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How Seattle’s big ditch got built 100 years ago

Ballard Locks under construction, 1913
Ballard Locks under construction, 1913

This story originally aired in 2005. We loved it so much that we dug it out again in honor of the Ballard Locks' 100 year anniversary on July 4, 2017.

At six in the morning, when I'm on the water with the oars in my hands, the Lake Washington Ship Canal is mine.

I share the waterway with redwing blackbirds, seals, otters and salmon. I feel like I'm alone with nature.

But then I row past the old black tugboat, Michael. And I hear it: the sounds of welders and sanders and large engines revving.

This waterway wasn't even here 150 years ago. The industry it ushered in was only a dream for Seattle's founding fathers. A dream that eventually came true.

Historian Paul Dorpat said where cars now rush by on the 520 bridge, David Denny, Thomas Burke and some of the other city founders wanted to find an easier way to get the coal and logs from East King County out to Puget Sound.

“They built this canal with the singular intent not to get boats through it, but to get lumber through it,” Dorpat said.

Denny, with others, had built a lumber mill at the south end of Lake Union.

So in 1883, these captains of Seattle’s early industry hired a crew of Chinese laborers to dig a 16 foot wide log chute. The current Montlake Cut is 10 times as wide.

"I've talked to people who, back in the very early days, said their grandfather used to come down here and he could jump across the little creek that flowed down here from Lake Union," said Jay Wells, program director at the visitor’s center at the Ballard Locks.

Read: Who were Burke and Gilman, and how’d they get their names on our trail?

Wells said 100 years ago, before the locks opened, the scene on Salmon Bay was very different from today's busy shipyards and marinas.

At high tide, the bay would fill up with 10-12 feet of saltwater. That made for great fishing grounds for the Native Americans that lived here. At low tide, though, it was a mud flat all the way out to Shilshole Bay.

Salmon Bay might have remained a mud flat if it hadn't been for the Army Corps of Engineers' Major Hiram Chittenden.

A postcard of the Ballard Locks, 1917

[asset-images[{"caption": "A postcard of the Ballard Locks, 1917", "fid": "137415", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201706/lockspostcard-SeattleMuni.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Flickr Photo/Seattle Municipal Archives (CC BY 2.0)/"}]]At the turn of the 20th century, Seattle citizens were duking it out over where to build the great canal. Wells said when Chittenden got to Seattle in 1906, he endorsed a northern route over a plan that would have made a sharp turn south, right where the Ballard Bridge is now. That canal would have run directly from Salmon Bay into Elliot Bay.

Chittenden had some convincing to do with the local community, which had taken sides over the two route options.

And then of course there was also the federal government – and not just the Corps of Engineers, but the leaders of Congress who were going to fund the canal.

While the rest of the country scoffed at the proposal, Chittenden got Seattle citizens and Congress to pay millions to fund the canal.

“You know, the Erie Canal was called Clinton's Ditch (after Dewitt Clinton, the governor of New York) and derided. And they used that same kind of derisive term to call this Seattle's Ditch Project. But it turned out to be almost as good as the Erie Canal,” Wells said.

[asset-images[{"caption": "", "fid": "137418", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201706/locksmap.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Graphic/Kara McDermott"}]]

Chittenden promised a freshwater port for oceangoing vessels, and he got it – including the northern route he favored.

Read: What's on the bottom of Lake Washington? Planes, trains and …

We take this ship canal for granted. We picnic next to the locks, stand at Fox Point on Union Bay to watch the big yachts. I can row here every morning, alone with my thoughts.

But historian Paul Dorpat points out that the dream of building this canal, like the American dream itself, was fueled by the drive to make money.

"What else has there been that generated Western expansion? If we search our hearts and minds, there's a complexity of motives, including the desire to sit down and scan the lake, enjoy the bird sounds. But it's not the energy that gets work done. It's exploiting land for economic advantage," Dorpat said.

[asset-images[{"caption": "George Hamilton III used to captain a boat, but sold it and earns extra cash at Fishermen's Terminal by helping repair fishing nets before the fleet leaves for Alaska in 2014.", "fid": "137411", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201706/GeorgeHamiltonIII-close.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott"}]]

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "It's the worst job, it's the best job", "style": "full"}]]Making money through land or logs or coal may have been the driving force behind the Lake Washington Ship Canal. But its construction spawned a multi-million dollar maritime industry.

Maybe your only contact with halibut, salmon or crab is at the fishmonger's or on a restaurant menu. But if you head to Salmon Bay in Ballard, you'll find hundreds of people who provide us with this bounty.

It’s the home to the majority of boats that fish in Alaska. Some people even joke that Ballard is Alaska's largest town. But in a city hopped up on caffeine and hyped about high tech, it's easy to overlook the fishermen.

Even before the Ballard Locks opened, Salmon Bay was a fishing homeport, according to Mark Knudsen, deputy managing director of the Seattle seaport. The first facilities at Fishermen’s Terminal started in 1909.

There were a series of docks 10 feet underneath what you see today.

“This was the support for all the Puget Sound fleet at the time. And this industry, really all the whole North Pacific fishing industry, was built out of what started in Ballard and what started at Fishermen's Terminal," Knudsen said.

Hundreds of fishing boats tie up here. The other half of the fleet is just across the water in Ballard, where the atmosphere is sometimes a little more rowdy.

Read: Hey Bridge Tender! Why Do You Keep Raising The Bridge?

[asset-images[{"caption": "Adam Boehler prepares net for the 2014 fishing season at Fishermen's Terminal. He's from Montana and doesn't normally live near salt water. But every year he and others from his area come to Seattle to work on the fishing boats", "fid": "137417", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201706/AdamBoehler-workwide.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Graphic/Kara McDermott"}]]Sig Ingebretsen's crab boat, the Polar Sea, is tied up at one of the docks at Ballard Oil, just north of the locks, when he’s in port.

With his sandy blond hair, Ingebretsen looks like he's about 30. But he's been fishing out of Ballard for 35 years, since he was 15 years old. He started salmon fishing with his dad in 1970 out of Bristol Bay.

“My dad was a fisherman, my grandfather was a fisherman. My grandfather was a dragger off the coast here," Ingebretsen said.

Ingebretsen’s grandfather died at sea when his boat rolled over in a storm in the straights in the 1950s. Ingebretsen’s father died after being washed overboard by a wave in Bristol Bay.

Ingebretsen said when he was a boy, he thought no way would he become a fisherman. Yet, here he is.

He didn't have a death wish. It's just that the rhythm of life on the water was in his blood.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "It's like something - it's like a disease, or a fungus. It gets into you and you can't get rid of it.", "style": "wide"}]]That's how it is for so many of Ballard's fishermen. If you're lucky, you can find some of them most mornings, holding court in creaky chairs in the coffee shop at Warren Aakervik's company, Ballard Oil.

It sure isn’t Starbucks. The low ceiling is covered in acoustic tiles. The coffee pot is strictly self-serve. I'm visiting a secret society I hardly knew existed, filled with men swapping stories many of us never get a chance to hear.

"I started when I was about 10 years old. With my dad. All of us boys, there were four boys in the family, we all went fishing all summer,” said Jack Criscuola, 88. He and his brother fished together for 60 years, on a boat called the Panther.

"When we first started fishing, all we had was a compass. And we used to leave Ballard here in the fog: four-hour watches. Go out in the ocean. Go fishing. Fish four, five days. Come home in the fog. Two of us," he said.

Criscuola retired from fishing 10 years ago. Today he's parked his walker next to his vinyl covered chair. He warms his hands on a steaming cup of joe. We look at a photo of a huge wave crashing over a fisherman hard at work on a boat deck.

Sig Ingebretsen laughed when I ask if that's what it's really like on the Bering Sea.

Scott Hovik, captain of a 100-foot long purse seiner called the Nordic Fury chimed in.

"Like Sig and I, in the wheelhouse, on our sized boats, and you have to go like this to look up from the window to see the top of the next wave — that might be as tall as a telephone pole in front of you,” he explained. “Our boats are made to ride up the sides of them, though."

Criscuola and the other men at the table nod in recognition. Ingebretsen said he can't imagine a harder way to make a living — wet, cold, not much rest.

“I can remember my first year or two … you know, there can't be anything worse than this," Ingebretsen said.

Read: The man behind Seattle's boys in the boat

[asset-images[{"caption": "In 2014, Logan Price was a greenhorn on the Sea Gem. He said the crew of his boat will be working at Fisherman's Terminal right up until the day they leave for Alaska where they will spend the summer salmon fishing. Their pay day depends on how much they can catch.", "fid": "40868", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201405/LoganPrice-work.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott"}]]When the fish are running, crews will work 20-hour days until they fill their quota. In an effort to help preserve dwindling fish stocks, most fishermen are now assigned catch quotas instead of rushing out to fish for a set time period.

But crab fisherman Ingebretsen said he still gets an adrenalin jolt when it's crab season.

"You've got a season that has a small quota, and it's got a potential five- or six-day opening. And you have to make 30 to 50 percent of your income in those days. And if you're not out there fishing, somebody else will be," he said.

Ingebretsen and his crew earn good money, enough to support their families. But he doesn't want his son to be the fourth generation of Ingebretsen men at sea.

"No. He's got pictures of boats in storms at home. And I kind of did that on purpose, to maybe see if he can't get a good education and do something else."

Still, even knowing what happened to his father and grandfather, Ingebretsen chooses to be a fisherman.

"There's nothing better on a good day. You see the sun coming up, to the east, probably a bigger sun than you'd ever see in the city. A big fireball coming up. And if fishing is good, boy, it's extremely exciting. It's hard to explain. It's like something — it's like a disease, or a fungus. It gets into you and you can't get rid of it.

“You don't have the cars, you don't have the traffic, you got nobody calling you, bugging you about bills. I mean, if you've got a bill, it's got to wait till you get back. You're free!” he said.

That freedom is being tested. New regulations and unreliable market prices are among many hurdles. Maybe the highest, fishermen say, is they don't get the respect they want from this latte-loving town of ours.

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[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "An uneasy relationship", "style": "full"}]]In Seattle, high tech is king. But the city's maritime industry generates almost as much money as high tech — more than $2 billion every year. Jobs in maritime pay about the same as those in high tech.

But many people in the maritime industry feel their contributions aren't appreciated by the general public. They worry that Seattle's rising land values and gentrification may drive them out of business altogether.

Right now, most of this state's Alaska fishing fleet is moored in Ballard. Many observers believe if Seattle loses industrial land, the fleet will leave the city.

At Fishermen's Terminal, yachts have taken some of the moorage that used to be filled by fishing boats. There’s an uneasy relationship between working and pleasure boats.

From the beginning, Seattle's leaders saw the Lake Washington Ship Canal as a gateway to industry in this city. That's true. It's also the major marine highway for sailors and yachters traveling between Elliott Bay and Lake Washington.

Read: The spooky, underwater forests of Lake Washington and Lake Sammamish

Every year 60,000 boats make the journey through the Hiram Chittenden Locks, according to program director Jay Wells. The rush hour starts Friday evening into Saturday morning, when everybody wants to go out to Puget Sound and play around. Then they head back in Sunday evening.

Rush hour at the Locks isn't about fishing trawlers or tug — it's pleasure boats that wait patiently for their turn to jam together into the concrete passageway.

"I like to tell tourists from out of town, when they're looking at the workers here, that in order to get a job at the locks, on the small lock, you have to have three years of experience at a sardine cannery … or you drink a lot," Wells said.

Imagine William Powell and Myrna Loy, cocktails in hand, cruising into the sunset on a mahogany yacht. The mid 20th century highlife may only exist on celluloid, but the classic boats survive on the ship canal.

Roy Dunbar is restoring a 70-year-old wooden boat in his shop on the canal. Dunbar has been a yacht builder for almost 50 years.

[asset-images[{"caption": "The growing buildings of the South Lake Union district rise behind the Center for Wooden Boats.", "fid": "67070", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201408/SLU-CWBsweeping-Bond.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Bond Huberman"}]]"When I started in the trade, it was all wood, every shop did everything very similar. Then when the fiberglass industry came in, the big money went to fiberglass. These boats we're standing next to went to people who could afford to buy them, but not maintain them. So a lot went by the way," he said.

Those shabby boats get loving care from Dunbar and his small staff. They renovate a half dozen classic wooden yachts every year.

Read: Watch these legendary racing boats being made by hand

Migael Sherer is a woman who lives on one, a sailboat called Tuwamish, a variation on the name for the Duwamish River, where it was built. It's moored just across Salmon Bay from Dunbar's shop.

She says her marina is rare. Most don't allow people to do construction or repair work on site. Sherer thinks that's because many pleasure boaters aren't looking to get marine oil under their nails.

"People love boats, they love seeing them. But they do not want to see the ugly side, the working side of a boat — painting it, cleaning it, all of that," she said.

Migael and her husband built this liveaboard boat themselves. Now a fat orange tabby rules it, along with an aged pit bull named Billy.

They've lived on the boat since 1987, surrounded by Seattle's fishing fleet and the businesses that support it. They could moor anywhere, but they choose to be in Ballard. Industrial noise is a downside, but the payoff for Sherer is being so close to nature.

“In the morning, we're going to be awakened by these geese courting three feet away from our porthole. It's sort of like living in a Discovery Channel. We have beaver, heron, a range of birds, seals otters in here," she said.

Sherer's other neighbors include a fleet of 200-foot long cargo ships, factory trawlers and of course, the boats that moor at Fishermen's Terminal.

[asset-images[{"caption": "The UW Men's Rowing team practices along the Montlake Cut.", "fid": "125814", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201604/Rowing-Montlake_McKnight.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Matt Mills McKnight"}]]Around 2002, the Port of Seattle provoked a minor uproar when it opened up Fishermen's Terminal to pleasure boats for the first time in history. Some fishermen worried that the port was trying to change the terminal’s fundamental mission.

But Mark Knudsen, deputy managing director for the seaport, said the port remains committed to the fishing fleet.

“Commercial fishermen that have current permits that are out actively fishing are our priority. And we'll schedule those in over any other vessels and other commercial activity — tugs, charter, research, dive boats, all that. We're also trying to encourage that industry," Knudsen said.

Knudsen said if a fisherman needs the space that a pleasure boat is using, the pleasure boater has to leave. Despite some vocal protests, the port said, for the most part the fishermen and pleasure boaters have survived peacefully.

And the port has made money. In 2004 the recreational fleet brought in $200,000 that the port would not have had otherwise, according to Kenny Lyall, who manages the terminal.

Pleasure boaters pay higher fees than fishermen to tie up at the terminal. The port is happy with the arrangement. For the most part, so are the fishermen.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Fishermen's Terminal celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2014.", "fid": "40911", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201405/nets-100sign.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott"}]]

But yacht builder Roy Dunbar thinks pleasure boaters are getting the short end of the stick. He said the fishermen get too many public handouts.

"In all reality, they are going out of business, there's not that much fish to catch. There will always be a certain number of fishermen to make a living, but not as many,” he said. “I don't understand why the city should subsidize liveaboards, or fishermen either if they have a viable business. Nobody subsidizes my business."

But when pushed, Dunbar said he wouldn't want to see the ship canal without the fishing industry. He thinks Salmon Bay needs a mix of pleasure and working boats, classic yachts and zippy powerboats — that's what makes the canal unique.

But Sherer worries about how to balance increasing gentrification with industry.

"One guy at Fishermen's Terminal put it this way: He says it's turning us into a petting zoo, where everyone comes down to see the interesting quaint people who are bending their nets, or the interesting quaint people who are living on their boats,” she said.

Sherer isn't sure the maritime industry can win out in a city with so much competition to be on the waterfront. But Dunbar said if it doesn't, the ship canal would be pretty boring.

“To have a balanced society, you need a pizza shop, good veggie restaurant, and I think you need wooden boat festival, and some fiberglass boats, and some condos. Otherwise, we'd all raise carrots and eat nothing but peas, and that wouldn't make for a very interesting society," Dunbar said.