On July 4, 1917, Seattle celebrated the opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal.
Some 40 years had passed between when the Ship Canal was first envisioned by non-native settlers and its completion. One of the last decisions to be made about the canal’s design was the placement of the locks, which would impact the mills along Ballard’s Salmon Bay.
Today, the centennial of the canal’s opening gives us occasion to look back at Ballard’s then-burgeoning timber industry, whose buildings and equipment were documented in detail by King County and the City of Seattle as part of the Ship Canal project.
Planning the Canal
Before canal construction, Shilshole Bay and Salmon Bay were saltwater bodies of water connected to Puget Sound. Lake Union, fed by natural springs, drained into Salmon Bay. This area was home to the Duwamish people.
The canal was originally envisioned by non-native settlers in the 1850s, but it would not be completed until over 60 years later.
Washington Territory is established.
Non-native settlers propose building a canal to connect Lake Washington with Puget Sound. This would allow for easier transport of timber and coal to mills and ships. Boosters also saw potential for industrial development along the waterway and increased property values.
US Government contemplates building a canal to allow for a naval base and shipyard on the shores of Lake Washington.
The Washington Improvement Company employs Chinese laborers to construct a 16-foot channel with two locks to move vessels between Lake Union and Lake Washington. The company also builds log canals parallel to the channel and between Lake Union and Salmon Bay.
Army Corps of Engineers endorses a canal through Salmon Bay, but then withdraws support.
US Government endorses the canal project. King County begins obtaining the right-of-way to be deeded to the United States government.
Army Corps of Engineers begins excavating channels between Salmon Bay to the Sound and to Lake Union.
A federal board of engineers determines that the canal was not worth the investment and the US Government withdraws support.
Hiram Chittenden becomes the Army Corps of Engineers’ District Engineer in Seattle.
Lake Washington Ship Canal Association petitions the County to collect taxes to fund the completion of the canal and locks. The King County Commissioners refuses due to perceived lack of Federal investment.
King County agrees to collect taxes to fund the completion of the locks with Federal backing.
July 4, 1917
The ship canal opens.
The Mills of Salmon Bay
Mills move to Salmon Bay
Saw and shingle mills were first established on Salmon Bay in 1888. After the the Great Fire of 1889 destroyed 29 blocks of Seattle’s downtown business district, including Yesler’s Mill on Elliott Bay, Salmon Bay mills grew in number and significance, supplying lumber for much of the reconstruction of the city’s core. The first few Salmon Bay mills are noted in the 1889 plat map to the right. The below survey map, created five years later for the Ship Canal project, shows 10 mills along the waterfront.
In 1890, the newly incorporated Town of Ballard boasted a growing industrial area, with three shingle mills and three sawmills, including the Seattle Cedar Company, the Stimson Mill Company, and the Salmon Bay Mill Company. Ballard soon became known as the “shingle capital of the world,” and by 1915 there were some 20 mills along Salmon Bay.
Photographs of the Salmon Bay Mills taken in sequence to form a panoramic view, 1915. Items 51832, 51833, and 51834. Series 2613-07, Engineering Department Photographic Negatives. Seattle Municipal Archives.
Operating on the Bay
Water was integral to operation of the sawmills, with some structures built over the high tide line. Timber was floated to the mills through the small canal that connected Lake Union to Salmon Bay, and from Puget Sound through Shilshole Bay. Prior to processing, mills stored timber in the bay, which prevented wood from drying and splitting and allowed for easier handling. Small ships carried cut lumber and shingles for export from Salmon Bay’s shallow waters to larger vessels anchored in the Sound. Railroad car ferries also provided water transport of rail cars loaded with lumber.
The 1901 dredging and widening of the channel to Puget Sound for the Ship Canal project helped lumber, shipbuilding, fishery, and other industries expand in Salmon Bay.
Shingle Weavers and Lumbermen
Lumbermen and workers go west
In the late 1800s, timber barons of the over-logged Great Lakes region began to invest in the richly forested Puget Sound area, connected by the Great Northern Railway in 1893. Among the first in Ballard were T. D. Stimson, who moved the family lumber business from Michigan in 1890, bought up timberland, and opened Stimson Mill; and brothers William and Alexander McEwan, also from Michigan, who established the Seattle Cedar Lumber Manufacturing Company in the same year. William Bolcom moved to Seattle from Minnesota in 1901, establishing the Canal Mill and the Bolcom Mill on Salmon Bay.
Midwestern timber workers followed the industry west to work in logging camps and mills.
Although relatively well-paid, the dangerous nature of shingle weavers’ work, lack of care and compensation for injuries and respiratory illness, and the unpredictability of market-driven mill closures, all strengthened the demand for union representation.
In 1886, Michigan shingle weavers organized the timber industry’s first trade union. Puget Sound shingle weavers followed in 1890, forming the West Coast Shingle Weavers‘ Union, but this union was weakened after a major strike in the Ballard mills failed due to the 1893 economic depression.
The International Shingle Weavers Union
In 1903, shingle weavers across the states formally affiliated with the American Federation of Labor as the International Shingle Weavers’ Union of America, whose goals included pay increases, a 10-hour work day, and care for injuries. The Shingle Weavers’ Union grew in membership and strength, and it served as a model for other trades.
Ballard Shingle Weavers started another major strike in 1906. It lasted four months and spread across Washington State, but ended with few concessions from mill owners. In 1907, the Shingle Weavers did successfully negotiate a raise that withstood the next economic slump — with the 10-hour workday having been achieved across the timber industry, workers would next fight for an 8-hour work day.
Mill workers living in boarding houses faced crowded conditions. In the 1907 letter to the Mayor of Ballard to the right, the manager of the Hazelton Rooming House, which housed Stimson Mill workers, requested assistance feeding some 20 boarders who were quarantined due to small pox, stating that she “cannot afford charity on so large a scale.”
The AFL and the Wobblies
In 1912, the Shingle Weavers’ Union expanded to include unskilled and semi-skilled sawmill workers and loggers, to become the International Union of Timberworkers, affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. A larger union would have stronger bargaining power. The AFL also faced competition with organizers from the International Workers of the World (IWW or the Wobblies).
The anti-capitalist IWW promoted a global workers’ union and were reputed to employ violent tactics. The Wobblies were making inroads into Northwest logging camps, and their growth was perceived as a threat to AFL unions.
Timberworkers were encouraged to join the expanded AFL union with a warning that the anticipated opening of the Panama Canal promised to bring new immigrants who would compete for work at low wages.
From 1912 to 1915, International Union of Timberworkers locals across the United States were involved in 55 strikes and lockouts
In 1913, when Ballard shingle weavers struck for increased wages and union recognition, mill owner Napoleon Campbell attempted to cast them as radicals by arranging to have his own mill dynamited. This would justify hiring a private security force during the strike. Workers from the Campbell mill responded by joining Renton coal miners in petitioning for the recall of King County Sheriff Cudihee, claiming he had accepted payment from business owners to deputize private security, who acted as aggressive strikebreakers.
Not all lumbermen objected to workers’ concerns. In 1914, Salmon Bay shingle mill owner William Turgeon set up a cooperative arrangement that guaranteed workers 75% pay during market-driven mill closures.
There was also public sympathy for the strikers, who invited local pastors to investigate their working conditions. One followed the tour with a sermon entitled “The Price of Shingles Versus the Price of Souls.”
The Ship Canal – Final Decisions
Mill owners object to the locks
Salmon Bay mill owners had long argued for the Ship Canal locks to be located east at the head of the bay, and they loudly objected to the final decision to place the locks to the west, which would result in Salmon Bay’s water level rising. Not only would the mills be flooded, but log booms and vessels would be forced to navigate the locks, slowing operations. Although in 1898, Salmon Bay property owners had been compensated for planned flooding behind the locks, over the intervening years, the mills had expanded in the to-be-condemned area, making moving structures above the water more costly. Proponents of the lock placement argued for the benefits of creating a freshwater harbor that would allow expanded use by shipbuilding, fishing, and other industries.
Error in Judgment
An 1898 Superior Court judgment over the compensation to mill and other property owners along Salmon Bay indicated that water level behind the locks would be raised by seven feet. However, Army Corps of Engineers’ District Engineer Hiram Chittenden attested that surveys had predicted a nine-foot rise, not seven. The court insisted that the number in the judgment was binding. This error meant that the mills would be flooded by an additional two feet of water, for which they had not been compensated. The City of Seattle’s plans to regrade Shilshole Avenue above the waterline were also affected.
King County was required to conduct a second condemnation action in 1915, prior to canal completion, to accommodate the actual water level. The drawings and photographs from Salmon Bay Condemnation Survey No. 1255 document the mill properties, buildings, and equipment, indicating the locations of the seven-foot and nine-foot water lines.
Survey drawings and photographs were created to document the buildings and equipment that would be affected by the higher water level of Salmon Bay. The drawings provide details of the mills’ layout and equipment.
The Stimson Mill
The Stimson Mill Company was incorporated and began operating the Stimson Mill on Salmon Bay in 1890. To become one of the largest sawmills in the region, the Stimson Mill employed modern equipment and was among the earliest in Seattle to use electric-powered machinery. By 1914, the Stimson Mill had 37 electric motors and was the “best lighted lumber-manufacturing establishment in the world.
The drawing below shows the foundation plan, with a red line indicating the locations of the seven- and nine-foot waterlines.
With federal funds approved for the canal and locks, the City of Seattle worked towards preparing roads and bridges to handle increased traffic, both on land and on the water. Bridges would also have to accommodate the larger boats that could now make passage through the waterway. Voter-approved bonds funded construction of two bridges. The Ballard Bridge opened in 1916 and the Fremont Bridge in June 1917, three weeks before the formal dedication of the Lake Washington Ship Canal.
Water and Sewer
The City also needed to improve water and sewer service north of the canal. In 1913, funds were appropriated for a tunnel to carry water from the Capitol Hill reservoir across the east end of Lake Union. Two shafts 65 feet deep and 16 feet in diameter made of reinforced concrete contained a concrete tunnel 12 feet in diameter and 916 feet long. Steel water mains replaced the wood stave pipes previously carried on the Latona Bridge. The engineers predicted “this structure will… probably be ample for the needs of the section lying north of the Lake Washington Canal for all time.”
To manage sewage, the North Trunk Sewer was completed in 1918. Twelve feet in diameter, it carried wastewater under the canal and Fort Lawton and discharged into Puget Sound.
Raising Ballard’s Streets
Street grades along Shilshole Avenue had to be raised to be even with the new water level of Salmon Bay. City Engineer A.H. Dimock initially proposed to use the waste material from the canal dredging to fill in the mill properties and bring them to elevation. However, this approach was determined to be impractical from both a technical and a legal standpoint. In 1912, Seattle created a special taxing district (a Local Improvement District) to raise Ballard streets and to repave, replank, and make other improvements such as new sewers, walkways, water service, and fire protection. Owners of the Bolcom, Stimson, and Cedar Lumber mills were permitted to build a temporary bulkhead to protect their property during the regrading.
1917: The Lumber Strike, World War I, and the Mills of Salmon Bay
The 1917 Lumber Strike
In July 1917, the IWW and the AFL both participated in a timber worker strike that stretched from Montana to western Washington. The strike shut down 90% of timber operations in western Washington which hampered the industry’s ability to meet new demand for lumber as the United States engaged in World War I. The government needed spruce for its first fleet of military airplanes, and fir and other wood were needed for ships, encampments, and other equipment and infrastructure.
To address the shortfall, the U.S. Army established a Spruce Production Division. Its leader, Colonel Brice P. Disque, formed an organization of workers and employers, the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen (the 4L), to encourage them to set aside labor issues in favor of the war effort. To boost output of spruce lumber, thousands of Spruce Production Division enlistees were assigned to logging camps and mills.
In 1918, the Spruce Production Division reported that 85% of timber workers in its Northwest districts were 4L members.
University of Washington President Henry Suzzallo served on the Washington State Council of Defense and helped with negotiations between labor and lumbermen, who resisted making concessions, especially to the Wobblies. Under federal pressure, in March 1918, the lumbermen agreed to the 8-hour day and improved conditions in lumber camps, ending the strike. They gained federal support in opposing the IWW, who were characterized as anti-American.
After the war, most mills reverted to the ten hour day.
The 1901 dredging of the waterway to Puget Sound for the Ship Canal improved mill operations for over a decade. When Salmon Bay mill owners later objected to the planned placement of the locks, they claimed that the flooding would force them to close. But although some mill structures had to be moved above the new waterline, Shingletown did not disappear immediately after the rising of Salmon Bay.
At least 12 mills remained in 1919, including the Stimson, Canal, Campbell, and Bolcom mills. The gradual closure of the mills is primarily attributed to economic depression and other market forces (including the introduction of composite roofing). By 1940, five mills were operating on Salmon Bay. The Cedar Lumber Manufacturing Company was the last to close in 1973.
Salmon Bay Development
Salmon Bay’s deeper, freshwater harbor created by the Ship Canal project brought in new shipbuilding, ship repair, fishing, and other industries. Today, Salmon Bay, the Hiram Chittenden Locks, and the Lake Washington Ship Canal continue to support a mix of commercial and recreational uses.
This joint exhibit of the King County Archives and the Seattle Municipal Archives is part of a regional commemoration of the Lake Washington Ship Canal Centennial which took place in 2017. This exhibit was revised and updated in 2023.
Neil H. Purvis, “History of the Lake Washington Canal,” Washington Historical Quarterly, April 1934, pp. 114-127.
“From the Pacific Northwest,”American Lumberman, January 21, 1911, page 71.
Scandinavian Settlement in Seattle, “Queen City of the Puget Sound,” by Patsy Adams Hegstad, Volume 30: Page 55. NAHA Online, The Norwegian-American Heritage Association. https://www.naha.stolaf.edu/pubs/nas/volume30/vol30_02.htm.
“Tracing the Growth of the Shingle Weavers Union,” The Labor Journal, February 7, 1913, front page. Everett Trades Council, Everett, Washington.
“Shingleweavers to adopt retaliatory measures,” The Labor Journal, May 7, 1915, front page. Everett Trades Council, Everett, Washington.
“The Electrification of the Stimson Mill Company’s Plant,” Electrical Review and Western Electrician, Volume 65, No. 4, July 23, 1914, Page 163.
Volumes and Chapters
Northwest Passages: A History of the Seattle District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1896–1920, by William F. Willingham, Ph.D. based in part on research by Robert E. Ficken, 1992. http://www.nws.usace.army.mil/Portals/27/docs/Histories/Volume%201.pdf.
Ficken, Robert E., The Forested Land: A History of Lumbering in Western Washington, University of Washington Press; January 1987.
Bagley, Clarence. History of King County, Washington. Vol. III. Chicago – Seattle, IL, WA: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1929. Pages 309-311 and 373-375.
History of Bay County, Michigan, with illustrations and biographical sketches of some of its prominent men and pioneers, H. R. Page & Co., Chicago, 1883. Page 48.
“Turning Point 11: Borne on the 4th of July: The Saga of the Lake Washington Ship Canal,” By Walt Crowley and the HistoryLink.org Staff, HistoryLink.org Essay 9311, Posted 7/03/200, http://historylink.org/file/9311.
Seattle Municipal Archives Online Exhibit Annexed Cities: Ballard http://www.seattle.gov/cityarchives/exhibits-and-education/online-exhibits/annexed-cities/ballard.
“King County Superior Court approves condemnation of land along a proposed route of Lake Washington Ship Canal (later the route of State Route 520) on November 25, 1898,” By Jennifer Ott, HistoryLink.org Essay 10186, Posted 12/30/2012, http://www.historylink.org/File/10186.
“Seattle Now & Then: ‘Threading the Bead’ between Magnolia and Ballard,” by J. R. Sherrard, DorpatSharrardLomont, December 18, 2010. https://pauldorpat.com/2010/12/18/seattle-now-then-threading-the-bead-between-magnolia-and-ballard/.
There is Unrest in the Forest: The Industrial Workers of the World and the Battle for the Eight-Hour Workday, by Kearby Matthew Chess, May 1, 2009. Washington State University Libraries Research Exchange. http://hdl.handle.net/2376/2684.
“Everett Massacre (1916),” by Margaret Riddle, HistoryLink.org Essay 9981, posted 12/18/2011. http://www.historylink.org/File/9981.
“Never far from the trees: a history of Stimson Lumber Company, 1850-2001,” Stimson Lumber, http://www.stimsonlumber.com/about/page/stimson-history/.
“The Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen,” by Erik Mickelson, University of Washington, STRIKE: Seattle General Strike Project, 1999. https://depts.washington.edu/labhist/strike/mickelson.shtml.
“The International Shingle Weavers of America,” by Philip C. Emerson, University of Washington, STRIKE: Seattle General Strike Project, 1999. https://depts.washington.edu/labhist/strike/emerson.shtml.
“The International Union of Timberworkers, 1911-1923,” by Chris Canterbury, University of Washington, STRIKE: Seattle General Strike Project, 1999. https://depts.washington.edu/labhist/strike/canterbury.shtml.
“The Government Canal: Long Cherished Dream of Seattle on the Eve of Realization – The Finally Adopted Route,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 3, 1897, page 3.
“Great Lake Washington Canal Will Return Cost Hundred Times Over,” The Seattle Sunday Time, Magazine Section front page, September 1, 1907.
“Brevities,” [W. R. Ballard to move mill to Salmon Bay], Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 21, 1888, page 5.
“Brevities,” [suit over Salmon Bay shingle mill], Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 25, 1889, page 5.
“Town of Ballard: The New City Council Holds Regular Meetings,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 04, 1890, page 16.
“Funds asked for Ballard end of canal,” Seattle Daily Times, January 21, 1905, page 3.
“We will soon be ‘Seattle Northwest,'” The Seattle Sunday Times, April 14, 1907, page 23.
“Ballard Labor Scarce,” The Seattle Daily Times, March 12, 1906, page 4.
“Owners hold out on small price,” The Seattle Daily Times, April 4, 1906, page 10.
“Strike affects only small owners,” The Seattle Daily Times, April 3, 1906, page 2.
“Wage question to be considered,” The Seattle Daily Times, January 1, 1908, page 4.
“Petition for lock at mouth of bay,” The Seattle Daily Times, October 30, 1906, page 8.
Ballard discusses location of lock,” The Seattle Daily Times, October 11, 1906, page 7.
“Will discuss canal lock controversy,” The Seattle Daily Times, December 19, 1906, page 13.
“Millmen explain attitude,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 10, 1907, page 8.
“Map of Lake Washington Canal showing probable location of locks,” The Seattle Sunday Times, June 30, 1907, page 27.
“Mills will have to be closed down,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 5, 1907.
“Ships’ Canal work to be delayed: attorneys representing Ballard mills notify County Commissioners that assessment will be fought to a finish,” The Seattle Daily Times, June 30, 1908, page 4.
“‘Selfish!’ say Ballard business men – ‘No, we would only protect millions in property.’: Manufacturers tell why they oppose the canal,” The Seattle Sunday Times, October 11, 1908, page 21.
“Indian sign put on Ballard by someone: location of lock connecting Salmon Bay, Lake Union, and Lake Washington at narrows aggrieves local millmen,” The Seattle Daily Times, February 23, 1910, page 8.
“Bitter fight begins against canal project,” The Seattle Daily Times, March 21, 1910, page 4.
“Strike at Ballard likely to paralyze all shingle mills,” The Seattle Daily Times, April 07, 1913, pages 1-2.
“Sheriff Butts in on City: sends deputies to Ballard,” The Seattle Star, May 15, 1913, Volume 15, No. 66, front page.
“Dynamite plot laid at door of Ballard shingle mill owner,” The Seattle Sunday Times, August 24, 1913, front page.
Club’s effort to end Ballard strike fails,” The Seattle Daily Times, April 22, 1913, page 5.
“Second petition to recall sheriff filed,” The Seattle Daily Times, June 29, 1913, page 14.
“Devises new plan of cooperation,” The Seattle Sunday Times, November 22, 1914, page 26.
“The price the shingle weaver pays: the story of the terrible price one father has paid for job in mills,” The Seattle Star, Volume 15, No. 16, April 10, 1913, front page.
“Ballard millmen fear canal bill” Seattle Daily Times, February 15, 1910, page 10.”County Board delays action in canal case,” The Seattle Daily Times, June 22, 1910.
“Great opportunity up to voters of Seattle,” The Seattle Daily Times, October 29, 1910, page 5.
“Canard circulated to scare bond supporters,” The Seattle Daily Times, October 28, 1910, page 19.
“Blunder in judgment threatens to check work on lake canal,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 1, 1913, front page.
Government Documents and Records
King County Resolution 2873, right-of-way secured for Government Canal, King County Commissioners Proceedings, September 17, 1897. Series 118, Commissioners Proceedings, item 118.180.12, King County Archives.
King County Resolution 2430, setting special bond election to decide if the County should participate in the construction of the Lake Washington Canal, King County Commissioners Proceedings, August 10, 1906. Series 118, Commissioners Proceedings, item 118.175.55, King County Archives.
“Seattle’s Commercial and Industrial Shorelines: Inventory Background Report,” Seattle Shoreline Master Program Revision Project, Seattle Department of Construction and Land Use, U.S. Government Printing Office, August, 1983.
[Re: ship canal assessment roll] Correspondence from King County Prosecuting Attorney Kenneth Mackintosh to County Commissioners, September 28, 1908. Prosecuting Attorney Opinions, A15-027, Box 3, King County Archives. King County Archives.
[Re: ship canal bond measure] Correspondence from King County Prosecuting Attorney Kenneth Mackintosh to County Commissioners dated July 16, 1906. Prosecuting Attorney Opinions, A15-027, Box 3, King County Archives.
Industrial Relations: final report and testimony submitted to Congress by the Commission on Industrial Relations created by the Act of August 23, 1912, Volume V –Industrial relations and remedies, Seattle, Wash. Government Printing Office, 1916.
Osborne, Tremper & Company, Incorporated, Appellant, v. King County, Respondent No. 11214. Supreme Court of Washington, Department Two, 76 Wash. 277; 136 P. 138; 1913. Wash. LEXIS 1810, November 1, 1913, Washington Courts https://www.lexisnexis.com/clients/wareports/ retrieved 04/11/2017.
The State of Washington, on the relation of Thomas Burke et al., respondent, v. Board of Commissioners of King County et al., appellants, reported in 109 Pac. 350. [No. 8233, May 28, 1910], Washington Reports Vol. 58: cases determined in the Supreme Court of Washington March 25-1910 – June 10, 1910, Arthur Remington, Bancroft-Whitney Co., Seattle and San Francisco, 1910.King County Resolution 2262, requesting that the Secretary of War allow work on the locks to begin as part of the Lake Washington Canal Project, December 06, 1910. Series 118, Commissioners Proceedings, item 118.174.137, King County Archives.
King County Resolution 2294, appointing R.H. Thomson as the County’s representative at the hearing before the Secretary of War on the Lake Washington Canal, June 6, 1911. Series 118, Commissioners Proceedings, item 118.174.170, King County Archives.
King County Resolution 2235, directing the Prosecuting Attorney to petition for a rehearing of all issues surrounding the construction of the Lake Washington Canal, July 18, 1910. Series 118, Commissioners Proceedings, item 118.174.110, King County Archives.
Series 276, Salmon Bay Waterway Condemnation Survey 1255, Records of County Engineer, King County Archives.
Letter June 21, 1918, Files/Special orders, War Department Bureau of Aircraft Production, Spruce Production Division, 1918-1919, National Archives at Seattle.
Polk’s Ballard City Directory 1907, Polk’s Seattle Directory Co., 1907.
Bards & Co’s Classified Business Directory of Olympia, Tacoma, Puyallup, Seattle, Everett, Port Townsend, Fairhaven, New Whatcom, and Port Angeles for the years 1898-1899, Bards & Co., New York, 1898.
A history of the Spruce Production Division [draft], Brice P. Disque, 1918. National Archives Identifier 5048576.