A Milestone for the Lake Washington Ship Canal’s Record-Setting Ballard Locks

August 3, 1916

In Washington State, the snag steamer Swinomish became the first ship to pass through a complex of locks for the section of the Lake Washington Ship Canal at the west end of Salmon Bay and between the Seattle neighborhoods of Ballard and Magnolia. (A snag steamer is a vessel built to clear underwater obstructions.) About 100 government officials were on board the Swinomish for the inaugural trip through what is now widely known as the Ballard Locks. The next day’s edition of the Oregon-based Daily Capital Journal reported that “thousands of cheering spectators” were also on hand for the occasion and had lined up on the banks of the canal. 

The Ballard Locks were constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the supervision of Major James B. Cavanaugh, that federal agency’s Seattle District Commander, and part of the ceremonies for the initial crossing of the locks included formally congratulating him for his work on the project. That day’s excursion of the Swinomish took place just over nine months before other ships began routinely traveling through the locks and 11 months prior to the official dedication of the locks.

The Ballard Locks have long since proven to be a critical link in the Lake Washington Ship Canal, which connects the waters of Salmon Bay, Lake Washington, and Lake Union to the tidal waters of Puget Sound and have allowed a wide variety of vessels to travel to Seattle’s harbor. The locks carry more maritime traffic than any other lock in the United States and are one of the leading tourist attractions in the Seattle region. The Ballard Locks were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and the American Society of Civil Engineers’ list of Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks in 1997.

For more information on the history of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, please check out https://www.historylink.org/File/1444

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