Fremont and Seattle’s Ship Canal

Fremont was a successful early community because of its advantageous location at one corner of Lake Union.

Seattle’s earliest white settlers saw immediately that it would be possible to connect its freshwater lakes to the saltwater Puget Sound by means of a canal.  At a Fourth of July picnic in 1854, Thomas Mercer proposed the name of Lake Union because that body of water was in the middle between Lake Washington to the east and Puget Sound to the west.  Thomas Mercer and David Denny took land claims at the south end of Lake Union near today’s Seattle Center.  Two single men, John Ross and William Strickler, searched out the land and in 1853-1854 they took claims at the northwest corner of Lake Union, which today is the Fremont neighborhood.

From those earliest times Seattle settlers thought to build a ship canal but little did they know that it would take more than sixty years to come to fruition.  Finally in 1910-1917 all of the needed legislation, financing and public support came together to create the Lake Washington Ship Canal. 

Photographer Jean Sherrard takes a photo while the Fremont Bridge is up.

At the future site of Fremont, John Ross and William Strickler found that there was a small stream flowing out of Lake Union and that the water level would rise and fall with the tide into Salmon Bay along the shore of today’s Ballard.  These two men, along with two others who had filed land claims to the west, began to clear their land and derive income by felling trees and floating them in the stream, out toward Puget Sound and then down to Yesler’s Mill at the present site of Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle.

The Seattle settlers’ plans were put on hold during the Puget Sound Indian War of 1856, but in following decades John Ross’s name was given to the creek.  Beginning in the 1880s attempts were made to enlarge the channel of Ross Creek to create a stronger flow which would flush logs out toward sawmills.

With the widening of Ross Creek came bridges to cross it, and by the 1880s there was a wooden trestle at the present site of the Fremont Bridge.  The crossing had to be rebuilt several times due to washouts such as the dam break in March 1914 during ship canal construction.

Today’s Fremont Bridge was built at the completion of the ship canal in 1916, with the ship canal and bridge celebration held on July 4, 1917.  Over the history of the Fremont neighborhood its bridge symbolism and its key role as a transportation hub caused the neighborhood to be called “central” to Seattle, and sometimes Center of the Universe!

The Fremont Branch Library is at 731 North 35th Street. The Aurora Bridge can be seen in the background of this photo.

In observance of the centennial of the ship canal, in May 2017 the Fremont Historical Society invites everyone to our month-long exhibit at the Fremont Branch Library, 731 N. 35th Street (one block east of Fremont Avenue.)

Our special program at the Fremont Library on Saturday May 13, 2017 will include a reception from 11 AM to 1 PM to see the exhibits about Fremont’s interaction with the ship canal, and talk with Fremont Historical Society members.  At 1 PM we will adjourn to the downstairs meeting room of the library for a discussion with Jennifer Ott of HistoryLink about the history of the ship canal.

On a beautiful sunny weekend in May 2017, crowds watched the boats at the Ballard Locks.

You can also meet and chat with Jennifer Ott and other local historians on Saturday and Sunday, May 6 and 7 at the Ballard Locks.  For this opening weekend of Boating Season it will be a great time to watch the various kinds of vessels going through the Locks, and see exhibits about the history of the ship canal.  Fremont Historical Society, Friends of the Ballard Locks and several other groups will be at display tables in the Administration Building from 11 AM to 3 PM on Saturday and Sunday, May 6 and 7, 2017.

There are always crowds at the Locks to watch the boating activity.

The Administration Building is closest to the Locks and the entrance will be marked with sidewalk boards, inviting everyone in.  Exhibits will be in place all during the month of May 2017.

Other upcoming events for the ship canal centennial are listed on Making the Cut 100.  Another resource is the Special Collections/Ship Canal photos on-line at the Seattle Public Library.

The Locks loads up with boats, the water level is lowered and the boats proceed out to Puget Sound.

About Wedgwood in Seattle History

Valarie is a volunteer writer of neighborhood history in Seattle.
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