Saturday, April 2, 2016

Making the Cut: From Creek to Canal....a First Hand Look

In 1975 Ralph Waldo Johnson wrote two articles for the Puget Sound Maritime publication The Sea Chest: “Memory Digs a Canal –The Creek” followed by “Memory Digs a Canal – Concluded.” Nancy Dulaney of Rainier Valley Historical Society previews these articles which are now available digitally as a combined PDF file – highly recommended reading for all those interested in the history of the canal and the locks. This is one of an occasional series of essays commemorating the centennial of the Ballard Locks and the Ship Canal.

Ralph Johnson photo of the remains of the Lake Union dam, 1914.

Ralph Waldo Johnson wrote of Congress authorizing a survey for the canal in 1890 with the route approved in 1891. Born in 1895 on Dravus Street in Seattle, with the creek running along the front of the lot, Johnson had a front row seat to early ship canal developments. His own family home was moved in 1902 to Etruria Street at the south end of the Fremont Bridge as the creek and surrounding properties were appropriated for the future ship canal.

In his younger years, when the tide was right, Ralph enjoyed the diluted salt water swimming hole near Bertona Street along with the other small boys (where were the girls?).  Ralph also identified two shallow areas along the creek where boys liked to dip their hot feet in the cool water, locations later covered by 30 feet of water.

As Ralph began school, his father took him to the creek to watch the salmon coming up to spawn. Soon Ralph got big ideas about catching salmon at the spillway and selling them for some “easy money” – ten cents a fish -- that is until the game warden showed up one day to enforce the no gaff‑hook regulation and Ralph’s mother heard about it.

In March 1914, the wooden dam at the Lake Union outlet washed out and Ralph watched as the old Fremont Bridge worked its way into collapse, leaving only the street car tracks and a few ties swinging above the creek, an image which Ralph captured with his camera.

The Seattle Star newspaper reported on the fate of Lake Union dwellers after the water fell some six feet: “…several score of houseboats, mostly occupied by poor people, leaned lakeward on their front porches. Gas, electric, water and sewer connections were broken when the houseboats, straining at their moorings, slid down the incline as the water fell.” (March 14, 1914)

Ralph’s boyhood adventures ran concurrent with the development of the ship canal and locks, and he memorializes both in The Sea Chest articles. His July 4, 1917, Lake Washington Ship Canal dedication day photo must have been taken not long before he left for his World War I service in France.

Ralph Johnson’s memories of the time period during which the creek became the canal are an historian’s delight. His photographs are an added bonus -- I wonder where they now reside.

Interested parties may wish to check out Paul Dorpat’s 2010 article featuring Ralph Johnson, which gives background on his interest in photography and includes pictures of the family home on Etruria Street, the neighborhood and, if you scroll down far enough, early images of the ship canal, some of which are in The Sea Chest articles. 

Dorpat also gives us a look at the Lake Union dam washout in a 2014 essay

-- Nancy Dulaney, Rainier Valley Historical Society

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