Montlake Cut (Seattle)

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 12/30/2012
  • Essay 10221
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The Montlake Cut, between the Montlake and University District neighborhoods in Seattle, connects Lake Washington and Lake Union as part of the Lake Washington Ship Canal. When it was completed in 1916, it marked the realization of a 62-year-old idea to link the lakes with Puget Sound, creating a freshwater harbor in Seattle and a waterway connecting Seattle's shipping harbor in Elliott Bay with the resource-rich interior of King County. The canal boosted economic development on the lakes and helped reduce flooding in the Duwamish River valley (its former outlet), but it also had far-reaching environmental and cultural consequences.

The Dream of a Ship Canal

The idea for a ship canal connecting Lake Washington, Lake Union, and Puget Sound surfaced early in Seattle history. According to Seattle historian Clarence Bagley, on July 4, 1854, Seattle residents gathered for a celebration, and Thomas Mercer (1813-1898) proposed naming the larger lake to the east known variously as Hyas Chuck (a Chinook Jargon phrase meaning "big water"), Geneva, and D'wamish, as Lake Washington. He also proposed renaming the smaller lake directly north of Seattle, Tenas Chuck ("little water"), Lake Union because he believed that a canal through the lake would ultimately join Lake Washington and Puget Sound.

Though Mercer had few neighbors near his claim on Lake Union, he envisioned a future city that would have enough commerce to justify building a canal to facilitate the movement of people and freight between the Puget Sound and the lakes. Two decades after the name change, Mercer described the meeting (which he does not date to July 4) at which he suggested the names: "Several of the neighbors in Seattle met in 1854 to suggest names for their two large lakes. I suggested for one the name of Washington as being the largest in the territory and for the other the name of Union on account of its locality, for sometime it could be a connection between Lake Washington and the Bay. The names were established after some little opposition" (Thomas Mercer).

Seattle's early settlers built their economy on the bounty of natural resources in Seattle and inland. Though in 1854 local markets were limited, the settlers knew there were markets for lumber, fish, and coal in San Francisco. Puget Sound offered the closest deep-water harbor north of San Francisco, and after the start of the California Gold Rush in 1849, San Francisco's explosive growth virtually guaranteed prosperity for anyone who could figure out how to get the resources to California.

Fish could be caught and processed on the shoreline, but before long the forests close to tidewater on Elliott Bay would be cut down. Loggers would have to find a way to bring the enormous logs from old-growth forests out of the interior. Coal mining promised big returns as steam engines proliferated in sawmills and other industries, but the mines were located inland, in the Cascade foothills. Without railroads to carry logs and coal across the hilly, forested landscape, and without the capital to build them, the settlers found, as the area's Indian tribes had long known, that the easiest and fastest routes through the valleys were on the waterways.

To the south of Seattle, the Duwamish and Black rivers provided a route to Lake Washington through a valley.  To the north, an east-west cleft in the hills formed by glacial meltwater offered an alternate route, though part of it was blocked by land. This cleft between Capitol Hill and the University District and extending between Queen Anne Hill and Phinney Ridge, is the route of today's Lake Washington Ship Canal.

Indian Economies and Transportation

Indians had regularly moved resources between the mountains and Puget Sound for trade, but usually in smaller amounts that could be managed on the rivers or carried over a portage. The rivers posed difficulties for moving tons of coal or log booms because of ever-changing channels, tidal influence on river depth, and shallow water at the mouth of Duwamish River in Elliott Bay. The northern route had deep water and was protected from tidal influence, but it did not offer a continuous connection to saltwater. Land (where later Montlake Cut was dug) separated Lake Washington and Lake Union, and broader swaths of land separated Lake Union from Shilshole and Elliott bays.

Generations of Indians used the portage over the isthmus between the two lakes to transfer their canoes between the lakes. It is low-lying, fairly level, and only about one-quarter of a mile wide. A local group known as the hloo-weelh-AHBSH called the place sxWatSadweehL (which translates to "carry a canoe") and controlled the portage, though many different tribes passed through to travel from Puget Sound to the interior.  There was a large Duwamish village, called hikw'al'al ("Big House"), on the southern shore of Union Bay, and a smaller winter village on the north shore, near the site of today's Husky Stadium. Two trails between the lakes appear on the General Land Office survey map made in 1856, one along the northern side, where the existing Lake Washington Ship Canal is today, the other to the south, somewhat to the south of the route of State Route 520.

Old King Coal in King County

Early coal discoveries in King County included a bed uncovered at the farm of R. H. Bigelow (b. ca. 1807) on the Black River in 1853 and a seam found in 1859 at Squak (later Issaquah) by Lyman B. Andrews (1829-1913) and David Mowery. In 1862, Andrews went back to the coal seam to get a sample to bring into town. He approached blacksmith William W. Perkins in Seattle to test the coal and determine what rank (or type) of coal it was, which would indicate how much heat it would produce. The coal was of high enough quality that Perkins agreed to go into business with Andrews.

A strong market for coal existed because it was used to power machinery, heat homes and businesses, and fuel the steamers that plied the waters of Puget Sound. The galloping growth of San Francisco after the 1849 California Gold Rush and the continued demand for coal to power trains, ships, and machinery there supported high prices.

Still, Andrews and Perkins had to figure out how to get it to market in the absence of reliable river navigation, roads, or railroads in King County. In 1864, the San Francisco Bulletin reprinted a notice from the British Colonist extolling the quality of the coal found at Squak, but lamenting, "The chief drawback is the distance of the mines from the seaboard" ("Coal at Seattle"). According to historian Matthew Klingle, local businessman James Edwin Whitworth grew frustrated with the pace of travel on the Duwamish and Black rivers. In 1869 it could take a week to travel up the river to Lake Washington on his way to the coal mines at Newcastle. He and others had to rely on Indians who were more familiar with the river to guide their boats.

Portage Between Lakes

Early efforts to develop transportation networks focused on the rivers, but the portage between Lake Washington and Lake Union also drew attention. In about 1860, Harvey L. Pike (1841-1897) began digging a canal, with a shovel and pick, on land he owned there. His planned route roughly followed an existing Indian trail between the lakes. The enormous difficulty of the task stymied his efforts, but he did not give up on the idea. In 1869, when he filed a plat for Union City on the portage, he reserved a swath of land for a canal reserve. It ran between the two lakes, in an arc just south of the current route of State Route 520.

A decade later, in 1871, Pike, along with J. R. Robbins, J. H. Fairchild, O. Humason, and James McNaught (1852-1919) incorporated the Lake Washington Canal Company to build a ditch to allow logs to pass through. Pike and his wife, Mary (b. ca. 1845), sold the company the entire canal reserve tract and some land to the north. This effort too failed, though the Seattle Coal and Transportation Company built a tramway along the canal's planned route to carry coal across the portage to waiting barges on Lake Union, mirroring the Indian tribes' use of the portage.

The tramway carried coal that had been loaded in coal cars in the mine at Newcastle, rolled down to Lake Washington, and loaded onto barges that tugs towed across the lake. After crossing the portage, the cars were rolled onto a barge in Lake Union and towed to the lake's southern end. From there a locomotive pulled the cars to the coal bunkers on Elliott Bay, at the foot of Pike Street. This onerous process worked well enough to keep the Seattle Coal Company in business until the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad,  using the Duwamish River valley route, reached the mines in 1878.

The Need to Move Logs

During the 1880s, as Seattle's Elliott Bay waterfront grew crowded, industry began to develop on the Lake Union shoreline. In 1882, Luther M. Roberts, Thomas Hood, Nicholas Davidson, and Isaac A. Palmer formed the Lake Union Lumber & Manufacturing Company and opened a sawmill on the southern end of the lake, near the current intersection of Valley Street and Westlake Avenue. This location was then on the lakeshore, which has since been filled to the north with sawdust and other refuse from the mill and fill dirt from other parts of Seattle. It was, according to Clarence Bagley, the first mill to locate outside the Elliott Bay shore in the downtown area. Others followed, with an early mills located at Fremont and Brooklyn.

David Denny bought the Lake Union Lumber & Manufacturing mill in 1882 and renamed it the Western Mill Company. The next year he joined with other area landowners -- J. W. George, Corliss P. Stone (1838-1906), Thomas Burke (1849-1925), Frederick H. Whitworth (1846-1933), H. B. Bagley, Benjamin F. Day (1837-1904), Erasmus M. Smithers (1830-1905), G. M. Bowman, Guy C. Phinney (1851-1893), John W. Van Brocklin (d. 1940), and William H. Llewellyn -- to form the Lake Washington Improvement Company. They intended to build canals between the lakes and between Lake Union and Salmon Bay, which was then a saltwater inlet of Puget Sound.

Digging Ditches, Digging Canals

The company hired Chinese immigrant laborers through the Wa Chong Company to dig the canals using hand tools. Chinese immigrants were often hired in Seattle for these types of projects. They built many miles of railroads and wagon roads in Western Washington. Often, labor brokers, such as the Wa Chong Company, served as middlemen connecting laborers with companies.

The crew started on the Salmon Bay and Lake Union canal, which followed the route of Lake Union's outlet, Ross Creek (also known as The Outlet and Shilshole Creek), to the bay. When it was complete in 1885, the company again hired Chinese immigrant laborers to dig the canal on the Montlake Portage, using the land sold to the Lake Washington Improvement Company in 1870. The company may have leased it, or made other arrangements, because the Lake Washington Canal Company is listed as the grantee in later land transactions. The canal, which came to be known as the Montlake Ditch, ran slightly diagonally across the isthmus, roughly following the path of today's SR 520.

A lock at one end of the ditch controlled the water's flow. When it was opened, the drop in elevation between the two lakes, about nine feet, pulled the water and logs through the ditch. According to some sources, it was not actively maintained for very long, but contemporary photographs show the ditch in use into the 1900s. At some point, before 1904, a log flume was built along its length. Eldon E. Phillips (1894-1967), who lived in a houseboat on Lake Union in the 1900s, wrote about how his dad would "shoot the chute" in a canoe, propelled through the air for several feet at the Lake Union end.

Government Efforts and Moves

While private efforts to build the canal continued, the Seattle City Council and Chamber of Commerce worked to enlist the federal government's support of the project. The Army Corps of Engineers considered building the canal a number of times beginning in 1871 when one committee of Corps engineers considered Lake Washington for a U.S. Navy shipyard, but Port Orchard Bay was chosen instead.

In 1892, another committee of engineers considered five possible routes for a canal that would support economic development in the region and help with flood issues at Lake Washington's outlet at Renton, the Black River. Their report to Congress recommended a canal with two sets of locks, one at the Montlake Portage to maintain the level of Lake Washington, and one at Ballard, to maintain the level of Lake Union. The route beyond the locks at Ballard was left undecided. One route, through Salmon Bay (then a saltwater inlet of Puget Sound) to Shilshole Bay, offered the benefits of a shorter route and less interference with railroad tracks, but the narrows at its western end were more exposed to heavy seas and possible enemy attack. The other route, through Salmon Bay and the Interbay area to Smith Cove, offered more security and an outlet to Elliott Bay, but involved more land acquisition and significant disruption of heavily used railroad tracks.

In 1894, the Rivers and Harbors Act included a provision that the right of way had to be acquired and transferred to the federal government before work could commence. The King County Board of Commissioners voted in 1895 to "condemn and appropriate and dispose of for public use," the lands along the canal route. The resolution the board passed stated that it was "clearly for the general welfare and benefit of the people" of King County. The commissioners completed the condemnations in 1900, once the route had been finalized.

While planning progressed on the ship canal connecting the lakes to Puget Sound, another project to connect Lake Washington to Puget Sound through the tideflats south of downtown commenced. The Seattle and Lake Washington Waterway Company had the approval of the state legislature and made use of inexpensive water from the city's newly constructed Cedar River pipeline to begin sluicing a route through Beacon Hill.

In 1902, the Army Corps of Engineers dismissed the Seattle and Lake Washington Waterway's route as unfeasible (it was never completed), but did not authorize any work on the north canal. The Corps cited a lack of sufficient commerce to support the costs of construction, maintenance, and operation of the canal and locks. Once again, private parties in Seattle tried to build the canal. Seattle property developer James A. Moore (1861-1929) offered to build and operate a canal and locks if King County would contribute $500,000. The county agreed and Moore prepared to begin work. He only intended to build a wooden dam and lock at the west end of the canal, though he later realized it would be insufficient.

Major Chittenden Arrives

Major Hiram M. Chittenden (1858-1917) came to the Army Corps of Engineers Seattle District in 1907. According to historian William F. Willingham, Chittenden believed, "the canal was the most important matter before the district" (Willingham, 87). He developed a plan that would put the one set of locks on the western end of the canal and shifted the canal route through the Montlake Portage to the north. His plan also called for a masonry lock system. The Corps' Board of Engineers approved Chittenden's plan in March 1908. It would take three more years to arrange funding, decide on a final route (connecting to Shilshole Bay), and acquire the land.

The ship canal Chittenden planned, using many of the elements of earlier plans, began at Shilshole Bay in Puget Sound. There, at what was known as the Narrows, the Corps would build a dam and a two-lock system with a large lock for cargo ships and a smaller lock for the Mosquito Fleet ships and other small boats that passed between the lakes and the sound. The locks would raise the level of Salmon Bay to the height of Lake Union and make it a freshwater bay. The Corps' Board of Engineers approved Chittenden's plan in March 1908. It would take three more years to arrange funding, decide on a final route (connecting to Shilshole Bay), and acquire the land.

Chittenden's plan shifted the canal route across the portage to the north of the canal reserve King County had condemned in the 1890s to allow ships to follow a straighter path. In 1907, the State of Washington gave the federal government a swath of land at the north margin of the isthmus. The federal government retained control of the old log-canal route, turning part of it over to the Bureau of Fisheries (now National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) in 1930 and leasing the rest to the City of Seattle for park use. The city used it as an extension of Washington Park. In 1949, the federal government returned the park portion of the property to King County. The land was again taken for transportation purposes in 1961, when the State of Washington needed a right of way for the Evergreen Point Extension of Primary State Highway 1 (SR 520 today). The relatively undeveloped strip of land on Montlake Portage served as the western approach to the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge.

Montlake Cut

The excavation of the cut at Montlake moved forward slowly. On August 7, 1909, Major C.W. Kutz of the Army Corps of Engineers awarded a contract to C. J. Erickson for digging the ship canal cut through the isthmus. It was funded by a $250,000 appropriation made by the Washington State Legislature from the funds accrued through the sale of state tidelands in Seattle. Most of the money from the tidelands sales had gone to funding the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, a world's fair held on the University of Washington campus in 1909.

On October 26, 1910, amidst a flurry of lawsuits over the lowering of Lake Washington, Captain Arthur Williams, Kutz' assistant, set off dynamite in the earthen wall separating the partially-excavated canal from Lake Washington. Water flowed in to the canal and reporters scurried to find out if the Corps was in violation of court injunctions stopping work on the project. When asked about it, Williams stated, "The United States government is doing certain work within a right of way purchased many years ago, and it will continue with that work. We have not been served with any legal process to stop us in that improvement, which is a federal proposition." When asked about it at his office downtown, Erickson grinned and answered, "I know nothing about the blowing up of that bank, except what I was told over the telephone last night" ("Waters of Lake." 13).

In February 1912 another contract for excavating the cut was awarded to Stilwell Brothers. The contractors used hydraulic machinery to dig out the canal and dumped the excavated material for fill on the University of Washington campus. Seattle newspapers tracked the canal's progress, noting work stoppages for times when Lake Washington was allowed to spill over into the canal and Lake Union for flood relief in the Duwamish River valley.

By June 1914, the cut was essentially finished but had to remain blocked by wooden gates at each end until foundation work was completed for the bridges that would cross the canal at Fremont, Latona, and Montlake. Voters declined to approve funding measures, however, due to a variety of reasons.  Work on the foundations did not begin until 1915 when a final bond issue for the bridge work finally passed.

Joining the Lakes

Finally, on August 26, 1916, the cofferdam holding Lake Union back from the canal was opened and water gushed into the channel. Within a few days the cofferdam on the east end of the cut was opened and Lake Washington joined with Lake Union. Over the next three months, the level of Lake Washington dropped 8.8 feet. Wetlands along the shore drained and the lake dropped below the Black River channel.

The ship canal became the new outlet for Lake Washington. The 1916 fall salmon run reached the Black River just in time to be stranded in pools of water on the mostly dry riverbed. In the 1930s, new salmon stock would be introduced via the ship canal, but the original Black and Cedar runs are gone.

The Altered Environment

At the time of the construction of the ship canal, Lake Sammamish, the Sammamish River, Lake Washington, and the Black River were part of the Green-Duwamish River watershed. A number of streams draining the surrounding land fed Lake Sammamish. That lake's outlet, the Sammamish Slough (also known as the Sammamish River), was the primary source of water into Lake Washington, though the lake was also fed by creeks and springs along its perimeter. The Black River, on the lake's south end, at Renton, drained Lake Washington. It was joined by the Cedar River just a half mile downstream from the lake. The Black River joined with the Green River at what is now Tukwila to form the Duwamish River. Before 1906, the White River also drained into the Duwamish, but its channel shifted during a flood and it became a tributary to the Puyallup River.

The Lake Sammamish-Lake Washington-Black River system moved relatively slowly. Coastal geologist Michael Chrzastowski estimated that water stayed in Lake Washington for about five years before entering the Black River and continuing on to the sea. The slough between the two lakes was marshy, with a broad, meandering channel. At the other end of Lake Washington the Cedar River's alluvial fan slowly, but continually, built up at the outlet of the lake. The fan acted as a dam at the mouth of the lake and the Black River carried the relatively small volume of water that spilled over it.

By the 1900s, the Lake Washington was about 30 feet above the average low tide on Puget Sound at Shilshole Bay. This was its average level; seasonal changes in precipitation could cause the shoreline of the lake to vary by as much as seven feet. During exceptionally rainy periods the Black River flowed in two directions: downstream to the Duwamish and upstream, back into the lake. These fluctuating water levels created many marshy areas along the lakeshore.

When American settlers began establishing farms along the Duwamish and Black rivers, they were plagued by floods. The rivers' height varied by three to four feet and hindered settlement and development. In an attempt to get the river moving more quickly and draining the lake more effectively, the settlers tried some dredging and debris clearing. This work sped up the river and reduced backflow from the Black River back into the lake, but did not solve the issues completely. In about 1913, a new channel was dug for the Cedar River, diverting it around the town of Renton and into Lake Washington.

The rest of the ship canal route was separate from the Green-Duwamish basin. Lake Union was fed by streams and springs along its shores and drained through a small creek known by several names -- Ross Creek, Shilshole Creek, the Outlet -- to Salmon Bay. The lake level was 21 feet above the mean level of low water at the bay. It fluctuated very little because the area of land that drained into the lake was relatively small. Salmon Bay, a saltwater inlet, fluctuated with the tides each day. At low tide it was a very shallow channel, about three feet deep. At the highest tides, it reached a depth of about 15 feet. 

Water moved differently through the new watershed. It passed through Lake Washington much more quickly, in about two years. The steeper gradient created by the lowered lake level on Lake Washington caused the Sammamish Slough current to move more quickly, increasing the channelization of the waterway. At the same time, the changes drastically reduced the volume of water flowing through the Duwamish River. It reduced, but did not eliminate, flooding, and allowed farmers to drain and cultivate more land. Before long, much of the lower Duwamish would be straightened and dredged into a waterway to facilitate economic development. This, along with filling on the Seattle tidelands, led to a dramatic loss of the Duwamish estuary. Much of the industrial area of Seattle is built on top of the filled estuary.

Costs and Losses

Though the ship canal would bring many economic and social benefits to Seattle, its construction had detrimental effects. In the simplest sense, something beautiful was lost -- the Black River. Clarence Dullahaut, who moved to Renton in 1903, described the Black River in an interview: "It was a pretty river, meandering along. People used to come up the Duwamish from the Sound up the Black to Lake Washington in launches" (Sato, 56).

The Lakes Duwamish had lived along the Black River for generations. Members of area Indian tribes who had long gathered resources from those wetland areas and who relied on salmon as a foundation of their diet and as an integral part of their spiritual beliefs, lost access to those resources on Lake Washington and along the Black River. The right to fish and gather plant materials had been retained in the treaties the tribes signed with the United States, but it became difficult to exercise those rights in the much reduced environment that resulted from the hydrological changes.

There was also an emotional loss for local Native communities. Joseph Moses, who lived near the river, stated in an interview with David Buerge, "That was quite a day for the white people at least. The waters just went down, down, until our landing and canoes stood dry and there was no Black River at all. There were pools, of course, and the struggling fish trapped in them. People came from miles around, laughing and hollering and stuffing fish into gunny sacks" (Sato, 57). According to Renton historian Morda C. Slauson,  Joseph's brother, Henry Moses (1900-1969), "dragged his canoe out of the mud and said he never wanted to paddle it again" (Slauson, 5).

Like many large civil engineering projects in Seattle, the Lake Washington Ship Canal wrought enormous change to the landscape and to the lives of people who lived on the waterways affected by the project. It brought many benefits to the city, but exacted a large environmental and social price.


Dedication ceremonies for the canal were held on July 4, 1917. The Army Corps of Engineers, the City of Seattle, and numerous neighborhood organizations planned celebrations. The official ceremony, held at the Government Locks at Ballard, featured a marine parade, led by the U.S.S. Roosevelt. The Roosevelt was famous for transporting Admiral Robert Peary (1856-1920) on his North Pole expedition in 1909. Numerous dignitaries aboard the Roosevelt and on shore gave speeches at the locks and the Fremont Bridge. The Seattle Times effused:

"The noise and clamor and pictorial features that unceasingly marked the hours were but the outward manifestations of the tremendous significance that every thinking person on the whole canal right-of-way realized in full -- that here, completed, ready for use, actually in use, was a thing that will do more toward bringing Seattle its destined million inhabitants and undisputed Pacific Coast supremacy than any other one factor the city has every known or is likely to know in the present generation" ("Seattle's Ship Way").

The boast had a basis in fact: In the 11 months before the canal unofficially opened, the locks transferred 16,000 vessels, 18,000 passengers, more than 23,000,000 feet of lumber, 26,000 cubic yards of sand and gravel, 268,000,000 feet of logs, and 28,000 tons of other cargo between the lake and Puget Sound.

For Commerce and Pleasure

In later years, particularly after World War II, industrial activity on the lakes decreased and pleasure boats began to fill moorages and dry docks along the shore. Yachts and sailboats have grown to a sizable portion of the traffic through the locks. The celebration of Opening Day of boating season, sponsored by the Seattle Yacht Club since its move to Portage Bay on Lake Union in 1920, has become a much-anticipated annual event involving hundreds of boats.

Even with the shift toward pleasure boating on the lakes, the canal still serves an important commercial role. The Port of Seattle's Fisherman's Terminal is located on Salmon Bay and commercial fishing boats based there pass through the locks on their voyages to and from fishing grounds off the coast and in Alaska. Ships come into the lakes for repairs and, with construction of the new Evergreen Point Floating Bridge underway, pontoons constructed in Aberdeen are being floated through the canal to the bridge construction site on Lake Washington. Engineers designed the largest of the pontoons, which are 360 feet long, nearly 30 feet tall, and 75 feet wide, to just fit within the width of the locks.


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