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The Hiram S. Chittenden Locks are just one of many stops aboard our Sights and Bites bus tour of Seattle. Before you visit this engineering marvel with us, we thought we’d provide a little background as to its history.

Affectionally known as the Ballard Locks by local residents (due to its proximity to Ballard directly to the north), construction of the Locks and its sister “river,” the Lake Washington Ship Canal, began in 1911, with the goal of developing a navigable waterway between Lake Washington and Puget Sound to accommodate Seattle’s booming maritime industry. The project was advanced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers General Hiram M. Chittenden, and was not without its share of controversy and debate. It was also an engineering feat, requiring digging cuts through the land that separated Lake Washington from Lake Union, and Lake Union from Puget Sound, and essentially isolating metropolitan Seattle from all parts north. To compensate for this new water barrier, the project also included the building of four drawbridges at Ballard, Fremont, Montlake, and the University District. Although the Locks officially opened on July 4, 1917, the project was not declared completed until 1934. (The first ship passed through the locks on August 3, 1916.) There’s a great essay on the history of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and the Hiram M. Chittenden locks at, the free online encyclopedia of Washington State History.

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The locks are also home to a fish ladder complex that helps move endangered Pacific Northwest salmon from the saltwater of Puget Sound to the freshwater of Lake Washington for spawning, and their resulting spawn from Lake Washington to Puget Sound and beyond, where they spend most of their adult lives. You can find a great description of the fish ladder facility here.

Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 11.39.18 AMFinally, the locks also incorporate the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden, whose manicured lawns are often used to host free concerts for visitors and community residents. The garden also features a collection of tree and flower specimens from all over the world. It was here that the dawn redwood made its homecoming. Previously known only as a fossil, it was discovered growing in China. Carl arranged to receive some of the first seeds ever shipped to the United States, and eight specimens grow in the garden today. You can find more information on the Botanical Garden here.


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