SS Roosevelt leads a marine parade through the Ballard Locks to dedicate the Lake Washington Ship Canal on July 4, 1917.

  • By David B. Williams
  • Posted 2/05/2017
  • Essay 1422
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On July 4, 1917, the SS Roosevelt passes through the Government Locks in Ballard, kicking off celebrations to dedicate the locks and Lake Washington Ship Canal, which have been open since mid-1916. The ship pauses at the locks for dignitaries to make speeches that highlight the importance of the great day. Additional speeches follow at the Fremont Bridge and then the Roosevelt leads more than 200 boats on a grand parade through the Montlake Cut and down Lake Washington to Leschi Park in Southeast Seattle. One newspaper estimates that half of Seattle's population lines the shores for the festivities.

Fulfilling a Dream

The Lake Washington Ship Canal fulfilled a dream dating back to the earliest years of Seattle's settlement -- the long-sought waterway connection from Puget Sound via Lake Union to Lake Washington. Following decades of hoping, planning, and false starts, Hiram M. Chittenden (1858-1917) of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took charge of the project. He prepared plans for a ship canal consisting of two cuts, the Fremont Cut between Salmon Bay and Lake Union and the Montlake Cut between Lake Union and Lake Washington, with a set of locks at the west end of Salmon Bay's northern shoreline in Ballard. Chittenden also helped obtain federal funding, which Congress granted in 1910, and work on the locks got underway the following year.

By the summer of 1916, the Government Locks in Ballard and the adjoining spillway dam were completed. The locks' gates closed and water rose behind them, transforming Salmon Bay from a saltwater tidal inlet into a freshwater harbor. Once the final segment of the ship canal, the Montlake Cut, was completed, the level of Lake Washington was slowly lowered nine feet to match that of Lake Union, and boats could travel the canal from Puget Sound into Lake Washington. Although thousands of vessels passed through the locks in 1916, and much of the Puget Sound fishing and whaling fleet moored in the now-protected freshwater of Salmon Bay behind the locks that winter, it was not until July 4, 1917, that the official opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and Government Locks was celebrated. (The locks were renamed the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in 1956, although both before and after that they were commonly referred to, based on their location, as the Ballard Locks.)

The Legendary SS Roosevelt

Central to the July 4 dedication ceremony was a grand boat parade, led by a legendary vessel, though it was a far different boat than when it earned its fame. The boat was the 184-foot SS Roosevelt. Once described as the "strongest wooden vessel ever built" (Peary, 14), she had 30-inch-thick laminated plank siding that was also armor-plated with one-inch-thick steel. Equipped with a 1,000 horsepower engine, the Roosevelt could develop 1,500 horsepower in special circumstances. She was built in Bucksport, Maine.

The strength was necessary because the boat was designed and built to carry Robert Peary (1856-1920) and his crews to the Arctic. In 1909, Perry reached the North Pole, claiming to be the first to do so. (Historians debate whether Peary actually reached the location and whether Frederick Cook [1865-1940] got there first.)

Little more than a year after Peary's men reached the Pole, the Roosevelt was sold to ship salvager and towing man John Arbuckle. After his death in 1912, the boat changed ownership three times in the next three years. By the time she reached Seattle in April 1917, the Roosevelt had been converted to a supply-transport boat for the United States Bureau of Fisheries, which planned to use her in the Pribilof Islands of Alaska.

Grand Opening

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that more than half the city's population of 360,000 gathered for the ship canal's grand opening on July 4. People ringed the shores of Salmon Bay, the two cuts, Lake Union, and the west side of Lake Washington. Others headed out on the water -- sailing, paddling, steaming, and motoring -- attending events from the Ballard Locks to Leschi Park, where the Roosevelt would eventually lead a great line of boats past the crowds.

Festivities at the locks began at 1:30 p.m. when the Roosevelt and the Taconite (a yacht owned by fledgling airplane builder Bill Boeing [1881-1956] carrying dignitaries from the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton), entered the locks from saltwater and were lifted up to Salmon Bay. The Roosevelt then tied to the locks and served as an open-air stage for speakers.

Judge Thomas Burke (1849-1925) presided over the ceremonies, which featured speeches by numerous local dignitaries. Lieutenant Colonel James B. Cavanaugh (1869-1927), who had overseen construction of the locks and who had recently stepped down as head of the Seattle District of the Army Corps of Engineers, noted that "[t]he canal ... is the greatest asset of the Northwest" ("City's Big Waterway ...") Captain Robert E. Coontz (1864-1935) of the Bremerton navy shipyard said, "I shall not be surprised in a few years to hear the slogan: 'On with the canal to Lake Sammamish'" ("City's Big Waterway ..."). Other speakers included former King County prosecuting attorney James McElroy (1864-1919); Judge Roger S. Greene (1840-1930), who had been a key leader of the Chamber of Commerce's support for building the canal; and Major Elliott J. Dent (1877-1953), commander of the Seattle district of the Corps. Amazingly the speeches lasted just 45 minutes; The Seattle Times said that although brief they were eloquent.

The Roosevelt then proceeded to the new Fremont Bridge, which had opened just weeks earlier across the eastern end of the canal's Fremont Cut, for another round of speeches. Dignitaries who addressed the crowd in Fremont included state senator Dan Landon (1876-1933) and former city engineer Reginald Heber Thomson (1856-1949). Former U.S. senator Samuel H. Piles (1858-1940) told the crowd that "there is nothing in beauty or grandeur that can compare with our own canal, nor can it be exceeded in utility in view of the shipyards and wharves that are destined to line the shores" ("Piles Asserts ..."). Former state senator George Cotterill (1865-1958) reminded everyone that "[t]he Lake Washington canal is the supreme manifestation of that which has been termed the 'Seattle spirit,' which is nothing more and nothing less than a united unselfish community effort for the common good" ("Piles Asserts ...").

Apparently, no woman made a speech or sent a telegram, at least that merited a mention in the newspapers. The only reference to women observed that the few on the Roosevelt were guests of the ship's officers.

After a quick tour around Lake Union, the Roosevelt traveled into the Montlake Cut and through a blanket of flowers floating on the water. Finally, at 4:25 p.m. she reached Leschi Park, followed by a line of more than 200 boats, which stretched back up the lake to the canal at Montlake. The Roosevelt then returned to Salmon Bay and the festivities were over. In its evening edition on July 4, The Seattle Times summed up the views of the city:

"It was a gay day of fanfare. Seattle did both itself and the canal proud. The noise and clamor and pictorial features that unceasingly marked the hours were but the outward manifestation of the tremendous significance of the occasion, a 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 factor the city has ever known or is likely to know in the present generation" ("Seattle's Ship Way ...").

New Duties and the Last Two Afloat

After the ceremonies, the Roosevelt headed to her new duties. On her first trip north in 1918, she helped save several ships trapped in the ice in the Bering Sea. Her time in Alaskan waters was curtailed by World War I and she served the U.S. Navy until June 1919. The Roosevelt then bounced around between various owners, finally ending up with the Steamboat Inspection Service, where she was converted to a tug, her job till the sad end of her days. Her final voyage came in October 1936, when her new owner, the California Towing Company, used her to tow a former navy collier to New York. The trip did not go well, with repairs needed in San Francisco and a troubled trip to and through the Panama Canal. The Roosevelt left the canal in January 1937 only to suffer bad weather and numerous mechanical issues. She had to limp back to port in Panama.

Finally on January 21, 1937, the Roosevelt was set out to pasture, so to speak, beached and abandoned on the tideflats of what was known as the Old French Canal. No further records for Peary's old vessel remain. The French attempt at a canal has been altered, cleaned up, and filled. Most likely the Roosevelt succumbed to the tropics and moldered and decayed away, one more relict lost to time.

And of the 200 boats in the 1917 parade, only two were known to still be afloat 100 years later. The Glory Be survived until a fire at the Seattle Yacht Club in 2002, after which owner Betsy Davis and students in Seattle Central Community College's Marine Carpentry program began to repair and restore her; they finished in 2005. The Honey Boy was renamed the Keewaydin and in 2017 was still afloat in Lake Union.


"Peary and the Roosevelt: When Man and Ship Were One," Panama Canal Review, Vol. 15, No. 6, August 1965, pp. 14-16, 22; "Name Change at Locks is Approved, The Seattle Times, July 25, 1956, p. 19; "Seattle's Ship Way, Dream of Years, Opened," The Seattle Times, July 4, 1917, pp. 1, 9, 12; "First Ocean-going Vessel Passes Into Lake," The Seattle Times, July 5, 1917, p. 14; "City's Big Waterway Dedicated," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 5, 1917, pp. 1, 2, 9; "Piles Asserts Canal Pageant Incomparable," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 5, 1917, p. 7; David B. Williams, Jennifer Ott, and the Staff of HistoryLink, Waterway: The Story of Seattle's Locks and Ship Canal (Seattle: HistoryLink, 2017); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Lake Washington Ship Canal (Seattle)" (by David B. Williams) and "Seattle's Fremont Bridge opens to traffic on June 15, 1917" (by Priscilla Long), (accessed February 5, 2017).
Note: This essay replaces an earlier essay on the same subject.


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