Sunday, April 30, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Building the Ship Canal

ON JULY 29, 1895, 6,000 people stood and listened as local dignitaries extolled the virtues of a canal that would connect Puget Sound and Lake Washington. Eugene Semple, a former Washington territorial governor who was the principal project organizer and promoter, concluded his talk by telling the audience to come back in five years to witness the dedication of the canal locks. His 22-year-old daughter, Zoe, then climbed the steps of the massive dredge Anaconda, pushed a lever that started a hollow rotary cutter ripping into the Seattle tidelands, and began the linkage of salt and fresh water in Seattle.

Enthusiasm ran high for the canal. More than 4,000 people had packed into the Seattle armory only three months earlier to discuss the project. Those in attendance pledged to raise $500,000. The goal was met by May 10, with nearly 2,500 people contributing between $1 and $20,000. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer called the canal "the greatest undertaking yet inaugurated in the city." Besides creating a canal, Semple's project aimed to provide material to fill more than 1,500 acres of Seattle's tidelands.

No one, however, showed up five years later to celebrate. Powerful political foes had effectively turned public sentiment against Semple's canal. Seattle's citizens would have to wait until 1917 to celebrate the opening of a canal - and it wasn't the route that Semple started, which would have gone east from the Duwamish River and cut through Beacon Hill to reach Lake Washington.

The history of what we know as the Lake Washington Ship Canal and Hiram M. Chittenden Locks is a tale of dreamers and schemers who combined self-promotion, subterfuge and politics to achieve their goals. Semple is only part of the tale. Contending forces ranged from one man with a shovel to the United States Navy, which wanted a safe place to dock its ships, to local citizens looking to line their pockets. Despite their differences, they all shared a common belief: that nothing less than the future direction of Seattle was at stake.

And yet, nearly 150 years after a canal was first proposed, the modern-day canal serves few of the purposes for which these forces battled.

If the desires of early power brokers had played out, we might have steel factories rimming Lake Union instead of houseboats. We might watch coal barges pass on Lake Washington rather than pleasure craft. A massive naval base might have risen where Kirkland is today.

Yet though their crystal balls proved faulty, the enterprise of Seattle's early leaders laid the groundwork for the city that evolved.

CREDIT FOR THE ORIGINAL idea of a canal goes to pioneer Thomas Mercer, who proposed it at a July 4 picnic in 1854. Seattle was only 3 years old, so young that the lake beside which he stood had yet to be formally named. Mercer suggested calling it Lake Union, because of the possibility "of this little body of water sometime providing a connecting link uniting the larger lake and Puget Sound." He went on to recommend that the "larger lake" be called Lake Washington, replacing other monikers such as Lake Geneva and Duwamish Lake.

The lake where Mercer and his friends picnicked did not differ greatly from modern Lake Union, at least hydrologically. It was roughly the same size and at the same elevation. No rivers flowed into the lake; springs, small streams and intermittent runoff from the surrounding hills fed it. The one difference was that a small stream known variously as Ross Creek, The Outlet and Shilshole Creek drained westward from the northwest corner.

Lake Washington, on the other hand, has changed significantly from a hydrologic point of view. Its water level was nearly 9 feet higher than it is today, and seasonal fluctuations raised it as much as an additional 7 feet, making an island of what we now call Seward Park. Numerous wetlands dotted the shoreline. The Black River drained the lake where Renton is now, then flowed into the White River to form the Duwamish. The Cedar River, now the lake's major tributary, did not flow into the lake at all, except during spring runoff, when it overflowed into the Black's course and then into the lake.

West of Lake Union, Salmon Bay was a saltwater inlet, at least during high tide. At low tide, it was practically dry, the water level dropping nearly 20 feet between extreme high and low tides. Salmon Bay connected to Shilshole Bay through The Narrows, where the locks were eventually placed.

Six years would pass before work began on Mercer's vision. Harvey L. Pike was the first to attack the problem, in 1860. His tools of choice: pick, shovel and wheelbarrow. His short-lived efforts created a ditch at roughly the location of the Museum of History and Industry. Pike, whose father Pike Street is named after, may have been discouraged physically, but in 1869 he filed a plat for a settlement to be called Union City between lakes Union and Washington, reserving a 200-foot-wide strip for a canal. His incorporation two years later as the Lake Washington Canal Association, however, was as successful as his ditch-digging, and dissolved quickly after the U.S. Congress refused to support the association's petition for a grant of land.

That same year, 1871, the U.S. government began investigating the possibility of a canal that would enable naval vessels to dock in Lake Washington's fresh water, which would be less damaging than the saltwater of Puget Sound.

Brig. Gen. Barton Alexander recommended either the "Mercer farm" route, between the south end of Lake Union and Elliott Bay near Battery Street, or a canal following the Seattle Coal Co.'s Tramway, which ran roughly from Lake Union along Westlake Avenue to Pike Street and then down to Elliott Bay. These routes would have required cutting through a high point of 119 feet and building two or three locks because of the different water levels.

Alexander thought that a route connecting Lake Union and Shilshole Bay would require too much dredging and be exposed to enemy fire during a war. Another possible route, along the Duwamish and Black rivers, was rejected as being too long and crooked. In his conclusion, Alexander did observe that the Puget Sound region offered one of only three places on the Pacific coast to build a secure naval port.

DESPITE ALEXANDER'S recommendation, local promoters thought that the best canal route ran from Lake Washington via Portage Bay to Lake Union and then through Salmon Bay to Shilshole Bay. Although they may have incorporated the Navy's desires in their plans, the locals' primary concerns were coal and real estate. Seattle's main export in the late 1870s and early 1880s was coal quarried east of the city in Renton and Newcastle. A canal connecting Lake Washington, Lake Union and Puget Sound would allow coal producers to transport their black gold without having to rely on the railroads.

Recognition of the importance of controlling the water route led such stalwarts as Judge Thomas Burke, former chief justice of the state and co-founder of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, and David Denny to form the Lake Washington Improvement Co. (LWIC) in 1883. Denny, Burke and other LWIC board members also happened to own land on Lake Union.

The group proposed to cut a canal with locks a few hundred feet south of the present route. With $50,000, the LWIC hired Wa Chong, a Chinese labor contractor, to dig a canal.

Wa Chong and his contingent of 25 men began by widening and straightening Ross Creek between Salmon Bay and Lake Union. By early 1885 they had completed this project, which included building a small wooden dam and lock at Lake Union. This enabled logs to be lowered from the lake to the channel. A year later these workers finished a 16-foot-wide cut connecting the two lakes at what was known as "The Portage." The difference in elevation between the lakes produced a current in the channel that carried logs from Lake Washington down to Portage Bay.

After this initial success, canal backers realized that they would need significant outside money to build a canal large enough to allow naval vessels and coal barges to travel between Puget Sound and Lake Washington. The best source of millions of dollars was the U.S. government and in 1889, when Washington territory became a state, one of the first acts of the state Legislature was to petition Congress for a canal-feasibility study.

Congress complied and in 1892 published a report analyzing five potential routes for a "ship canal to connect Lake Union, Samamish (sic), and Washington with Puget Sound." The Duwamish / Black River route was rejected, as well as Gen. Alexander's routes between Lake Union and Elliott Bay. The preferred routes were the local favorite, Shilshole to Salmon to Union to Washington, and a route from Elliott Bay to Salmon Bay, across what is now known as Interbay, and then east to the lakes. The report favored the latter route because of its entrance in Seattle's harbor and its lower exposure to bombardment by an enemy fleet.

But another canal route was about to emerge.

WHILE CONGRESS and local power brokers like Burke, Denny and recently elected Gov. John McGraw were supporting a canal north of downtown, Semple, the former territorial governor, arrived in Seattle.

Semple had moved to the Northwest in 1863. After a career as a newspaper editor, lawyer and sawmill owner, he was appointed Washington's last territorial governor in 1887, with the help of well-connected family in the East. Semple moved to Seattle in 1889 following his single, two-year term as governor. He had lost the state's first popular election for governor, but was appointed to the state Harbor Line Commission in 1890.

This position gave Semple the opportunity to study the navigable waters around cities. A map of Seattle then would have showed one primary waterway and one potentially navigable route. The primary route was the Duwamish River, which meandered north toward Elliott Bay and ended at a tidal flat covering a wide area south of what is now downtown Seattle. The other potential navigable route was expansion of the narrow waterways already dug by Wa Chong's men.

Semple saw money-making potential in a southern canal route - specifically, in filling the tideflats as part of a canal project connecting to the Duwamish. Fill material could come from dredging land at the mouth of the Duwamish and from cutting the canal through Beacon Hill to connect with Lake Washington roughly where Mount Baker Park is today. The only problem was that the state did not allow the dredging Semple envisioned.

Semple still had friends in the Legislature, though, and that body in 1893 passed a bill permitting private companies or individuals to dig waterways through tideflats and to use the excavated material to fill tidelands. The work could be financed by liens on the filled land and the contractor could "levy `reasonable' tolls on any locks."

In describing this action, Semple's biographer, Alan Hynding, wrote:

"Few of the lawmakers comprehended exactly how Semple would employ the new law. Had some of the Seattle legislators known, they probably would have opposed it in the interest of the north canal." (Ironically, John McGraw, elected governor in 1892, had run on a pledge to "dig the ditch" - but he meant the northern route.)

After filing plans for his canal, Semple acquired backing from the Mississippi Valley Trust Co., with which he had family connections. With that support and public backing following the 4,000-strong, Seattle armory meeting, Semple started to dig. By late 1896, his firm, the Seattle and Lake Washington Waterways Co., whose board members included many prominent Seattleites, had dredged 2,000 feet up the Duwamish from Elliott Bay, creating what is known now as the East Waterway. It also filled 70 acres of tidelands.

THE CANAL INITIATIVE had gotten away from the powerful Lake Union shoreline landowners - among them Burke, Denny and Dennis Gilman, who owned a railroad now memorialized by the Burke-Gilman Trail - who wanted a northern canal. They teamed up with the Chamber of Commerce to protest Semple's actions and sent Erastus Brainerd, a local promoter, to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress to support the northern route.

Semple followed Brainerd to defend the southern route, and Burke followed Semple. Their controversy reached a head in a meeting of the Rivers and Harbors Committee, where Burke stated that the state Supreme Court had ruled against the south canal. According to Hynding, "Semple challenged him . . . Burke admitted that he had only a vague recollection of the case . . . and he quietly returned to Seattle."

Work, meanwhile, continued on the south canal. Semple did not meet his goal of completing it by 1900, but gravity-fed water had started to sluice a gap into Beacon Hill in 1901. Meanwhile, water cannons, using roughly 14 million gallons of water a day from the city's new Cedar River water system, cut into the west side of the hill (at roughly 14th Avenue and Hanford Street) and washed material into the tideflats. By 1904, more than 300 acres had been filled and the East and West waterways of the Duwamish had been dredged, creating Harbor Island.

Although the northern canal promoters had lost the argument in Congress, they were finding Seattle citizens more hospitable to allegations against Semple. Critics of the south canal claimed that Semple was getting the Cedar River water at below-market value through collusion with a Seattle City Council member. Semple was being sued by Beacon Hill residents whose homes were being damaged by digging. And the northern-route promoters' ally, Erastus Brainerd, had become editor-in-chief of the Seattle P-I in 1904.

With public sentiment turning against his project, Semple resigned from the Seattle and Lake Washington Waterway Co. Within a few months, work stopped on the south canal. Semple's foes appeared to have won their push for a northern ship canal - but not without a scare from Congress.

UP THROUGH 1903, Congress and the state government had generally supported a northern canal. Appropriations in 1894 and 1896 had authorized $175,000 for dredging of Shilshole Bay. In 1900, King County secured the right-of-way for the present canal from private landholders for $250,000 and deeded it to the United States. On Jan. 6, 1903, though, a new government commission report stated, "The construction of a canal, with necessary locks and dams, connecting Puget Sound with Lakes Union and Washington . . . is feasible (but) not advisable at the present time."

In his lengthy "History of Seattle," Clarence Bagley speculated that fighting between the northern and southern groups may have influenced this decision. The government was also concerned about the cost of the project and the fact that local businesses could survive without it.

The setback finally forced the local competitors to quit their bickering. "At length," Bagley wrote, "after years of negotiations, the factions got together and agreed upon a plan." The south canal group would stop working on the canal, focus only on filling in tidal land, and throw its support behind the north canal. In return, Burke and his cronies would stop protesting the land reclamation. The path was ready for obtaining government support. But now Congress declined to supply the money.

In stepped entrepreneur and engineer James Moore, who had helped regrade Denny Hill and had developed Capitol Hill. In 1906, he offered to complete the canal, which he would turn over to the U.S. government in three years, if King County and Seattle ponied up $500,000. The canal would be 60 feet wide, 25 feet deep and have a single wooden lock 600 feet long by 75 feet wide.

Moore's single lock was unusual; most other plans had envisioned two locks - one between Salmon Bay and Lake Union, the other between the two lakes. Two locks meant Lake Washington would not have to be lowered. Lowering the lake, however, would eliminate flooding of the Black River and reduce the acreage of swampy land around the lake.

While Moore's plan was circulating and gaining public support, a man arrived in Seattle who would quickly and permanently leave his mark on the long-simmering canal schemes.

HIRAM M. CHITTENDEN had spent most of his career with the Corps of Engineers and had surveyed in Yellowstone and Yosemite before he was assigned to Seattle in 1906. His biographer described Chittenden as "a dedicated, highly intelligent, inhumanely industrious man, (who) fixed immediately upon the Lake Washington canal as the most important project in his district."

As district engineer for the Corps, Chittenden quickly realized that if he did not act, Moore might build an inadequate canal. Therefore, Chittenden worked to alter Moore's plan. He suggested two smaller locks, side by side, one for large vessels and the other for Seattle's mosquito fleet and smaller craft. He also favored masonry locks to be built at the Narrows, at the western end of Salmon Bay. These became requirements for a canal the Corps would approve, forcing Moore out of the picture.

In Seattle, Chittenden rallied public support for his plan with newspaper articles and speeches. Late in 1907 he sent a detailed analysis of the project to Congress. He stressed the long history of local contributions to the project and, more important, countered the government's financial fears.

Opposition to Chittenden's canal, however, now arose from Ballard mill owners, whose properties in Salmon Bay would be flooded, and from shipping interests and railroads, which opposed the canal outright. The die, though, had been cast, although agreeing on the exact site of the locks required three more years of haggling. Chittenden himself contributed to the delay by wavering in his choice of a site for the locks, but finally settled on the site where they sit today.

Once the site was agreed upon, Congress passed the Rivers and Harbors Act in June 1910 authorizing $2,275,000 for U.S. government construction of the locks. King County would be responsible for improving the waterways. Little work had been done on the channel between the lakes since the labors of the Wa Chong crew, though the one connecting Lake Union and Salmon Bay had been widened and deepened.

Locks construction began on Sept. 1, 1911. The first concrete was poured in February 1913 and the first boat passed through three years later, during a rare snowstorm. The lock gates closed on July 12, 1916, and 13 days later Salmon Bay had risen to its present level, 21 feet above mean sea level. In late August, the dam separating Lake Washington and Lake Union was breached and water drained from the bigger lake for four months until the water levels equilibrated. It took several more months to finish the canal.

SEATTLE'S NEWSPAPERS heralded the grand opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal on July 4, 1917. A carnival and fireworks attracted 50,000 revelers. Chittenden could not attend the ceremonies; bad health restricted him to a wheelchair and he died only three months later. Eugene Semple was not in attendance, either. He had died in 1908 after failed attempts at other waterway-related projects on the Yukon River and in Astoria, Ore.

Work on his tideland project had continued, though, and by 1917 more than 1,400 acres had been filled, creating land for Seattle's industrial base and much of the Port of Seattle.

Few, if any, of Seattle's early canal promoters could have foreseen how the Ship Canal is largely used today. Neither coal nor naval vessels play any role in the modern lock-and-canal system. Instead, pleasure boats dominate traffic at what have become the busiest locks in the United States.

Nor did Seattle's manufacturing base follow the northern canal very far inland. Ironically, Semple lost the fight for the canal route, but his tideland reclamation, the creation of Harbor Island and dredging the Duwamish waterways opened the way for Seattle to become the busy commercial port it is today.

David B. Williams is a Seattle writer. Benjamin Benschneider is staff photographer for Pacific Northwest magazine. Mark Nowlin is a Seattle Times news artist.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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