Large Ballard lock closed for annual maintenance, tours are sold out

Just like every year, the Army Corps of Engineers has closed and emptied the large lock at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks for annual maintenance. Crews will scrape barnacles off the walls and check all the mechanical systems.

It’s always fascinating to see what lies 55-feet down — both in the lock and inside the chambers that feed it. However, the VIP tours, which begin today, have sold out. Back in 2009, we tagged along with the Army Corps and took some photos and videos.

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The money raised from the tours goes toward the upcoming Fish Ladder Education Center project, which begins later this fall.

Crews will be working on the large lock through Nov. 22nd. Until then, all marine traffic is routed through the small lock.

Art opening at Ballard Locks on Thursday

The Ballard Locks will host an art opening at the administration building this Thursday. As part of the Ballard Night Out every third Thursday of the month, the exhibit will include a number of pieces inspired by the Centennial of the Ballard Locks. The art show will be on August 17 from 6 to 8 pm.

There will be light refreshments and activities for kids, and live music from the ukulele group STRUM.

For more information, call 206-783-7059.

King County Council recognizes Ballard Locks Centennial

The Metropolitan King County Council celebrated the Ballard Locks’ 100th anniversary this week, issuing a nostalgic statement of recognition (full statement is below).

“The Ballard Locks are a local treasure for residents, visitors and school classes,” Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles said in statement. “History and function come together at the Locks to create an experience that can include walking through the surrounding botanical gardens, learning about the locks as an essential pathway for migratory salmon and enjoying the fish ladder viewing room, or touring the vital infrastructure.”

There are a number of upcoming events to celebrate the centennial, including a boat parade on the 9th of July.

Here is the recognition statement, posted on the King County Council’s website.


WHEREAS, Maj. Hiram M. Chittenden found the need for a masonry lock in 1907, with federal funds allocated in 1910; and

WHEREAS, 63 years before its completion, Thomas Mercer first proposed the unique idea of creating a connection where fresh and salt water meet in Seattle; and

WHEREAS, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversaw the construction of the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks and has managed its operation to this day; and

WHEREAS, on July 4th, 1917, more than half the City of Seattle’s population lined the shores and watched as more than 200 boats paraded through the cuts and Lake Union into Lake Washington;

WHEREAS, the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, also known as the Ballard Locks, has provided a critical passage for commerce and recreation for the people of Seattle and King County for 100 years; and

WHEREAS, with nearly 50,000 vessels per year, the Ballard Locks move more traffic than any other in the United States; and

WHEREAS, the Ballard Locks’ fish ladder provides an invaluable educational experience for visiting school children; and

WHEREAS, the Ballard Locks are a designated National Historic Site and attract more than one million visitors per year; and

WHEREAS, HistoryLink and over 30 historical museums and societies lining the waterways of King County have brought these events to life for the people of Washington State; and

WHEREAS, there will be a centennial commemoration at the Ballard Locks on July 4th, 2017, at 10:00 a.m.;

NOW, THEREFORE, we, the Metropolitan King County Council, recognize the


upon its centennial for its continuing significance and service to the people of Seattle and King County.

Photo: Representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Queen Anne Historical Society with members after the Council recognized the Centennial of the Ballard Locks

Throwback Thursday: Lake Washington Ship Canal is 100 years old

The Lake Washington Ship Canal is nearly 100 years old; its opening celebration was July 4, 1917. But the idea to connect the Puget Sound to Lake Washington was proposed 63 years prior by Thomas Mercer (1813-1898).

According to, it took five decades to decide where to build it and how to pay for it. When Hiram M. Chittenden took over the Seattle District of the Army Corps of Engineers in 1906, the plans were made and federal funding was secured.

Chittenden’s plan included two cuts; the Fremont Cut between Salmon Bay and Lake Union, and the Montlake Cut between Lake Union and Lake Washington. And, of course, the locks, now sharing his name.

“The canal’s construction lowered the water level of Lake Washington by nine feet and raised that of Salmon Bay behind the locks, changing it from a tidal inlet to a freshwater reservoir,” writes David B. Williams for History Link.

With many years of negotiations with community members, Ballard industries and city planners, in 1910, Congress passed a River and Harbor Act that included a $2,275,000 appropriation to build the locks.

The work on the locks started in 1911; the first task of which was to build a cofferdam around the site of the locks. A massive undertaking, “crews dredged 245,000 cubic yards of sediment to create a lock pit, then pumped the water out and began building a 65-foot-high wooden trestle down the center of the pit to support a supply train used throughout the project,” Williams writes.

The concrete was poured in 1913-1914, then the gates were installed a year later, and it was time to connect freshwater to saltwater. On February 2, 1916, it was tested for the first time; the first boat to go through the locks was the Orcas, a tender operated by the Corps.

The grand opening of the locks was on July 4, 1917. According to Williams, the P-I reported that more than half the city’s population lined the shores.

Click here for the full history of the Ship Canal and locks construction from History Link.


Construction of Lake Washington Ship Canal, Seattle, 1912, Photo by A. Curtis, Courtesy UW Special Collections

Hiram M. Chittenden Locks under construction, 1915 Courtesy National Archives

Water gushes from Lake Union into Montlake Cut, Seattle, August 25, 1916 Courtesy MOHAI


Community support needed to help improve Ballard Locks fish ladder

The renovation plans for the fish ladder viewing area at the Ballard Locks are ticking along, with a recent $400,000 grant and upcoming fundraiser to help fund the improvements.

Several years in the making, the fish ladder redesign project will transform the viewing area, changing it from an “abysmal dungeon” to a theater-like viewing center with year-round educational programs. With over a million and a half visitors per year, the improvements are well overdue.

“If fish are running, people are happy. But that place is dingy – people don’t notice how bad it is,” Rich Deline, Corps Foundation founder and director, told My Ballard when the project was launched.

There are several problems with the existing fish ladder; according to the concept design, there have been no major upgrades since 1976. The acoustics are poor, the windows are small, and there are a “hodgepodge” of outdated ineffective interpretive displays. Additionally, the prime salmon viewing season is just five to six months of the year, which means visitors are disappointed when there are no fish to see, and there’s little in the way of information about the ecosystem and conservation work. The new education center is meant to change that, with interactive displays and better lighting.

The renovations will include installing video screens above the windows that will give information about the fish species and their migration. There are also plans to made the windows larger and cleaner, and take out the concrete to create an amphitheater arrangement with more comfortable seating.

The C. Keith Birkenfeld Memorial Trust gave $400,000 in April to help fund the fish ladder upgrades; the donation was the single largest gift nationally to a Corps of Engineers facility.

Improvements to the fish ladder can’t be funded without community support, as the Corp’s national funding only covers operational updates and renovations, such as fixing the dam walls and the Locks themselves. It will likely cost close to $1 million to complete the upgrades.

For more information about how to donate to the Locks, visit the Discover Your Northwest donation website.

Locks Centennial 5k set for next month

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Locals are invited to take part in the Locks Centennial 5k Fun Run/Walk on Sunday, May 7. The event will benefit Discover Your NW and the Renovation of the Ballard Locks Fish Ladder.

The Kids Dash (free registration) will kick off at 9:10 a.m. with the Fun Run/Walk shortly after at 9:30 a.m. See below for the cost to register/date deadlines:

  • $35 Registration through March 31, 2017
  • $40 Registration April 1 through April 30, 2017
  • $45 Registration May 1 through May 6, 2017
  • $50 Day of Event if Available

The organizing team is on the lookout for volunteers for the event, who will gain a free participant entry into the event in thanks for their time. In order to receive the free entry, locals must volunteer for a minimum of 2 hours. Various volunteering opportunities are available and those interested are encouraged to email

Click here to register or learn more about the Locks Centennial 5k Fun Run/Walk.

Ballard Locks centenary celebrations to kick off on President’s Day weekend

Songwriting finalist performances, historical societies and other group displays will kick off the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Hiram M. Chittenden Locks Centennial commemoration from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, February 18, through, Monday, February 20.

The locks officially opened on July 4, 1917. Rainer Valley and Fremont Historical Societies, History Link and Friends of the Ballard Locks will have historical displays in the administration building during the three days of the kick off event. A 6-foot-long scale model of the S.S. Roosevelt will also make its debut and be on display in the building throughout the year.


A replica of the Roosevelt’s bell will also be displayed in the building. U.S. Coast Guard Museum Northwest permanently donated the bell to the Locks for its historical significance. The Roosevelt led the parade through the locks July 4, 1917. It is the ship (pictured above) that Robert E. Peary used to attain the North Pole in April 1909. The Friends of the Ballard Locks display will feature the Roosevelt’s history and locks’ architect Carl Gould. is also commemorating this centennial with information about the canal’s history and how the canal and locks’ construction changed shorelines and altered the county’s river systems.

Fremont Historical Society will have maps, photos and information that tell how the canal impacted the Fremont neighborhood. Rainer Valley Historical Society’s “The Last Resort – Lowering Lake Washington,” will illustrate how the lake’s southwest shores provided Seattleites an escape from the increasing hum and bustle of city life. It also includes some of the effects lowering the lake in 1916 had on these recreational destinations, before all the timber was cut, the rivers straightened and the wetlands filled.

Maritime Folknet, a federal non-profit dedicated to preserving maritime culture and history, hosted a songwriting contest which ended January 9. The contest gave song writers a unique opportunity to write about Lake Washington Ship Canal and the locks for the centennial and record it for posterity. Some of the finalists will perform from noon to 3 p.m. on Sunday, February 19, in the visitor center. Winners will be announced by early April and a CD of the final recordings is scheduled for release July 9, the day of the Centennial Boat Parade.

In addition to regular locks events, summer concert series, garden events and car shows, other events are being planned throughout the year, with most being held before August. Many unaffiliated groups are also hosting events, including a 5K and scavenger hunt.

For more information about all the events click here.

Photo courtesy of US Army Corps of Engineers.

Sold ‘baby’ ferry passes through Ballard Locks

Hiyu, the smallest ferry in the Washington State Ferries fleet, officially changed hands on Wednesday and was towed through Ballard Locks en route from Eagle Harbor to Lake Union.

According to KOMO News, the vessel was bought by Menagerie Inc. for $150,000 who have plans to turn it into a floating entertainment venue.

The Hiyu is the smallest of the fleet coming in at only 162-feet-long. According to KOMO, Hiyu was used from 1967 until 2016, but its small size, high maintenance costs and lack of accommodations for passengers resulted in the suspension of its use.


The Hiyu served several different routes, including the Point Defiance/Tahlequah and San Juan Islands inter-island routes. After being put in storage in the late 1990s for over a decade, the vessel served as a relief vessel in recent years.

“Baby” Hiyu made its way through the Ballard Locks at about 3:30 pm (see pictures above) on its way to its new home on Lake Union.

Photos courtesy of US Army Corps of Engineers. 

Army Corps of Engineers rescues white sturgeon at Ballard Locks


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers team rescued a 6-foot white sturgeon during the annual maintenance pump out at the Ballard Locks earlier this month.

Each year, Corps natural resource and maintenance staff, fish biologists, scientists and volunteers go on a fish-rescue mission when the locks are drained.

Although de-watering is done during low tide, some fish and other marine life are sometimes captured in the chamber when the lock gates are closed.

To ensure Endangered Species Act listed fish are safe, the team must capture, haul them out of the 50-foot-deep chamber and release them. The team doesn’t limit its efforts to ESA listed species and this year the rescue included an estimated 100-pound sturgeon.

“Sturgeon have been observed infrequently in Lake Washington over the years,” said Corps fish biologist Dr. Fred Goetz. “Most likely the fish would have passed through the Locks to get to the lake.”

According to Goetz, as a group, coastal white sturgeon do not migrate through marine waters as widely as green sturgeon, which are ESA listed.

Upon finding the fish, the team immediately called on NOAA Fisheries sturgeon ecology expert Dr. Mary Moser. She went to the locks, verified it was a white versus green sturgeon and provided tips to the team on “successfully capturing and releasing the beast.

It took the team about an hour to capture and release the sturgeon.

“The Corps’ team did a great job putting together such a quick and successful rescue,” Moser said.

A scan did not find a Passive Integrated Transponder, or PIT tag, but the team took a DNA sample. Moser will run a test from the sample to identify if this sturgeon originates from the Columbia or Fraser River.

There is no white sturgeon season in Lake Washington but they are found in greater abundance in the Skagit, Stillaguamish and Snohomish Rivers where they can be caught, said Goetz.

Sturgeon date back to prehistoric times and are the world’s largest freshwater fish, growing up to 20 feet long and weighing more than 1,000 pounds. An 8-foot-long specimen was found dead in Lake Washington in 2013 and another 5 1/2-foot-long sturgeon was inadvertently netted and released by a University of Washington research team in 2005.

A 1987 photo also exists online of an 11-foot, 900-pound, female white sturgeon that had lived in Lake Washington before she died of what researchers said were natural causes. They estimated she could have been between 80 to 100 years old.

In addition to the usual flounder, crab, anemone and starfish, the team has also rescued river otter and seals in the past.

The most unusual rescue? A wedding ring found and returned to the original owner who dropped it while tending lines on the couple’s boat locking through.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.