THE BALLARD LOCKS

IMG_0397 Engineers Who Dare to Create.

I’m not the kind of person who looks down at the currents, tides, and waves passing through a big, deep body of water and think, Hey, I could build a bridge across that.

Not on your life. I mean, where would a person even start?

And who would dare to create a large engineering marvel like the Panama Canal? If you’ve ever been through it, you’ve seen how huge it is: a series of locks on both ends and a lake in the middle. It makes you wonder who in his right mind had the audacity to think it was even possible to build a 48-mile-long canal through mosquito-infested land in someone else’s country.

An engineer, of course … along with a bunch of politicians.

Grand Coulee Dam is another engineering marvel. If you haven’t spent a day touring it, I’d highly recommend you do so.

The Hiram Chittenden Locks

For centuries people in the Pacific Northwest carried or dragged their boats between Lake Washington and Lake Union. If it had been up to people like me, we might still be doing it (or paying someone else to do the dragging). But when logging became big business here, they had to find a way to get their logs down to Puget Sound. In 1883, David Denny and Thomas Burke hired a crew of Chinese laborers to dig a canal.

Connecting the bodies of water was complicated, though, by the fact that the lakes were considerably higher than the saltwater. Call in the engineers.

In 1906, the Army Corps of Engineers sent Hiram Chittenden to be the Army District Engineer. Hiram looked at the various proposals, asked for more money, and proposed a double concrete lock with steel gates instead of a wooden lock.

You can read more here about the history, construction, and operation of the Hiram Chittenden Locks, better known as the Ballard Locks.

Our Argosy Cruise through the Ballard Locks

IMG_0403These boats entered the lock behind us. We all were directed to the larger lock, which is 85 feet by 825 feet. The smaller lock is 30 feet by 150 feet.

"Throw me a rope."

“Throw me a rope.”

We were heading from the lower saltwater of Puget Sound into the higher freshwater leading to the lakes. The administrators of the locks are required to maintain the water level of the two lakes at 20.6 feet above mean low tide. They’re also charged with preventing the mixing of sea water and fresh.

IMG_0407Once the boats are inside the lock and tied up, the gate is closed.

IMG_0386Then fresh water from the lakes and Salmon Bay flows into the lock, and our boats begin to rise.

IMG_0408As we near the top, onlookers stare at us and we look back at them.

IMG_0415Once up to lake level, the gate opens. Then we cruise away from the Ballard Locks and under the Ballard Bridge on our way to Lake Union.

The Courage to Create

Engineers have an amazing amount of chutzpah. They aren’t the only people who dare to create of course. Creativity is all around us. Sculptors dare to make that first cut. Gardeners dig up the lawn for flowers which in the beginning only exist in their minds. Cooks try something new and serve it to their family.  Entrepreneurs  have the courage to start new businesses. Writers dare to write novels.

Here’s to us all and all the creativity we’re courageous enough to attempt.

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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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27 comments


  1. That is very cool. I’ll have read up as to how they keep fresh and salt water from mixing.




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  2. This was fascinating, Nicki! I’ve always been in awe when it comes to bridge construction…the Royal Gorge Bridge…how in the heck did they do that? Great post!




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  3. Traveller at heart

    The great feel good summer……….August is for sharing the moment. Break out the sandals and T-shirts, a languid swim, watching the world go by under a sultry heaven and alfresco meals bursting with lovely, zingy flavours and peach lemonade. Heaven!




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  4. This would be so cool to experience. Who would think that engineering could be fun? Another creative endeavor that fascinates me is music. How does songwriting happen? While I love music, I can’t begin to imagine how a song is actually created.




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    • I suppose one reason it’s hard to imagine how people in another field create is that we’re not familiar with all the preparation and apprenticeship they go through. People who write music must have listened to and played thousands of songs written by other people before they composed their own.




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  5. Canals are really something amazing. I’ve only been at the Kiel Canal (according to wikipedia it is the most used man made canal in thw world with roughly 32.000 ships annually. It is located very near my hometown and driving by car over the few very high bridges spanning the canal gives a wonderful view




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    • Interesting! The Kiel Canal is 61 miles long, longer than the Panama Canal. Another interesting fact: There’s a lock at either end of the Kiel Canal, but there isn’t a big difference between sea-level and canal level. The main purpose of the locks is to defend the canal against the movements of the tides.




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  6. I remember my first time there, fascinating! Mindy




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    • Because my sister has lived in Ballard since the seventies, we’ve often visited the locks and watched the boats from above. But this was only the second time I went through on a boat.




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  7. Glad you had such a gorgeous day to cruise through the lock.




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  8. I hope to ride along a canal like that someday. It sounds that it’s quite a sight when the water is rising and the boat goes up. Engineering, certainly a marvel of man 🙂




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  9. Wow, cool to boat through the locks. And that video was amazing, I can see why engineers, especially, would want to watch it. I love getting an education from the blog community. 🙂




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