SNAPSHOT IN TIME | Celebrating 100 years of the Ballard Locks

The Magnolia Historical Society (MHS) will have its annual meeting on the interesting and complex 100-year history of the Ballard Locks on May 25 from 7 to 9 p.m., at Magnolia Lutheran Church.

The free program will feature speaker, David Williams, naturalist, educator and co-author of “Waterway: The Story of Seattle's Locks and Ship Canal,” a new book that document this rich and interesting saga. That book, along with MHS history books, will be available for sale.

On July 4, 1917, the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks were officially dedicated, making this the 100th anniversary year of operation.

Then – Local indigenous populations were the first to realize the necessity of getting from the contained fresh water of Lake Washington to the open salty waters of the Puget Sound. There is no direct evidence of how this was done; but, speculation is the groups walked and used small boats. They came by water down the Sammamish River into the Lake, then over land to cross Lake Union, then to Salmon Bay (off of Magnolia) and into the Puget Sound. The Duwamish, Snoqualmie and Squamish tribes lived around the region. It is thought, they somehow transversed the land to use these bodies of water to obtain food and clothing.

Early pioneer and non-native, Thomas Mercer, was the first to give voice to the need for and commercial opportunities of formally creating a route that would be a waterway connection. It is said by David Williams, in his HistoryLink article on the subject of the Locks, that on July 4,, 1854, at a picnic, Mercer publically made this idea known. The idea was intriguing — the challenge was the land in between the bodies of water, the different heights of the bodies of water involved and the ecology of the freshwater versus saltwater.

While others began to seriously consider the idea over the next decade, Henry Pike acquired the land between Lake Washington and Lake Union, drew up a plan for a 200-foot canal, and formed the Lake Washington Canal Company.

Sometime between 1861-1864, he single-handedly took pick and shovel to his land and began to dig. His effort did not result in much but a large ditch. But, discussion of a canal had begun. Around the same time, the U.S. Army began discussing differing ideas of where this canal route would be and both how and where it could reinforce the military presence in the region. This also did not result in much more being done for the next 10 years.

This was only the beginning of a long and interesting history, according to David Williams:

“The history of the canal involves dreamers and schemers who combined self-promotion, subterfuge, and politics to achieve their goals. Contending forces ranged from one man with a shovel to the United States Navy, who initially desired a safe place to dock their ships, to local citizens, who stood to benefit financially from the canal. Despite their differences, they all shared a common belief that nothing less was at stake than the future direction of Seattle. And yet, nearly 150 years after the canal idea was first proposed, the modern day canal serves few of the purposes for which these forces battled.” (

The history includes arguments between Seattle pioneers and its business elite. There were five different routes, and arguments for and against each. It includes the refusal to use Chinese laborers; and, then the rebellion against them when they were finally brought in to do the work. It is about the military forces, their theories and their ideas and the military men who eventually got the Canal built — Hiram M. Chittenden amongst them. There were many legal battles over financing and money for the project. And, even claims that Chittenden was a racist and the local indigenous population was hurt by its construction as the Black River was drained as a result of the project.

In the end, despite all the reasons people came up with for building these locks with the resultant politics and history, the convoluted financing and bickering — the engineering feat of the Locks had to accomplish three things according to Government sources:

“To maintain the water level of the fresh water Lake Washington and Lake Union at 20–22 feet (6.1–6.7 m) above sea level, or more specifically, 20.6 ft (6.3 m) above Puget Sound's mean low tide, prevent the mixing of sea water from Puget Sound with the fresh water of the lakes (saltwater intrusion), and move boats from the water level of the lakes to the water level of Puget Sound, and vice versa.”

Now – One hundred years later, this July 4, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the opening of this waterway marvel. An engineering wonder and a free passage way for boats and ships allowing them to come inland to Lake Washington or move out from there to the open sea thorough Lake Union, Salmon Bay and Puget Sound. The beautiful Carl S. England Botanical Garden (a rich history on its own) and the fish ladder have been added to the locks as well as Commodore Park on the Magnolia side. It is the home of a large blue heron rookery. There are free tours of this nationally landmarked historic site as well as its free summer concert series.

Currently the Locks needs your support as they try to raise funds to make repairs to “dire conditions” at the visitor’s center, the fish ladder and the gardens. Go to to find out more.