The locks that control access between saltwater Puget Sound and freshwater Salmon Bay (and ultimately, Lake Washington), are found to the north of downtown Seattle. Any set of locks, designed to move ships vertical distances, is an engineering feat whether we are talking about the big Panama or the little Rideau. In fact, they are not particularly rare and most of us have seen them in operation. Regardless, if you’re in Seattle, visit the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks because they are locks and much more.
The locks themselves are part of an 8-mile long canal, 100 feet wide and 30 feet deep. The fact that it was important to minimize the intrusion of saltwater into the Lake Washington system was a mitigating factor in the eventual design. That design had been placed in the hands of Hiram Chittenden who decided that the locks should be large enough to accommodate the largest ship of his day, the Lusitania. He would retire before construction began in 1911, to be finished in 1917.
Ninety years later, the locks are still in constant operation. Run by the Army Corps of Engineers, the site encompasses a Visitor Centre, an Administration Building, two sets of locks, the larger being 80 feet wide, a dam that drops water from the freshwater above and a fish ladder. As an added bonus, there is the Carl S. English Botanical Garden.
Perhaps I approached a little jaded…been there, done that. That quickly went away as we watched a parade of pleasure yachts, fishing boats, and tugs with barges move through the locks. I was surprised when Maureen, who is usually disinterested in this kind of thing, insisted on watching an aggregate barge pass through. We crossed over the locks to look at the fish ladder, and of course, we were there at just the wrong time of year, nothing was moving through but at a better time, we would have been able to look down into the fish ladder, and even better, there is a viewing room looking into its side. It must be absolutely amazing during spawning. Steelhead move through mid-February until April; Sockeye go through in July, Chinook in late August and Coho in late September. Were I in Seattle during a salmon run, the fish ladder would be the city’s premiere attraction.
The botanical garden was created for the Army Corps of Engineers by Carl English. Beginning in 1931, Mr. English acquired specimens from around the world to create an English garden of rolling lawns and interesting trees. There are 573 species of plants in the garden, and the circular walk through it doesn’t take that long while it provides nice views over the canal. It makes for a pleasant walk on a sunny afternoon.