Explore our Resource Materials page for an in-depth history of the Ship Canal, as well as research articles, collections of primary materials, and curriculum guides.

Lake Washington Ship Canal History

Lake Washington Ship Canal History

On July 4, 1917, Seattle’s local papers heralded the grand opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal. A carnival and fireworks attracted 50,000 celebrants.

The canal connecting Puget Sound with the freshwater Lake Union and Lake Washington had been a long time coming. The history of the canal involves dreamers and schemers who combined self-promotion, subterfuge, and politics to achieve their goals. Contending forces ranged from one man with a shovel to the United States Navy, who initially desired a safe place to dock their ships, to local citizens, who stood to benefit financially from the canal. Despite their differences, they all shared a common belief that nothing less was at stake than the future direction of Seattle. And yet, nearly 150 years after the canal idea was first proposed, the modern day canal serves few of the purposes for which these forces battled.

If the desires of Seattle’s early movers and shakers had played out, we might have steel factories rimming Lake Union instead of house boats. Coal barges might be plying the waters of Lake Washington instead of pleasure crafts. A massive naval base might have risen on the east side instead of Kirkland. Although their visions failed, our forefathers’ spirit of enterprise laid the groundwork for the city we have evolved into.

For a detailed overview of Ship Canal history, read David Williams’ article “A Short History of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and Hiram M. Chittenden Locks,” posted here. Then dig deeper by exploring the articles, essays, collections, and curricula referenced on this page.

(Introduction excerpted from Williams, “A Short History….”)