. East Coast markets could also be served through the Panama Canal, completed in 1914 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Shipping Canal Locks
Shipping Canal Locks
It was no accident that the U.S.S. Roosevelt led a marine parade of 300 commercial and pleasure craft through the locks to Lake Union and Lake Washington that day. Named for President Theodore Roosevelt, who during his 1901 to 1909 term of office was responsible for the completion of the Panama Canal, the Roosevelt reminded all those on hand of the connection. The link, of course, is more than political, for both canals are the work of the Army Corps of Engineers; both share many engineering and architectural features; and both have locks that share the record as the largest ones in the world.

Like many of the Corps of Engineers’ early 20th century projects, the shipping canal and its connection to Seattle’s salt water harbor through the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks had a huge impact on the region’s ecology. Constructed at the western edge of the canal between Seattle’s Ballard and Magnolia neighborhoods, the two parallel locks join the salt waters of the Puget Sound to inland fresh water on one of the most important salmon migratory routes in the Pacific Northwest. The large lock is 80’ by 825.’ It serves commercial ships, sand and gravel barges, fuel barges, log tows and fishing vessels. The smaller lock (30’ by 150’) is primarily for pleasure craft. It lies on the southern edge of the large lock between it and the spillage that controls the level of the lakes. To keep the raising and lowering of vessels fast and simple, the engineers constructed locks with only one step.

Chinook Salmon
Chinook Salmon
As practical as that might seem, this required lowering Lake Washington by nine feet, changing the direction of major regional rivers, redirecting the migration of the millions of salmon that used them for their annual return from the sea and rebuilding all the piers, docks and other facilities serving the maritime industry. It also raised a huge number of legal issues related to the ownership and management of the land exposed by lowering the lakes. Even today, the now dry waterways belonging to the state are frequently the subject of courtroom and other legal negotiations regarding their ownership and who can do what on them.

The Ballard Locks, as local folks call them, are fairly standard lockage affairs depending on gravity to raise and lower vessels in them. Water from a higher ‘pound’ flows into the lock raising boats (in this case about 22 feet) from one water level to another. Opening a gate below the lock and letting the water flow out of it lowers boats to sea level. Like the first locks of the Panama Canal, Ballard’s are special because they connect bodies of fresh and salt water that must be kept separate. To prevent salt water from damaging the upstream ecology, heavier salt water settles in a basin dredged just east of the large lock and drains through a pipe discharging downstream of the locks area. Salt water intrusion is also restricted by a hollow metal barrier filled with air. Installed well below the surface of the water in an upright position to block the heavier salt water, it is flooded and sinks to the bottom of the chamber to accommodate deep–draft vessels.

The Fremont Bridge
The Fremont Bridge
The canal replaced a meandering stream that trickled from Lake Union to the sound. Its concrete walls created amazing opportunities for Seattle’s seagoing community. Shipyards with immense dry docks sprang up everywhere, and fishing boats that carry seamen to Dutch Harbor and the Bristol Bay fishery in Alaska found safe winter havens at Fisherman’s Terminal and other marinas. The canal also functioned as the center of fishing gear manufacture. For example, the famous Puretic block (net reel) that transformed purse seining, was produced by Marco Marine in a plant on the Magnolia side of the canal just west of the locks.

Four double–leaf bascule bridges of the Chicago type joined Seattle’s north and south ends across the canal. They helped keep the waterway open to ships of every kind. Ironically, the completion of the George Washington Memorial Bridge (the Aurora Bridge) and its opening on February 22, 1932 ended access to the inland waterways by tall ocean–going ships, since their masts were higher than its fixed span.

Today, seamen guide fire boats, crabbers, tugs, purse seiners, huge barges and massive factory ships through the locks every day. In the summer, the locks are chock–a–block with tourists discovering the unique qualities of Seattle and its diverse waterfront activities from comfortable seats on paddle wheelers, steam–powered vessels and an unending variety of craft whose crew members are more often than not college students rather than professional sailors.