Water’s natural rhythms nourished our area’s native culture. Then came the Ballard Locks.

A century ago, the construction of the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks reworked the land and water of Seattle and its environs for development, displacing the indigenous cultures and the natural abundance of the landscape.

It was a bold engineering feat, a re-plumbing, re-routing and re-purposing of land and water in and around Seattle.

Come July 4, Seattle will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks — also known as the Ballard Locks — and the Lake Washington Ship Canal that provide easy access from the city’s interior lakes to Puget Sound and the wide, beckoning sea.

The rework of land and water led to much of the remake of Seattle and its environs, including extensive development along the shores of lakes Washington and Union as well as two floating bridges connecting the region.

Yet there is another story beyond what we see today, still embedded in the landscape and waterways in and around Seattle.

Warren King George, a historian for the Muckleshoot Tribe, looks from Gas Works Park across Lake Union, an ancient and still vital pathway from inland fresh water to the saltwater sound. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)

As Warren King George, historian for the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe Preservation Program, looks out over his ancestral homeland at Lake Union, a seaplane zooms from the thicket of buildings that supplanted forests of cedar and fir. Kayakers float by. But what King George sees is the place that his ancestors noted was good and deep for launching canoes. He sees where the cattails, used for weaving tule mats for temporary shelter or bedding, grew thick.

“Everything was here in this little piece of heaven, there was no need, no wish to go anywhere else, unless there was a craving for a flounder or a nice fat butter clam,” King George said. Then, a quick portage to saltwater was all that was required.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built, maintains and operates the Locks, lowered Lake Washington nearly 9 feet, and permanently cut off its outlet to the south, the Black River, once a salmon highway to the Duwamish.

Development of the Locks reduced freshwater marshes and wetlands in the Lake Washington system from 1,100 acres to 74; today three-quarters of the lake’s shoreline is hardened with bulkheads and docks.

Explore more history of change created by the Ballard Locks


“Making the Cut” commemorates the centennial of the Lake Washington…

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