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On August 3, 1916, the steamer Swinomish became the first ship to pass through a complex of locks on the Lake Washington Ship Canal in Washington state. The locks are located at the west end of Salmon Bay and between the Seattle neighborhoods of Ballard and Magnolia.
Around 100 government officials were on the Swinomish for the inaugural trip through the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, which were named for U.S. Army Major Hiram M. Chittenden, the Seattle District Engineer for the Corps of Engineers from April 1906 to September 1908. Although the locks were named for Chittenden, they are now widely known as the Ballard Locks. The Oregon-based Daily Capital Journal reported in its next-day edition that “thousands of cheering spectators” had also lined up on the banks of the canal to cheer the progress on the project.
The complex of locks were built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which still operates them. The short voyage by the Swinomish occurred a little more than nine months before other ships began routinely using the locks and 11 months prior to their official dedication and opening on July 4, 1917.
Since then, the Ballard Locks have been a critical component of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, which connects the waters of Salmon Bay, Lake Washington, and Lake Union to the tidal waters of Puget Sound. The Lake Washington Ship Canal and the Ballard Locks allow recreational and commercial vessels to travel to the docks and warehouses of Seattle’s fresh water harbor. In fact, the locks carry more maritime traffic than any other lock system in the United States.
There are two locks, one small (30 x 150 feet) and one large (80 x 825 feet). The complex also includes a 235-foot spillway with six 32 x 12-foot gates to assist in water-level control. In addition, a fish ladder is integrated into the locks for migratory fish, notably salmon.
The locks and associated facilities serve three purposes:
- To maintain the water level of Lake Washington and Lake Union at 20 to 22 feet above sea level, or more specifically, 20.6 feet above Puget Sound’s mean low tide.
- To prevent the mixing of sea water from Puget Sound with the freshwater of the lakes (saltwater intrusion).
- To move boats from the water level of the lakes to the water level of Puget Sound, and vice versa.
Beginning in the 1850s, discussions regarding the construction of a navigable connection between Lake Washington and Puget Sound took place. At that time, the connection was needed to transport logs, milled lumber and fishing vessels. In 1867, the U.S. Navy endorsed a canal project that also included a plan to build a naval shipyard on Lake Washington. However, it wasn’t until 1891 that the Corps of Engineers began planning the project. Modest preliminary work began in 1906, but it wasn’t until 1911, under the command of Hiram M. Chittenden, that construction began in earnest. However, the years of delays in the canal’s planning and construction led the U.S. Navy to build the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington. It is located across Puget Sound from Seattle.
The Washington State Legislature appropriated $250,000 in early 1909 for excavation of the canal between Lake Union and Lake Washington. The funds were placed under the control of the Corps of Engineers. Then Congress gave its approval for the lock in June 1910. However, Congress stipulated that the rest of the canals along the route be paid for locally. Legal challenges by mill owners in Ballard who feared property damage and loss of waterfront in Salmon Bay, and by Lake Washington property owners, then further delayed construction.
Construction of the locks connecting Salmon Bay to Shilshole Bay began in 1911, and it proceeded without further controversy or legal entanglements. The locks’ gates were closed for the first time in July 1912. Over time, this action turned Salmon Bay from saltwater to freshwater.
After the Swinomish ceremoniously passed through the locks on August 3, 1916, the temporary dam at Montlake was breached on August 25. Over the next three months, this caused Lake Washington to drain, lowered the water level by 8.8 feet and dried up more than 1,000 acres of wetlands, as well as drying up the Black River and cutting off the Cedar River salmon run.
This was followed by the rerouting of the Cedar River into Lake Washington to provide sufficient water flow to operate the Ballard Locks. In addition, the White River was rerouted into the Puyallup River. Previously the Cedar and White rivers flowed into the Duwamish River, which caused frequent flooding. By rerouting the rivers, large areas of lowlands were available for development; however, the actions disrupted the Duwamish salmon runs.
The locks officially opened to boat traffic on May 8, 1917. The project’s cost up until then was $3.5 million. Of that total, $2.5 million had been federal funding; the remainder came from the state and local governments.
The Lake Washington Ship Canal project was declared complete in 1934. While generally a success, the project did create problems. Salt water intrusion began upstream toward Lake Union, which required a system that included siphons and flushing mechanisms. In addition, the Cedar River was the primary water source for the lakes, the locks and Seattle’s potable water. After the construction, there were problems at times with an adequate water supply to maintain lake levels and operate the locks. Also, redirecting the rivers caused greater flooding throughout the watershed. That was made worse by logging; at times during storms the locks were opened just to allow water to flow out.
As a result of the locks’ construction, the topography of Seattle and the surrounding area was reshaped profoundly. In addition to lowering the water level of Lake Washington and Lake Union, miles of new waterfront land were added, the flow of several rivers were redirected, and the eastern half of Salmon Bay was drained.
As noted above, the Ballard Locks carry more boat traffic than any other lock in the U.S. They were designed and built for the nation’s commerce. Logs and coal traversed the locks for years. Now, over one million tons of cargo, fuel, building materials, and seafood products pass through the locks each year. In addition, a significant portion of the Alaskan fishing fleet moors in Seattle’s fresh waters and use the locks. However, it is smaller recreational boats that make up the majority of the vessel traffic through the locks, with nearly 50,000 boats moving through the locks annually.
Operation of the locks
The locks are capable of elevating a 760-by-80-foot vessel 26 feet – from the level of Puget Sound at a very low tide to the level of freshwater Salmon Bay, in only 10 to 15 minutes. The locks handle pleasure boats and commercial vessels, ranging from kayaks to fishing boats returning from the Bering Sea to cargo ships.
Vessels that want to pass from the freshwater Lake Washington or Lake Union to Puget Sound enter the lock chamber through the open upper gates. The lower gates and the draining valve are then closed. Lockwall attendants make sure the vessel is tied down and ready for the chamber to be drained.
Next, the upper gates and the filling valve are closed. The draining valve is opened, which allows water to drain via gravity out to Puget Sound. When the water pressure is equal on both sides of the gate, the lower gates are opened, allowing the vessels to leave the lock chamber.
The process is reversed for upstream locking.
The complex includes two locks so that the small lock can be used when boat traffic is low. This conserves fresh water during summer, when the lakes receive less inflow. With two locks one can be drained for maintenance without blocking all boat traffic. For the last several years the large lock is drained for approximately two weeks (usually in November); the small lock is drained for about the same period (usually in March).
The locks complex
In addition to the locks, the Ballard Locks complex also has a visitors center, a spillway, a fish ladder and the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden.
South of the small lock is the spillway dam. It has tainter gates that are used to regulate the freshwater levels of the ship canal and lakes. The gates on the dam release or store water to maintain the lake within a two-foot range of 20 to 22 feet above sea level. Maintaining this lake level is very important – there are floating bridges and mooring facilities on the lakes, and if the lakes were too high it would impact vessel clearances under various bridges.
In addition, smolt flumes in the spillway help young salmon to pass safely downstream. Higher water levels are maintained in the summer to accommodate recreation and so that the lakes can act as a water storage basin in case of drought conditions.
The salt water barrier is very important as well. If excessive salt water were allowed into Salmon Bay, the salt could eventually damage the freshwater ecosystem. To help prevent this, a basin was dredged just above the large lock. Salt water is heavier than freshwater; it settles into the basin and drains through a pipe discharging downstream of the locks area. The saltwater drain was modified in 1975 in order to divert some salt water from the basin to the fish ladder. There it is added via a diffuser to the fish ladder attraction water.
To further restrict the intrusion of saltwater, a hinged barrier was installed just upstream of the large lock in 1966. A hollow metal barrier, it is filled with air to remain in the upright position, which blocks the heavier salt water. The barrier is capable of being flooded; it then sinks to the bottom of the chamber when necessary to accommodate deep-draft vessels.
According to the federal government, the fish ladder at the Ballard Locks is “unique,” because it is located where salt and freshwater meet. Normally, fish ladders are located entirely within freshwater.
Pacific salmon hatch in lakes, rivers and streams (and now in fish hatcheries). They then migrate to the sea, and only at the end of their life return to freshwater to spawn. Prior to the construction of the locks, no significant salmon runs existed in the nearby area.
As noted earlier in this article White River was rerouted into the Puyallup River. Cedar and White rivers did support significant salmon runs but also created severe flooding conditions for the area’s early settlers. Rerouting these two rivers was a mixed blessing; while flooding was reduced, the Duwamish River salmon runs were decimated. To help the situation, salmon runs were rerouted through the Locks, which included introducing a major run of sockeye salmon using stock from Baker River, Washington.
The ladder was designed to use “attraction water” – fresh water flowing swiftly out the bottom of the fish ladder, in the direction opposite which the salmon migrate at the end of their lives. However, the attraction water from this first ladder was not effective. The Corps rebuilt the fish ladder in 1976 by increasing the flow of attraction water. In addition, the old fish ladder had only 10 “steps”; the new one has 21. A diffuser well mixes salt water gradually into the last 10 steps. When the fish ladder was rebuilt, the Corps added an underground chamber with a viewing gallery.
Today, the locks are a leading tourist attraction in the Seattle metro area, with more than one million visitors annually. In addition to the attractions noted above, there are the Carl S. English, Jr. Botanical Gardens. The gardens contain seven acres of exotic trees and plants.
Carl S. English, Jr. was a horticulturist and botanist hired by the Army Corps in 1931. For over 40 years his vision and expertise transformed the area surrounding the locks into an English estate-style garden. English also helped to develop the waterside plantings along the Fremont and Montlake Cuts that are part of the Lake Washington Ship Canal.
Seattle residents or visitors can relax in the gardens, enjoy a picnic or a free summer concert. The gardens have also become a favorite outdoor wedding venue.
The Ballard Locks were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and the American Society of Civil Engineers’ list of Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks in 1997.
FreightWaves Classics thanks the following organizations for information and photos used in this article: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, myballard.com, transportationhistory.org, ballardlocks.org, blog.friendsoftheballardlocks.org and the Seattle Municipal Archives.