HISTORY IN PERSPECTIVE | 100 years on the Lake Washington Ship Canal

Our canal never saw a mule named Sal; it’s nowhere near 15 miles long; but it sure has low bridges just like the Erie Canal.

Since 1916, Queen Anne folks have been blessed with one of the most alluring landscapes in our city, and since Nov. 19, 2011, we can walk or ride a bike along the Lake Washington Ship Canal Trail from the Fremont Bridge all the way to Fisherman’s Terminal. The most important feature of this historic promenade, the concrete wall lining the canal, is nearly invisible. On this outing, we’ll begin on the eastern edge of the Fremont Bridge and walk into the setting sun. It is an easy place to find, since a sign slapped up on the underside of the southern end of the bridge marks this spot with the injunction: “Begin Ship Canal Trail.” Before I duck under the bridge, I peer at the north side of the canal where the Bryant Lumber Company had its operation milling logs and where in Sept. 1919 the first ocean-going ship loaded cargo before passing through the locks on its way to Great Britain. Following the old rail spur that ran to south Lake Union, I am reminded of the bridge’s Chicago connection.

The Fremont Bridge is a Chicago Type, double leaf, trunnion bascule bridge like the ones that crossed that city’s eponymous river beginning in 1908. Invented there too, the bridge is a bascule device where heavy counterweights are posed to permit a small electric motor on each end to tip up one half of the bridge’s deck to let tall ships pass. Of course, ‘bascule’ is a French word whose diverse meanings include scale, seesaw and tipping device.

I can’t find the symbols dating the opening of the bridge on its east side, but turning around as I emerge on the western side, I see the bridge’s name and date MCMXVI clearly bracketed between the corbels holding up the bridge tender’s tower. The Fremont Bridge spans the spot where the Outlet, the trickle of a stream that connected Lake Union to Salmon Bay was widened and channeled in 1916. It replaced a much smaller bridge found on the early neighborhood maps.

As I come out of the short train tunnel, I get my first glimpse of the concrete walls that line the canal all the way to Foss Shipyard at Salmon Bay. Above my head is the appropriately named Ponti Seafood Grill, whose dining room captures views of both the Ponte di Fremont and the Ponte George Washington that carries Highway 99 way up high. The gaggle of buildings of the Canal Place Office Park west of Ponti feel like they were built in the 1980s. They hold very little interest reminding me of a misplaced suburban cluster. The small houses on Nickerson and the lovely one-story set of stores opposite the ‘office park’ suggest what we may have lost.

Up above me at this point are some very big electrical cables that are strung up high so no boat will ever get entangled. I am pretty sure that they bring juice from Skagit River dams to power Queen Anne, Magnolia and downtown Seattle. I will want to check out my assumptions about these intrusive lines that appear cleverly placed to avoid aviary electrocutions.

On the west side of Queen Anne Avenue, SPU’s athletic field is another subject that needs more research. I wonder if building the canal destroyed enough of the old neighborhood to make room for this big field or if the university took the initiative. Coeds sunbathing seem out of place.

At the west end of the field I notice Royal Brougham Hall. Royal didn’t go SPU, but a building named for this famous sports writer reminds me of his coverage of the boys of the University of Washington’s rowing team who won the gold medal at Adolf Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics. I read all about Brougham in The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. The name on the building forces me to turn back to the canal where UW racing teams still drill. The canal’s recreational potential had no role in its construction, but it has almost totally replaced the commercial one for which it was intended.

Crossing the foot of Third Avenue North, I am coming to some interesting segments of the trail. Right there just about where Third Avenue North dead ends, is the former car barn for the Seattle Municipal Railway line which ran downtown over Dexter and opened on May 23, 1914 just in time for the canal. Hidden behind a thorough remodeling, the car barn, now called Otto Miller Hall, reminds us of streetcar history, east coast oligarchs who once controlled electricity and transit here and the city of Seattle’s successful attempts to compete with and eventually eliminate them.

Somewhere nearby, as I walk toward the tired looking warehouses of the Gascoigne Lumber Company, I remember Ross Station, the stop on the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad before it crossed the outlet and followed the route now known as the Burke-Gilman Trail. The canal wiped out Ross, the hamlet served by the stop, and the Ross family who had lent the family name, lost its farm, but they weren’t the only ones. Carol Cannon, a Queen Anne Historical Society member, recalls her mom talking about the building of the canal and what happened to her family’s holdings in the neighborhood. I’ll interview her later this year.

I set out to walk to Fisherman’s Terminal, but I am pooped. I ‘ll just have to hop on the Metro Route 13 (only a buck when you qualify) and finish my canal stroll next month. In the meantime, thanks to David Williams author of the marvelous book Too High and Too Steep, who cured me of my fear of history in the first person.

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