James Bates Cavanaugh takes charge of Army Corps of Engineers Seattle District and Lake Washington Ship Canal construction on August 1, 1911.

  • By Linda Holden Givens
  • Posted 6/28/2017
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20398

On August 1, 1911, Lieutenant Colonel James Bates Cavanaugh (1869-1927) takes charge of work on the Lake Washington Ship Canal in his new position as Seattle District Engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Cavanaugh, who grew up in Olympia, has since 1906 been in charge of the rivers and harbors division in the office of the Chief of Engineers at the War Department. Cavanaugh will hold the Seattle District Engineer position for 5 and a half years, overseeing construction of the Ballard Locks that are the centerpiece of the ship-canal project.

Early History of Seattle's Ship Canal

As early as 1854, Seattle pioneer Thomas Mercer (1813-1898) had the vision of connecting the saltwater of Puget Sound to the fresh water of Lake Washington via a canal making use of Lake Union, located half way between the saltwater and the larger lake. Over the years, many people discussed and tried to accomplish building a canal. Hiram Martin Chittenden (1858-1917) was appointed on April 13, 1906, to head the Seattle District of the Corps of Engineers, replacing Colonel Francis Amory Pope (1875-1953). In May 1906, Chittenden was instructed to review a proposal by developer James A. Moore (1861-1929) to complete the canal.

Chittenden recommended significant changes to Moore's proposal. After a while Moore withdrew his proposal. By the end of 1907, Chittenden's study concluded that a canal was feasible. Moore transferred his rights to construct the locks -- needed to raise boats from the level of Puget Sound to that of Lake Union -- to the Lake Washington Canal Association. By 1908, Chittenden's plan for the canal was approved. In February 1910, Chittenden retired due to ill health after 36 years of service with the Corps of Engineers, although his active work on the canal project had ended more than two years earlier when he went on leave because of his poor health. In early 1910, the state legislature appropriated $250,000 for the project, and in June 1910 Congress passed a statute that provided up to $2,275,000 to build the locks at Ballard. The locks and ship canal would be built by the War Department through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, because of their recognized military and commercial value.

James Bates Cavanaugh

James Bates Cavanaugh was born in Carrollton, Illinois, on June 6, 1869, to Thomas H. (1844-1909) and Helen (Ellen) M. (1937-1909) Cavanaugh. Thomas Cavanaugh moved his family to Salina, Kansas, and then, in 1883, to Olympia, Washington's capital city. James Bates Cavanaugh grew up in Olympia with his sister Hanna Irena Cavanaugh (1871-1948) from the age of 14, graduating from Olympia Collegiate Institute (previously known as Puget Sound Wesleyan Institute and Union Academy) in 1887.

The following year, Cavanaugh was appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, by Charles Stewart Voorhees (1853-1909), Washington's territorial delegate to the United States Congress. He entered the academy on June 16, 1888. Cavanaugh graduated number 1 in his class on June 11, 1892, and became a second lieutenant the Army Corps of Engineers. The same year, on October 1, 1892, he entered the Engineering School of Application in Willets Point, New York, graduating on August 18, 1895.

Upon graduation in 1895, Cavanaugh's first assignment was in Detroit, Michigan, on river and harbor work on the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie. In 1896 he was named temporary officer in charge of the Soo Locks Project. For his service, he was promoted to first lieutenant on February 5, 1897. In 1898, Cavanaugh was sent to Mobile, Alabama, to oversee torpedo-defense work at Mobile Bay during the Spanish American War. He remained in that post until June 10, 1900, and on September 4, 1900, he took command of Companies A, D, and E of the Battalion of Engineers in the Philippines.

Cavanaugh continued moving up the ranks. On April 30, 1901, he was promoted to captain in the Corps of Engineers. He returned to the States on October 18, 1901. Over the next decade, Cavanaugh served in a variety of posts that included teaching Field Engineering, Military Topography, and Sketching at the Post School of Officers at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas from April11, 1902, to May 24, 1903. By 1908 he became assistant to the Chief of Engineers in Washington, D.C. On February 14, 1908, he was promoted to Major and later that year, on September 28, he became a member of the Lighthouse Board.

Cavanaugh's experience in practicing engineering in many capacities prepared him for one of the most important duties he ever had -- the construction of what were at the time the largest locks north of the Panama Canal.

Building the Ballard Locks

On May 6, 1911, Cavanaugh received orders to relieve Major Charles Willauer Kutz (1870-1951) as Chief Engineer of the Seattle District of the Army Corps of Engineers. Kutz was being transferred to Manila for duty as Chief Engineer of the Army Corps's Philippines division. For the next few months, Cavanaugh diligently prepared for his new position in Seattle to oversee completion of the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

Lt. Col. Cavanaugh arrived in Seattle on August 1, 1911, as the new Chief Engineer of the Corps's Seattle District, with full control over construction of the ship canal and the two masonry locks at Ballard's Salmon Bay that were central to the canal project. Immediately he went into action on the construction of the locks, which began on August 6, 1911. On February 26, 1913, the first concrete was poured in the locks walls. During the next stages of the project, Cavanaugh skillfully exercised sound judgment, patience, and tact in dealing with conditions that were often not visible to the public. Many local officials and members of the general public were finally looking forward to the long-awaited completion of the canal with excitement and sometimes impatience. At the same time their confidence in Cavanaugh's ability and judgment increased as his engineering skills became apparent.

By June 1914, the walls of the locks were completed, except portions that were left out to allow passage of construction trains on elevated tracks and floors of the locks. By the early summer of 1915, the installation of the vessel gates started. On February 2, 1916, the first vessel, the Orcas, passed through the completed locks, whose gates were not yet closed. On July 12, 1916, with the spillway dam adjacent to the locks complete, the locks gates were closed. By July 25, the elevation of Salmon Bay behind the closed locks had risen to 21 feet above sea level, the same level as Lake Union, allowing boats to pass through the locks to the lake. The Orcas was the first vessel to pass through, using the smaller of the two locks.

On August 3, 1916, the larger lock opened with the steamer Swinomish along with the Orcas as the first vessels passing through. Cavanaugh, Judge Roger Sherman Greene (1840-1930), Judge Thomas Burke (1849-1925), and multiple guests were aboard the Swinomish. Three weeks later, on August 25, 1916, the cofferdam at Montlake was opened and Lake Washington merged with Lake Union. Burke voiced his appreciation for Cavanaugh's success in completing the project at a Seattle Chamber of Commerce luncheon on September 27, 1916:

"It became the good fortune of our honored guest to be selected by the government to build the Lake Washington canal. That the government made no mistake in this choice is now known of all men. The county of King having an important share in its construction, the county commissioners wisely turned to the same man to take charge of the county's part of the work and sought and secured the government's consent that he might do so. ... Never was an important work carried to success with less fuss or friction" ("Col. Cavanaugh Responds ...").

By the end of 1916, an estimated 7,500 vessels, 12,000 passengers, and 201,000 tons of freight had passed through the ship canal locks.

On July 4, 1917, the Lake Washington Ship Canal was formally dedicated with ceremonies at the locks and the newly completed Fremont Bridge, and a parade of boats through the locks, around Lake Union, and into Lake Washington. Chittenden, whose design and advocacy for the canal had allowed the project to move forward, was too ill to attend the dedication. Cavanaugh, who had recently stepped down as head of the Corps's Seattle District, attended the ceremony aboard the Swinomish with many other guests. Due to the engineering skill and leadership of James Bates Cavanaugh in overseeing construction of the locks and completion of the canal, the Lake Washington Ship Canal project was an overwhelming success.

Called to War

On Saturday, May 5, 1917, two months before the dedication ceremony, and shortly after the U.S. entered World War I, Cavanaugh had received orders from the War Department to assemble a new engineer regiment for immediate service in France. Major Elliott J. Dent replaced Cavanaugh as Seattle District Engineer. The new regiment was mobilized at American Lake at Camp Lewis in Pierce County in May 1917. By August 9, 1917, Cavanaugh had organized the famous 18th Engineers, which departed for Europe and performed much notable service in France. The regiment went through 20 months of hard service during the war.

On July 9, 1918, Cavanaugh was awarded the Army Distinguished Service Medal by President Woodrow Wilson for his service during World War I.

Honoring James B. Cavanaugh

Cavanaugh asked to retire in August 1922 after more than 34 years of service in the Corps of Engineers. He retired as a full colonel on December 1, 1922.

James B. Cavanaugh died of bronchial pneumonia on April 26, 1927, at the home of his sister Hanna Irena Cavanaugh McIndoe in Coronado, California, at the age of 57. Preliminary funeral services were held in San Diego. Final funeral services were held at the National Cemetery in West Point, New York. Cavanaugh never married and had no children.

On January 16, 1967, the Lockkeeper's House at the Ballard Locks, which was built in 1913 as the first structure designed by architect Carl F. Gould (1873-1939) for the ship canal project, was renamed the Cavanaugh House and dedicated in his honor. A plaque commemorating the dedication was installed on December 10, 1974.


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