HISTORY IN PERSPECTIVE | 100 years on the Lake Washington Ship Canal (Part Two)

The 100th anniversary of the Lake Washington Ship Canal is coming fast, so I’d better finish my stroll along the Ship Canal Trail. My friend Bill, a fan of safe streets for bicycling and walking, joins me. He hunkered for decades for the completion of the trail under the Ballard Bridge and across the railroad tracks to Fishermen’s Terminal, where we’ll end up.

As we walk toward Ballard, we bear in mind Aug. 3, 1916, the date of the unceremonious opening of the smaller lock at the Hiram Chittenden Locks. After that day, everything on the canal was a go. Like the places I walked by last month, I’ll have more research to do everywhere along the way.

I began this canal adventure last month (Stroll 1) at the 1916 Fremont Bridge and turned off the trail at 3rd Ave West, where we start this time. The location is actually quite convenient, since the character of the ship canal, at least on the Queen Anne side, changes here. The divider is the West Ewing Street Mini Park on the water’s edge. Where the stretch I walked last month has a park-like quality, nearly everything from here to Ballard is industrial. To reverse a famous quip, ‘carrying coal from Newcastle,’ was the among the real economic reasons for the canal. It wasn’t built for frivolous sailboats, motor launches, kayaks, racing shells or canoes. Rather, the Army Corps of Engineers was thinking about ocean-going vessels transporting coal and lumber to San Francisco, New York and beyond.

Our starting point at 3rd Avenue West is Ross. Traditional misogynist history has us believe that the little hamlet that spread across the Outlet was named for the garrulous, grumpy and mean-spirited man who farmed here.  We’ll do his wife and children a better service, by noting that the hamlet and the park in Fremont carry the family name and that their plat is named for Mary Ross, his wife. Ross Station was a stop on the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad about where it crossed the Outlet to follow the trail now named for railroad founders Burke and Gilman.  On April 15, 1885, long before income tax, judge Thomas Burke and Daniel Gilman and eight other investors founded the railroad. In its heyday the road which opened in 1887, extended north to Arlington and east to Rattlesnake Prairie above Snoqualmie Falls.

Ross also served as a streetcar stop on the Seattle Municipal Railway which ran from downtown over Dexter and along Nickerson to the foot of the Ballard Bridge. The city built a car barn at the base of 3rd Avenue West. It still stands buried under the corrugated skin of SPU’s Otto Miller Hall.

Just behind Otto Miller, Bill and I step nimbly around the construction site where Metro is replacing the 100-year-old Fremont Siphon. This interesting device takes all the sewage and storm water from north Seattle and other cities in north King County and shoots them under the canal on their way to the West Point Wastewater Treatment Plant alongside Discovery Park. The inverted siphon has no pumps. The pipe under the canal is smaller than the pipes leading to and from it. The water and other content speed up when they are constricted by the smaller pipe. The large Queen Anne pipe is set at a lower elevation than the entrance on the Fremont side, letting the speeding contents of the smaller pipe spill out effortlessly without clogging. Bob Oates’s Rooter Company is at the ready adjacent to the siphon on Nickerson, but Bill and I think unclogging that pipe might just be too big a job for Bob and his crew!

The original siphon, completed in 1913 and still operating today, was part of the ship canal project, but it leaves me wondering where all that sewage went for the 53 years before West Point opened in 1966. Curiously, there is no word about what happens to excess wastewater nowadays. Metro’s website reports the average daily capacity of West Point is 125 million gallons per day while the new siphon can handle up to 220 million gallons per day and that’s only from the north side of the canal! But enough though of my scatological musings.

The Gascoigne Lumber Company founded in 1925 is a wholesale lumber yard featuring finish lumber and molding. Its long rows of worn sheds line both sides of the trail and lead to 6th Ave. W. The street running parallel to the water is W. Ewing St. On the water side it hosts King County Environmental Laboratory and another of Seattle’s famous floating home installations.  At the water, the Seattle Department of Transportation, which owns all 149 Seattle streets that end at the water’s edge, will improve this bit of 6th Avenue West this year with enhanced native habitat plantings, rain gardens, better kayak access and informal seating. It will turn a neglected and blighted street end into a nice little park.

If Gascoigne Lumber feels industrial, it is nothing like the huge Foss Shipyard that runs from about 6th to 13th Avenues West. In dry docks along Salmon Bay large boats are repaired; the yard is littered with propellers and other large boat parts. The Foss signs have all been recently removed from the buildings announcing the closure of the yard and a move to Everett, but the move is on hold and the work goes on. Large buildings and tent-like enclosures shield the dry docks from prying eyes. South of the yard and the Ship Canal Trail, a long unpaved roadway and a steep bluff below Nickerson create a rural feeling that seems hundreds of miles from the top of the hill or Uptown. At the west end of Foss, a triangular patch of land hosts a fake boat, a pretend helicopter and other gear that firemen use to train for water borne catastrophes. The smoke billowing out of this landlocked ship on training days is eerie.

Bill and I continue on the trail passing between any number of new and old warehouses. We are struck by the majestic concrete U.S. Plywood building hiding alongside the Ballard Bridge. The homeless encampment under the bridge reminds us of the inequities that mark modern life in America. We twist and turn with the trail as it crosses that Burlington Northern railroad tracks just west of the bridge. Bill reminds me of the long fight required to get the Burlington Northern to move the tracks a bit and give bicyclists and walkers a safe and easy way to Fishermen’s Terminal and Magnolia.

We arrive finally at the net sheds and take in the hundreds of Alaskan fishing boats that winter at Fishermen’s Terminal. Their wooden hulls are protected by this odd freshwater location. The expanse of fresh water just west of the Ballard Bridge once consisted of mudflats that came and went with the tide before the locks closed constant access to salt water and flooded Salmon Bay. The boats remind us that they got easy access to this site after the opening of Ballard’s small lock a hundred years ago next month on Aug. 3.


MICHAEL HERSCHENSOHN is president of the Queen Anne Historical Society (qahistory.org).