The Hundredth Anniversary of the Ballard Locks

 My sister lives nearby, so I’ve been to the Ballard Locks dozens of times. Usually we walk through her neighborhood and down the hill. Then we join the crowd of gawkers standing around, watching boats arrange themselves inside one of the locks.

At some point, a buzzer goes off, a gate closes, and water either flows into the lock or drains out. When the desired water level has been reached, another buzzer rings, the other gate opens, and the boats go on their way, either into the lakes or out to the salt water.

heading west toward Puget Sound

The experience has always been fascinating enough that I haven’t given much thought to the entire engineering project of which the Ballard Locks is only one portion. I’ve been content to scurry from one lock to the other, watching the yachts and sailboats, fishing boats, tug boats, and kayaks, waving at friendly boaters, and then moving on to check out the salmon ladders.

But during the Fourth of July holiday this year, the locks (more formally known as the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks) and the Lake Washington Ship Canal were celebrating their hundredth anniversary. There were fly-overs, band concerts, and boat parades. Information about the construction of the Locks was everywhere.

The Age of Great Engineering Marvels

The late Nineteenth Century and the early Twentieth were a time of big, ambitious civil engineering projects.

1869 – The Suez Canal

1883 – The Brooklyn Bridge

1913 – The Elwha Dam

1914 – The Panama Canal

1917 – The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks and the Lake Washington Ship Canal

1931 – The Empire State Building

1936 – Hoover Dam

1937 – The Golden Gate Bridge

1942 – Grand Coulee Dam

After the fact, it’s easy to take these projects for granted. But before anything exists, tell me, would you have the imagination and chutzpah to propose one of these huge projects and push it through? I don’t think I would.

The Lake Washington Ship Canal and the Ballard Locks Project

In the early Twentieth Century, Seattleites with big ideas dreamed of connecting Lake Washington with Puget Sound. They wanted to transport logs to sawmills and coal to waiting ships and to build a freshwater harbor for the Navy. The trouble was, Lake Washington was eight miles from Puget Sound and on an average day, the lake was 29 feet higher.

To make a long story involving politics and money short, the project began in 1911. Six year later, on July 4, 1917, the city celebrated the grand opening of the canal.

The Ship Canal as it looks today

Today you can sail, paddle, or cruise from Lake Washington through the Montlake Cut, across Lake Union, through the Freemont Cut, over Salmon Bay, through the Ballard Locks, and out into the saltwater of Puget Sound. And, thanks to the engineers and workers of the past, when you’re ready to come back, you can do the very same thing in reverse.

As with all big projects, this one caused harm as well as providing opportunities. Wetlands were lost, salmon runs were harmed, Native Americans were displaced, and a beautiful little river disappeared. It’s all to the good that in the Twenty-first Century, we’ve become more aware of the larger impact of big projects.

But the Ballard Locks was built a hundred years ago. So, on the occasion of its Centennial, let’s celebrate the audacity of people who undertake big, bold projects and see those projects through.

On the lawns overlooking the locks, my sister and I enjoyed the music of an excellent jazz quintet …

… and the beauty of delicate flowers in an adjacent garden.Then we ran off to the theater in downtown Ballard to catch the next showing of Wonder Woman.









About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
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  1. Wow. What a grand occasion! I enjoy watching boats heading out. (And you ended the day with a viewing of Wonder Woman. Nice!)

    It’s hard to be a visionary with a grand plan. I wish there had been a way to avoid displacing Native Americans.

    • I’m not usually a big fan of super hero comics and movies, but my sister and I really enjoyed Wonder Woman.

      I think most of us are content to live within the world as we find it. The world can only handle a limited number of visionaries with grand plans. But as writers, we can appreciate their big imaginations and persistence.

      Seattle has been displacing lots of people lately. It’s become sort of a boomtown. The median home price recently hit $700,000. A few months ago my nephew moved to Oregon because his rent went up so much.

  2. Maureen Rogers

    I enjoyed this article and photographs, Nicki. Sometimes we take for granted the amazing things in our own back yard! I read recently that the Locks could never have been built today with all the environmental restrictions. Ultimately it’s been a major source of development for our part of the country. Thanks for sharing!

    • You’re probably right that the Ship Canal and locks couldn’t be built today. But now that we have it, we have to maintain it. I heard a comment on the radio about what would happen if the locks failed: Water would drain out of Lake Washington, and the floating bridges would be left high and dry. That’s something I never considered.

  3. These things are amazing especially considering the tools at the time of building.

    • You’re right about the tools they had in those days, Kate. They had some great photos in the Sunday magazine, and the whole project looks very old fashioned.

  4. Great pictures. The lock looks lovely. Is there a fee or a permit necessary?

    • There are no fees for boats going through the Locks. As a result, the Locks are significantly underfunded. Another infrastructure in need of repair and upgrades.

  5. Several years ago I watched a fascinating documentary on the construction of the Hoover Dam. Great photos, Nicki…especially the one of you…so cute! You look so happy.

  6. Glad you had nice weather for the celebration and jazz music.

    These days we need visionaries who can figure out how to reverse engineer all the harm we caused in the name of “progress.”

  7. Very interesting to read about the history of the ballard locks. It is a marvel of science and engineering, but it is even more interesting to hear about the negative ramifications it had on the environment and culture, what with the displacement of sea creatures and Native American livelihood. I would have thought there were nearby lands for them to seek solace but sometimes we are just very sensitive to our environments.

    But this bit of innovation certainly brought around so much progress and efficiency in movement and transportation. It did look like you were enjoying the jazz a lot, Nicki 🙂

    • Yes, Mabel, I did enjoy the jazz. I especially enjoyed the band member who played clarinet and sax.

      The people who built the Ballard Locks thought they were doing a good thing, and for the most part they did. We’re all prisoners of the historical moment in which we live. We can’t know what people in the future will think of our achievements. Another engineering marvel near here was completed in 1913, the Elwha Dam. Besides providing electricity for the city of Port Angeles, it destroyed an important salmon run. A couple of years ago, we dismantled the dam, and now the salmon are coming back.


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