Friday, March 18, 2016

Making the Cut: Ships in the Locks (Photo Forensics 101)

Puget Sound Maritime researcher Joe Baar takes a second look at some photos associated with the Lake Washington Ship Canal. This is one of an occasional series of essays commemorating the centennial of the Ballard Locks and the Ship Canal.

Several early photographic images of vessels transiting the Ship Canal are well known and the captions commonly associated with them claim they were taken during the canal’s first day, or first year, of operation. Sometimes we must take such assertions with a large dose of salt.

In one example, the photo reproduced on page 262 of The H.W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest (Gordon Newell, ed., 1966) shows the tug HORNET towing the freighter ss EASTERN MERCHANT eastbound out of the large lock; the caption purports EASTERN MERCHANT was the “...largest vessel to pass through the locks in their first year of operation.” That year would have run from August 1916 through August 1917. Lloyd’s Register of Ships tells us Asano Dockyard in Tsurumi, Japan, completed the 8,152-ton EASTERN MERCHANT in December 1919 to the order of the United States Shipping Board. As well, Merchant Vessels of the United States shows the tug HORNET was built in Seattle in 1920, so this photo could not have been taken earlier, belying the McCurdy caption. Much gratitude to Karl House for pointing out this inconsistency.

Confusion has resulted from the fact both locks were open to traffic by early August 1916, although the project’s official dedication and the celebratory maritime parade did not take place until July 4, 1917. By that date, shipping had been arriving in Lake Washington via this conduit for eleven months.

ss Roosevelt followed by mv Orcas at the Fremont Bridge, 7/4/1917;
 Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, Joe Williamson Collection

ss ROOSEVELT at the Montlake Cut, 7/4/1917;
Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, Joe Williamson Collection

The REAL First Transit

The U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey ship GEDNEY, shown immediately below, most likely records the first transit of the Lake Washington Ship Canal by an ocean-going vessel. This event probably would have occurred during 1916. A jubilant note on one copy of the print’s reverse side informs us this trip was made with “No Pilot.” This notation lends credibility to the photo’s provenance because survey ships normally gather information about uncharted waters without using local guides. Also of interest is the absence of smaller craft visible in the image (aside from tugs), a certain indicator this trip was not the same one as the July 4th, 1917 transit led by the ROOSEVELT.

Survey ship USC&GS GEDNEY Eastbound from the Large Lock, c. 1916;
Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, Joe Williamson Collection

Survey ship USC&GS GEDNEY at Sitka, Alaska, before 1912;
Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, Joe Williamson Collection

-- Joe Baar

Joe Baar has been fascinated with ships since his childhood on Brace Point. His lifelong avocation has included stints with the Sea Explorers, small boat school courtesy of the U.S. Army, working on yachts on Lake Union, and amassing a large collection of maritime books.