Seattle Now & Then: English Gardens at Chittenden Locks

(Click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Looking east from the roof of the still standing testing lab, the Lock’s Administration Building (from which this photograph was borrowed) appears on the left, and the district engineer’s home, the Cavanaugh House (still standing) on the center horizon. (Photo courtesy Army Corps of Engineers at Chittenden Locks)
THEN: Looking west from the roof of the still standing testing lab, the Lock’s Administration Building (from which this photograph was borrowed) appears on the left, and the district engineer’s home, the Cavanaugh House (still standing) on the center horizon. (Photo courtesy Army Corps of Engineers at Chittenden Locks)
With the English Gardens the art of landscaping now often overarches that of concrete at Ballard’s Chittenden Locks.  From this prospect one can see perhaps 50 of the gardens some 500 species, include Flowering Cherries (closest to the camera), Evergreen Magnolias, Red Oaks, Atlas Cedars, Giant Sequoias, and one tall Eucalyptus, upper-right. (photo by Jean Sherrard)
NOW: With the English Gardens the art of landscaping now often overarches that of concrete at Ballard’s Chittenden Locks. From this prospect one can see perhaps 50 of the gardens some 500 species, include Flowering Cherries (closest to the camera), Evergreen Magnolias, Red Oaks, Atlas Cedars, Giant Sequoias, and one tall Eucalyptus, upper-right. (photo by Jean Sherrard)

When the artists who work with plants – gardeners – list our region’s best botanical creations, the one named for Carl S. English Jr. at Chittenden Locks is often lovingly included.  For 43 years English, whom the Army Corps hired as a graduate out of Washington State College in the early 1930s, nurtured the seven acres that army engineers had reserved and scraped for landscaping (in places foolishly carting away the top soil while doing it) when the ship canal locks were built at Ballard between 1911 and 1916.

Many years later when the botanical garden was investigated during a survey of federal lands, the visiting examiner upon studying the corps original plans against English’s green creation threw up his hands in confusion and barked, “How did this happen!?”  The official inquisitor’s broodings about returning England’s creation back to the corps intended landscape was quickly squelched by what was then a community of organized gardeners ready to save England’s paradise from any federal orthodoxy or reaction.

The date the locks were first opened, 1916, is hand-inscribed on the bottom-right corner of the historical photograph.  It records a campus as minimal as the lock’s concrete buildings.  While not this scant when English was hired, the landscaping was still “northwest predictable.”  But then the young horticulturist went to work gathering, growing and trading seeds.  On weekends and vacations he and his wife Edith, also a botanist, went away into the woods on their soon celebrated searches for seeds that they then could either nurture in their federal garden or trade for exotic seeds from distant growers in China, Brazil, and Europe.  The result is about 500 species from around the world carefully packed into seven acres.

In 1947 the Post-Intelligencer’s folksy columnist Frank Lynch described English as “a pleasant fellow, and perfectly willing to talk flowers to the interested.  There was only this; he refused to name his favorites.  ‘I like them all.’ He would answer, and nothing else.”

WEB EXTRAS:

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Jay Wells, atop the old testing lab roof

Jean writes: I arrived at the locks on a fine Sunday on the 1st of November, and quickly determined that the ‘Then’ photo had been taken from atop a large brick building on the eastern corner of the campus. I tried a few latches and banged on a few doors, but there was no answer. However, just as I was fitting my camera to my ten-foot extension pole, a fellow in uniform happened by.  Serendipitously, it was Jay Wells, director of visitor and educational services for the locks, and an amicable and inspired guide to the locks’ history. We climbed up onto the roof together and Jay talked about preserving the unique beauty of Carl English’s original garden: i.e., when a plant dies, every effort is made to find an exact replacement – which can be difficult, given the rarity of some that English planted.

Here are a few thumbnails from my visit:

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Paul dug up this photo of the locks’ garden in winter:

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Paul writes: Comparing the trees in this winterscape with those new plantings shown above with the primary “then” in this little garden essay we ask, can trees such as these grow so tall in seven years?  Since this cannot be the “Big Snow” of 1916 – the garden was new then – the next available snow of size was in 1923 when 16 inches fell in places.  It was a wet snow.  We pull this recommendation from our own History of Seattle Snows.  Of course it is possible that we missed one.

4 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: English Gardens at Chittenden Locks”

  1. Really fascinating to read and see these pictures of the Carl S. English Gardens. Edith Hardin English was my aunt so I was privileged to see, over many years during my childhood and early adulthood, Uncle Carl’s touches at the Locks. In addition we all loved visiting their home where hundreds of plants, especially rhododendrons grew. So much of it was started from seed, as in the article, or from cuttings. My husband and I still have one azalea plant which started as a very small little thing in their greenhouse at home. After reading the article yesterday in the Times, my husband said, “We need to get down there sometime in good weather and see the gardens again.”

  2. Thank you June. The locks – and the rest of us – were fortunate to have Carl and Edith in charge of developing and nurturing this righteously named destination.

  3. Mrs. English tutored me as a child in the 50’s and early 60’s.
    She was an excellent cook, always having lunch ready for Mr.
    English on Saturday. The lunch was very formal with several
    courses. I also spent several summer sessions with her at Deer
    Park (Olympics). Last year I ventured back up there and found the
    site we used each year. Carl always brought the wood; he was a
    quiet man. Yes, the house on Sunset was really a garden gone
    wild. I spent many hours learning Latin names of plants, some of
    which I still remember. I left home for Boise, Ida., at age 14, in 1963, but always tried to stay in touch. The two of them influenced my life greatly. I now live on nearly 3 acres of my own with a stream. I am trying to keep it natural.

  4. Carl S English, Jr. was my grandmother, Grace’s, brother. From my earliest memories are scenes of walking through “Uncle Carl’s gardens at the locks.” He and Aunt Edith had no children of their own but they always spoke to me caringly and showed such interest in tiny things that it helped stimulated me to scientific study. I remember them both fondly and am very pleased that the gardens have been preserved.

    Jeff Smith
    Seattle

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