A Look at The Ballard Locks After 100 Years

Last Sunday, July 9th, the city turned out to celebrate the Ballard Locks’ 100th anniversary with a boat parade. This facility, officially called the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, has been an essential part of Seattle’s infrastructure, in addition to playing a key part in our city’s modern development.

The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks and Lake Washington Ship Canal were formally opened in July 1917, named after a U.S. Army Major who served as the Seattle District Engineer for the Corps from April 1906 until September 1908. They were built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, designed to be a commercial navigation route that would preserve salmon habitats and migration routes and also prevent further displacement of Native American people in the area.

By opening the local waterways to maritime commerce, the Locks played a key part of making Seattle the major port city it has become. “The waterway provided a route for boats to bring cargo to and from the region, from oil and steel to hats and coats, and to push and pull tons of logs into Lake Washington from logging camps around Puget Sound. And many new maritime businesses also opened on the shores of Lake Union and Salmon Bay, including boatbuilders, sawmills and William Boeing’s first seaplane factory,” a Seattle Magazine article reported.

The Ballard Locks have two locks of different sizes, a spillway to facilitate water level control, and a fish ladder to support fish migration, primarily salmon. Its grounds include a visitors center and the Carl S. English, Jr. Botanical Gardens.

Today, the locks serve three primary purposes:

  1. Maintain the fresh water level of Lake Union and Lake Washington at 20-22 feet above sea level.
  2. Prevent saltwater intrusion (sea water mixing with fresh water) from Puget Sound into the lakes.
  3. Safely and efficiently transport boats between the two different water levels.

According to the locks website, the Ballard Locks transports more than 40,000 vessels each year, making them the busiest locks in the entire U.S. Both commercial and recreational vessels can navigate through the locks 24 hours each day (except during maintenance). In addition to boats and ships, the Locks support a significant salmon migration totalling more than 100,000 salmon each season. The site is a National Historic Site (added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978) as well as a local icon, which attracts more than 1.3 million visitors each year. Passage through the Locks, visitor entry and guided tours, and even summer concerts on the grounds are all free of charge.

Perhaps most importantly, the Ballard Locks is essential infrastructure whose activity provides $1.2 billion to the economy each year and supports thousands of jobs.

However, this critical facility is in need of significant repairs due to age. The Corps of Engineers is working on the major repairs to ancient machinery, closure systems and more. But the necessary upgrades to the visitor education facilities needs public support. Click here to find out how you can help!

Featured photo source: nws.usace.army.mil

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