Mysterious island appears in Seattle's Lake Union on May 16, 1962.

  • By David Williams
  • Posted 1/25/2013
  • Essay 10307
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On May 16, 1962, a mysterious island arises out of the depths of Lake Union. It measures six feet by eight feet and is made of mud and clay. Seattle's latest geographic addition stands about two feet out of the water and a little more than 300 feet off the southwest shore of the lake. A group of University of Washington students immediately sets sail for the island and after a quick landing returns to shore and files a claim for it under the name of Chelan Island. The island soon disappears, but others will emerge. It is not clear what has caused the islands to rise, but localized dirt-dumping may play a role.

Emerging From the Depths

Seattle has had long history of changing its topography, from shearing off Denny Hill to channeling out the Lake Washington Ship Canal to filling in the Duwamish Tidal Flats, but perhaps the strangest change of all took place "naturally" on May 16, 1962. That night the harbor police noticed that a small island had mysteriously appeared at the south end of the lake, offshore of the 1200 block of Westlake Avenue N (The exact location was N 47°37'50.5" W 122°20'11".) Measuring about six feet by eight feet, it stood about two feet out of the water. Soundings showed that the island topped a shoal of mud and clay 200 feet long by 20 feet wide. The water depth in this area was about 40 feet.

Wanting to protect anyone from running into Seattle's newest real estate, the harbor police stationed several boats "near the disturbance," wrote Don Page in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Despite the phalanx of boats, two University of Washington students, Wesley Parks and Lloyd Pernella, landed on the island. The two young men, plus other members of their residence hall, Chelan House, then staked a mining claim for diatomaceous earth on the new land at the city registrar. They also elected a mayor and city council, listed 115 residents, and named the small landmass Chelan Island. But then, like Atlantis, the Chelan Island disappeared beneath the surface of the lake.

Peculiar Events

Despite the island's vanishing, the Corps of Engineers was still concerned with navigation and why the island appeared. People who lived and worked on Lake Union told a reporter that several peculiar events had transpired recently. These included local earthquakes that had shaken businesses, and bubbles boiling up to the lake's surface. A spokesperson for the corps said that the new island could have been caused by a large rock or sunken scow forcing the mud to move.

The Corps also pointed to the possibility of fill dirt being dumped in the lake as a cause, but added that this was unlikely due to deep water between the fill site and the island. They did, however, warn Clarence Stabbert, who owned a small wharf at 1200 Westlake Avenue, to quit dumping fill beyond his harbor line.

Islands Galore

Two months later, on July 30, 1962, another island appeared in the lake. Around the same size as the original, the new landmass was now on the east side, about 200 feet from the shore, near the 1100 block of Fairview Avenue N. But it was not alone; six much smaller pimples of land joined it.

The Army Corps of Engineers again rushed in and this time declared that the dumping of fill had forced up the islands. All of the fill came from the new Interstate 5 freeway then being built through the city. About 35,000 to 40,000 cubic yards had been dumped, with about 10 times that volume remaining to be hauled. (Trucks carrying the dirt ran so often that traffic jams backed up Fairview Avenue N, then one of the main commuters routes into downtown.) The corps called for an immediate halt to dumping, which stopped on August 2.

Despite the halt, the largest of the seven new islands remained. The coast guard placed on the protrusion a temporary marker with a quick flashing red light, followed on August 24 by a lighted buoy.

Putting a Stop To It

In early September, the City Council's Parks and Public Ground Committee recommended a new ordinance requiring permits for any fill into Lake Union and that all fill needed to be restricted to the property line. Builders would also have to post a bond.

No islands have appeared in Lake Union since the ones in 1962 but if you look at a recent soundings map of the lake produced by the Army Corps of Engineers you can still see the high shoal that formed the base of Chelan Island.

Sources: Robert A. Barr, "Mystery Isle Staked by U.W. Students," The Seattle Times, May 18, 1962, p. 2; "Muddy New Islands Make Appearance In Lake Union," Ibid.,  July 31, 1962, p. 1;  "Dumping of Fill In Lake Union Halted," Ibid., August 3, 1962, p. 9; "Lake Union Dumping Will Halt for Study," Ibid., August 4, p. 7; "Council Unit Ponders Rule On Lake Fills," Ibid., September 5, p. 48; Don Page, "Survey Set After Island Discovery," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 18, 1962.
Author's Note: I would like to thank Margaret O'Mara of the University of Washington for telling me about these islands. She described them to me as "rebelling" against the human onslaught to the lake. It is a wonderful phrase.

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