Washington State Legislature establishes a commission on March 1, 1933, to investigate connecting the Columbia River to Puget Sound by canal.

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 4/18/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9685
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On March 1, 1933, the Washington State Legislature passes a bill establishing a commission to explore the feasibility of a canal connecting the Columbia River with Puget Sound. The idea for a canal has been considered several times since the 1850s, but Great Depression relief funds may offer a chance to fund the effort, because the project will put the unemployed back to work. The commission reports favorably on the canal, but federal engineers cannot be persuaded of its economic benefits. The idea will resurface several times before finally being tabled in 1970.

The Canal Idea

Washington's ports, although well-situated for trade with Asia and the South Pacific, presented several challenges to nineteenth-century ships. The Columbia River has a reliably deep channel but a notoriously difficult bar, upon which, during the early years, ships broke up regularly. The two coastal ports, Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, also have difficult bars and, until railroads connected them to the interior, both were cut off from inland commerce by coastal mountains and hills. Puget Sound has numerous deep-water ports and direct connections to farms, forests, and mines in Western Washington, but it’s farther inland, and ships had to traverse the Strait of Juan de Fuca to reach the sound.

Not long after Euro-Americans arrived in the Northwest, the idea of a coastal canal surfaced. According to a report written by Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) in 1860:

"the country between the Columbia River and Puget Sound ... was so favorable that it had been an idea, presented years ago, to connect their waters by a canal, so easy were the grades, and so low was the dividing ridge" (United States War Department, 154).

And a 1961 newspaper article about the canal noted that,

"What made the whole idea seem sensible to the pioneers was the fact that the coast Indians of the Grays Harbor area reached Puget Sound by way of the Chehalis River to a point about one and a half miles southeast of Oakville, where the Black River joins it from the north. Turning their canoes into the Black, the Indians followed that stream to Black Lake, near Olympia" (Granberg).

A short portage took them to a creek that fed into Budd Inlet, on Puget Sound.

In 1881, the city of Olympia commissioned a survey of the route. The Olympia Chamber of Commerce, and Olympia resident Elias J. Payne (1840-1920) in particular, pushed for a canal to stimulate the town's development. The Army Corps of Engineers Captain Charles F. Powell reported to the Chief of Engineers in 1882 that a series of canals from the Columbia River to Puget Sound was feasible and that:

"While continuous water communication between Puget Sound and the Columbia River is a project so far in the future that we need not now concern ourselves about its details, it remains true that an improvement on the part of the route, in aid of local commerce, is one step towards the completion of the whole system" (Powell, 2688).

To Unite Inland Seas and Rivers

In 1895, 1903, and 1907, the state legislature sent memorials to Congress asking for a survey of the canal's routes. The 1895 memorial focused on the impediment to trade posed by the Cascade Mountains. With a canal, the legislature claimed, the resources of the west side of the mountains could more easily be exchanged for the resources of the east side of the mountains.

The Republican Party in Washington took up the issue in 1898, adding a plank to its platform supporting construction of a canal from Puget Sound to the Columbia River. They envisioned it "uniting all navigable inland seas and rivers in this state with the Pacific Ocean" ("The Platform").

The Olympia Chamber of Commerce appointed a committee, which included Elias J. Payne, Allen Weir (1854-1916), and George N. Talcott (1858-1949), to explore the feasibility of a canal to Grays Harbor in 1900. The chamber’s committee joined with a committee from the Olympia City Council, whose members were Mayor Caleb Reinhart (1857-1934), Guy C. Winstanley (1863-1929), James Doherty (b. 1858), and Joseph M. Lammon (1840-1911). The Chamber of Commerce published a report, The Puget Sound and Gray's Harbor Canal: A Few Reasons Why It Should Be Constructed, which included tables and maps to enhance the argument.

Pros and Cons

In 1907 the federal government undertook a study of the proposed canals. The Army Corps of Engineers Major Hiram Chittenden, who would later be involved in the construction of Seattle's Lake Washington Ship Canal, conducted the study and determined the canal was not economically feasible. Although it would offer a second route for military materiel and small vessels from Naval Station Puget Sound (now known as Puget Sound Naval Shipyard) at Bremerton, Chittenden did not foresee enough private use to justify the expense. He also doubted there was enough water in the basin to fill the canal and thought that passing through the locks would take longer than going around. Finally, he noted that the canal would require 20 locks, bringing its total cost equal to that of the rest of the Corps' proposed improvements for the entire state.

Chittenden's report did not deter canal proponents, however. An article in the Olympian titled "Puget Sound Early Recognized as Most Wonderful Region for Man's Development" argued that "the time is coming when there will be war on the Pacific for the supremacy of this nation on the Pacific Ocean and this great Northwest will be the main theater of that war and the nation should prepare for it." A persistent justification for the canal was that the Strait of Juan de Fuca could easily be blocked by an enemy power, and the military would need an alternative route to the Pacific.

A private company decided to perform its own survey. The Inland Waterway & Canal Company first surveyed the route and then planned to begin work on the Grays Harbor to Columbia River canals in early 1910. These two canals would cross relatively narrow stretches of land between Baker Bay and Willapa Bay and between Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor. Because the canals would lie at sea level, no locks or complicated engineering would be needed, keeping the project costs lower than those of the canal between Olympia and Grays Harbor. The company planned to build dredges at South Bend and begin work within months, according to an article in the Olympia Record. But apparently nothing came of the effort.

The canal feasibility committee authorized by the Washington State Legislature in March 1933 produced a report in favor of building the canals. The project had gained support because it would put the unemployed back to work using federal money from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and stimulate economic development.

Direct benefits from the canals were laid out in a multi-page report summary. These included "the rehabilitation of industry," the opening of state schools' timber lands, increasing transportation options for raw materials, more efficient shipping, and facilitating cooperation among public port districts" (Canal Commission, 15).

Indirect benefits of the canal system also filled several pages. Among them were enabling travel from Alaska to the Columbia River on inland waters, opening markets for timber products, developing "national and world trade in the Pacific northwest," putting the unemployed back to work, securing markets for agricultural products of the inland empire, taking better advantage of government improvements already made to Washington ports, and transporting Fort Lewis and Puget Sound Naval Station military personnel and equipment (Canal Commission, 17).

"The Vast Possibilities"

A letter to the editor from Edwin A. Henderson (probably the state representative from Thurston County) supported the canals because of their immediate and future economic benefits. Washington ports that would gain business from increased shipping were those at Camas, Vancouver, Woodland, Kalama, Kelso, Longview, Cathlamet, South Bend, Raymond, Aberdeen, Cosmopolis, Hoquiam, Montesano, Elma, Olympia, Shelton, Steilacoom, Tacoma, Seattle, Bremerton, Port Orchard, Everett, Anacortes, Bellingham, Mukilteo, Port Townsend, and Port Angeles. Also, Henderson argued, "there are vast possibilities for reclamation and settlement of thousands of acres, which is now cut by sloughs, overflowed swamps, salt marshes and mud flats, which could be reclaimed and settled" (Henderson letter).

The Army Corps of Engineers issued a report of its study findings in 1934. According to the Portland Oregonian, the Corps rejected the feasibility of the project, because the cost of the locks could not be justified. By continuing to keep the bars open at the mouth of the Columbia River and at the mouth of each of the bays, they could facilitate sufficient shipping traffic at a far lower cost.

As war concerns grew in 1939, the state again tried to get federal aid for building the canals. Representative Martin F. Smith (ca. 1890-1954) argued that the canals would provide a vital link for military equipment and supplies traveling between Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean, particularly between Puget Sound military installations and the fort at the mouth of the Columbia.

Cranberry and Oyster Growers Say No

In June 1941, oyster and cranberry growers registered their first formal opposition to the project. The Pacific County Oyster Growers Association feared the incursion of fresh water into Willapa Bay via the canal between the Columbia River and the bay, which would upset the salinity of the bay's water.

The Grayland Cranberry Growers Association voiced concerns about the effect a canal would have on water tables in the area, because they depended on a high underground water level to maintain the cranberry bogs.

New Ideas for New Canals

The idea appears to have lain dormant for over a decade until the state legislature again passed a bill forming a commission to study the feasibility of a canal connecting the Columbia River with Puget Sound on March 6, 1961. The law created the Washington State Canal Commission, which was charged with assessing the canal proposal in light of advances in construction technology and new uses for a canal, such as recreational boating, and with obtaining federal funding for the project. The commission also considered a route south via the Cowlitz River to Kelso.

In addition to the new route being considered, the 1961 commission differed from the 1933 commission in its emphasis on recreational boating. Recreational boaters had become a significant economic force in the intervening decades. According to the canal commission's 1963 report, 218,000 recreational boats plied Washington's waters. The commission's Recreation committee chair, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt (1892-1989), pointed out that a canal would allow smaller pleasure boats to travel from Skagway, Alaska, to Lewiston, Idaho, via protected waters (once all the planned dams on the Snake River had been built). The commission also considered building a canal between Puget Sound and Hood Canal, from Allyn to Belfair, to increase recreational boating between the two inland seas.

To canal supporters' dismay, a December 1961 report estimated that the costs for a canal via Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor had tripled since 1933. But despite this obstacle, the project remained on the table. In 1965, the state legislature restructured the commission, shifting its purpose to "aid commerce and navigation, including the development of recreational facilities related thereto, and to otherwise promote the general welfare by the development of navigation canals within the boundaries of the state of Washington" (Laws of 1965, 2154).

Protecting Cranberries, Oysters, and Fish

That same year, oyster and cranberry growers, now joined by the fishing industry, voiced opposition to the canals. Fishing boat operators feared that the Chehalis River's canalization would destroy salmon spawning grounds. The commission responded with plans to mitigate the canal's impact by adding water gates to the Columbia River end of the canal, dikes to protect the cranberry bogs, and new spur channels to provide spawning grounds.

In July 1970, commission director Ed C. Pewters warned that the commission report due later in the year would recommend only building the Grays Harbor, Willapa Bay, and Columbia River connections, not the larger canal connecting Grays Harbor to Puget Sound. According to The Seattle Times, Pewters said, "It would be 25 years before a canal tying the Sound with Grays Harbor would be feasible. We have to feel that by that time, there'd be such a revolution in transportation means that no such canal would ever be needed" ("Report Probably Will Kill Dream of Canal"). Another newspaper article also cited opposition from cranberry and oyster growers and environmentalists as reasons for the canals' failure to gain approval.

In 1977, the state legislature consolidated the Washington State Canal Commission and five other agencies into a comprehensive Department of Transportation. Notably, the new department was not charged with exploring the feasibility of a canal between Puget Sound and the Columbia River.

Sources: Lawrence Barber, "Club Hears Praise of Proposed Cross-State Canal," The Oregonian, October 20, 1966, p. 35;  Report on Proposed Canals Connecting Puget Sound-Grays Harbor, Grays Harbor-Willapa Bay and Willapa Bay-Columbia River (Olympia: Canal Commission of the State of Washington, 1933); H. M. Chittenden, "Preliminary Examination for Ship Canal Connecting Puget Sound with Grays Harbor, Washington," in House Document No. 70, 60 Congress, First Session, December 5, 1907, pp. 2-4; Department of the Army, Annual Report of the Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army, 1935, Part 1 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1935), 1582; W. J. Granberg, "Canal Proposal Is Hardy Dream," The Seattle Times, October 1, 1961, mag. sect., p. 4; Olympia Chamber of Commerce, The Puget Sound and Gray's Harbor Canal: A Few Reasons Why it Should Be Constructed (Olympia: Record Publishing Company, 1900); Chas. F. Powell, Captain of Engineers, to Chief of Engineers, U.S.A., January 26, 1882, in Annual Report of the Chief of Engineers, United States Army, to the Secretary of War for the Year 1882, Part III (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1882), 2687-2688; Blaine Schulz, "Puget Sound Channel Hailed, Hit at Hearing," The Oregonian, November 11, 1965, p. 25; United States War Department, Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, Vol. 12, Book 1 (Washington, D.C.: Thomas H. Ford, 1860), 154; Dave Webster, "A Canal to the Columbia? Perhaps!," The Seattle Times, August 29, 1965, magazine, p. 3; 1933 Wash. Laws, Ch. 71; 1961 Wash. Laws, Ch. 185; 1965 Wash. Laws, Ch. 123; 1977 Wash. Laws, Ch. 281; "Army Studies Sound Canal," The Seattle Times, April 21, 1941, p. 24; "Barge Canal Hopes Dim," The Oregonian, December 24, 1961, magazine, p. 11; "Canal Hearing Held by Army," The Oregonian, June 26, 1941, p. 13; "Canal Project Takes on Life," The Oregonian, April 4, 1941; "Commission for State Canal Is Named by Martin," The Seattle Times, March 23, 1933, p. 5; "Congress Provides Survey for Sound-Harbor Ship Canal," Olympia Record, February 15, 1907, p. 1; "Dream of Canal at Grays Harbor Nearing Reality," The Seattle Times, March 26, 1933, p. 9; "Former Olympian Tells of Big Canal Project," Morning Olympian, March 3, 1930, p. 1; "Grays Harbor Canal," The Seattle Times, January 17, 1900, p. 12; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Puget Sound Naval Shipyard" (by Daryl C. McClary), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed December 21, 2010); "House Memorial No. 22," Session Laws of the State of Washington (Olympia: O. C. White, 1895), 605; "Incorporate Inland Canal Company," Olympia Record, December 29, 1909, p. 1; "Inland Canal Seen as Aid to Industry," The Oregonian, April 27, 1933, p. 18; "Lawmakers Urge Canal, Olympia to Grays Harbor," The Seattle Times, February 10, 1929, p. 13; "Money Appropriated for Canal Survey," Olympia Record, May 15, 1915, p. 2; "The Platform," The Morning Olympian, September 23, 1898, p. 1; "Puget Sound Early Recognized as Most Wonderful Region for Man's Development," The Olympian, November 1, 1908, second section, p. 11; "Puget Sound-Grays Harbor-Columbia River Ship Canal," Olympia Record, January 26, 1910, p. 5; "Report Probably Will Kill Dream of Canal," The Seattle Times, July 8, 1970, p. A-19; "Revive Plan for Canal Connecting Columbia and Harbor," Olympia Record, October 28, 1909, p. 2; "Senate Memorial No. 6," Session Laws of the State of Washington (Tacoma: Allen & Lamborn Printing, 1903), 409-410; "Sound-Columbia Canal Revived," The Seattle Times, January 20, 1930, p. 28; "Twenty-first Biennial Report of the Department of Conservation," in Public Documents (Olympia: no publisher listed, 1963), 96-103; "Waterway Project Held Not Feasible," The Oregonian, February 9, 1934, p. 18.

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