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.
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.
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.