1982-08-08 The Montlake Isthmus Before the Ship Canal

This early century panorama of the Montlake isthmus shows a developing Laurelhurst beyond and Portage Bay used as a mill pond in the foreground. (Courtesy of Seattle Public Library)


(A version of this little history first appeared in Pacific Northwest Magazine for August 8, 1982, and so within the first year of my writing this – ordinarily – weekly feature.)

Perhaps, no strip of regional real estate has engineered more dreams of empire than the isthmus that used to separate Lake Union from Lake Washington. From the beginning of white settlement it inspired local boosters to imagine the cornucopia of raw materials that would come spilling out of Lake Washington right to the back door of Seattle, once the cut could be made through that little ribbon of land.

The line of the first cut can be faintly see in in our turn-of-the-century panorama. (It was recorded from near where the photographs were taken for the linked story about the freeway in 1964 when it was nearly new.) The first cut diagonally passes through the isthmus at the center of the photograph. The Lake Washington side ingress is just right of the four small and two tall trees. Built in 1883 by Chinese labor under the pay of local promoters David Denny, Thomas Burke and others, it was designed for scooting logs from the big lake into the millpond on Portage Bay, and eventually on to the mills of Lake Union, David Denny’s Western Mill at the south end of the lake included.

Our view continues east across that dividing land, part of today’s Montlake neighborhood, to Lake Washington’s Union Bay, which was then considerably larger than today and would stay so until the big lake was dropped 9 feet in 1916. Just beyond rises the largely denuded Laurelhurst peninsula, and in the distance, Kirkland can be seen across the lake.

Although this setting has its pastoral touches, the signs of development are almost everywhere. Not seen, but to the left of the photograph, is the town of Yesler. There, in the late 1880s, near the present site of the University’s horticulture center, pioneer Henry Yesler put up a namesake mill. Most of Laurelhurst was possibly first clear-cut by Yesler’s saws, then milled and finally shipped to market on the Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern Railroad. (That railroad’s bed was later transformed into the Burke Gilman Recreational Path.) By 1887, Thomas Burke’s railroad had reached both Ravenna and Yesler at the north end of Union Bay.

The lakes were first joined by name only on July 4, 1854. Most of Seattle gathered then to celebrate Independence Day on Thomas Mercer’s claim near the southern end of a lake the Indians called “little water.” Mercer proposed that the “big water” to the east be named “Washington,” and that the little water on whose refreshing shores they were gathered be called “union.” Someday, Mercer proclaimed, it would surely be the connection for an even greater union between that big lake and Puget Sound. The locals agreed, and from that moment on there was a recurrent agitation to consummate that union.

The first person to actually try it was Harvey Pike. He followed his father John Henry Pike to town in 1861. The elder Pike was employed to help design and build the then new Territorial University at the northeast corner of Fourth Avenue and Seneca Street. His son was given the job of painting the new school and his wage was a deed to part of this isthmus in present-day Montlake.

Harvey Pike actually tried to split his land in two with a simple pick, shovel and wheelbarrow. This, in the way of tools, was only a little more than Moses used to divide the Red Sea. But Harvey Pike had none of the divine aid, or in his case, federal subsidy, and so he had to give it up. The subsidy wouldn’t come in large amounts until 1910 when a Rivers and Harbors Act passed by Congress included $2,750,000 for the construction of locks down at Shilshole, so long as King County agree to finance and build the canal that would run from the locks to the “big lake,” and the county agreed consented.

When the channel between the two lakes was opened in 1916 the greatest change was not the opening of the hinterland to the opportunity and exploitation of military and industrial steamers, but rather the lowering of the lake and thereby exposing thousands of acres of fresh bottomland. When the contemporary canal from salt water to fresh was completed in 1917 its Montlake Cut was a few hundred feet north of Harvey Pike’s strip of opportunity. And its primary traffic was, and still is, not ocean-going steamers but pleasure craft.

8 thoughts on “1982-08-08 The Montlake Isthmus Before the Ship Canal”

  1. Thanks for these articles–I love Seattle history! I’m a Seattle native and helping with a class on Whidbey Island about Seattle history. We’ll surely use your articles as resource links Thank you.

  2. ran into this terrific blog while searching for the identity of the namesake of our street. glad I did. we’re on Shelby St, and Hamlin St is just to the south, probably near the location of the photographer. Does anyone know who Hamlin and Shelby were? (Can’f find info at the MOHAI site.)

  3. I am trying to find out the name of the sailing ship anchored in Portage Bay during WW II and perhaps before and/or sometime afterward. Big black ship which I understand was stranded in Seattle due to the war.

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