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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

03 May 2014

❖ Lake Washington Ship Canal ❖ Opens 1917

Opening Day 1956,
Photo by Larry Dion

Original from the archives of the S.P.H.S.©

Lake Washington Ship Canal and Portage Bay
   "The opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in 1917 was important in the history of Northwest yachting. Construction of the canal was justified on the basis of commercial usage, but the effect on pleasure craft has been great. It not only made a large freshwater area available for racing, cruising, mooring, repair, and construction facilities, but as a result, lakefront owners could now keep boats to use for both freshwater and saltwater pleasures.
      The combination of protected water and excellent spectator space in the middle of a large metropolitan area makes possible what may be the largest and best known Opening Day of the yachting world.    
      After years of considering alternative canal routes (a cut through Beacon Hill, for example) and after facing opposition by such groups as the mill owners on Salmon Bay, ground was broken for lock construction in 1911. In 1915 the part of Lake Union east of the old Latona St. Bridge was renamed Portage Bay in commemoration of the traditional way of transporting boats, logs, and other materials from Lk Washington to Lk Union. In October 1916, the canal was opened from Salmon Bay to Lake Union, and the following May it was open for navigation to Lk Washington.
      An earlier canal had existed. According to the abstract of title for property on Portage Bay owned by the Seattle Yacht Club, in 1861 this federal property (obtained from the American Indians by treaty) was sold by the appropriate board of commissioners to raise funds to build a territorial university. Harvey Pike, the purchaser, obtained 161.83 acres at the north end of what is now the Montlake District for $242.75.
      Pike tried with a pick and shovel to connect the two lakes with a small canal but 
found the job too big. In 1883 a group of prominent men, including David Denny, hired Chinese laborers to open a small wooden-lined flume south of where SYC's Pier 1 is now located. Logs from the shores of Lake Washington were floated through this canal to David Denny's mill at the south end of Lake Union. The end of this log flume can be seen in early pictures of the SYC site. Guillotine locks on the Washington end controlled the flow of water into Lake Union, which was 8.5-ft lower. 
      The present ship canal with its Montlake cut was located 500-ft north of the old canal, avoiding a difficult turn at the east end of the cut. In 1910, before excavation began, control gates were installed at the eastern end of the cut for use in lowering Lake Washington to the level of Lake Union. A coffer dam built on the west end and the cut then was excavated. On 26 August 1916, this dam was opened and 43 million gallons of Lake Union water gushed into the cut, filling it in an hour. After the debris was cleared away, the gates at the eastern end of the cut were opened. It took more than a month for enough water to escape from Lake Washington to lower it to the level of Lake Union.
      The official opening of the canal on 6 July 1917, was made notable by a parade of 250 craft of all sizes moving through the canal. Thus the first Opening Day parade through the Montlake cut was not sponsored by SYC..."
Text from The Centennial History of the Seattle Yacht Club, Warren, James R. Redmond, WA. 1992.

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