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Eccentric Ballard

Ballard is a historical neighborhood with lots of character and an adventurous history. It has been the terminus of a trans-continental railway; a boomtown for shingle and lumber mills; a salty Scandinavian fishing village; and the home of 5 registered historical places, including the Hiram M. Chittenden Shipping Locks and Fish Ladder. Today Ballard is known for its hip residents and condensed downtown strip, layered with places to eat, drink, shop, and jam to grunge music. Every July, Ballard celebrates its Norwegian fishing heritage with the renown Seafood Fest, where Ballardites and visitors alike wander the historic streets adorned with Viking helmets, exclaiming “Uff Da!”, and munching on pickled herring, smoked salmon, and cotton candy. 


                     History of Ballard



In 1887, Judge Thomas Burke, who owned land in what is now Ballard, along with John Leary and railroader Daniel H. Gilman, formed the West Coast Improvement Company, a real estate company in Seattle. William Rankin Ballard soon joined the enterprise. One of the company’s focuses was to develop Burke’s landholdings in anticipation of the Great Northern Railway, the only privately funded, and successfully built, transcontinental railroad in United States history, which terminated in Seattle (wikipedia). When the partnership was dissolved a few years later, nobody wanted the “undesirable” land in Salmon Bay, so the partners allegedly flipped a coin and Captain Ballard lost, taking ownership of the 160-acre plot. 

The railroad, completed in 1893, terminated at Salmon Bay because the railroad company was unwilling to build a trestle across the bay. This benefited the developing Ballard area, gaining notoriety as “Ballard Junction;” the end of the line. The ability to use the railroad to bring in supplies and ship out products led to the growth of mills in the area, particularly lumber and shingles. By1905, more red cedar shingles were being produced in the ten shingle mills in Ballard than in any other community nationwide. (ballardhistory).

The area’s population exploded. In 1889, with 1500 residents, Ballard became an incorporated town. In just 11 years (1889-1900), the population tripled (1,500-4,568), making it the seventh largest city in Washington (wikipedia). Like so many small towns, Ballard faced plenty of societal problems: drinking and gambling, loose livestock (the Cow Ordinance of 1903 made allowing cows to graze south of present-day 65th St. a punishable offense), fresh water and sewage. Without a resolution, the town continued to grow, reaching 17,000 residents by 1907, making it the second largest city in King County. With a lack of fresh water and an abundance of sewage, Ballard was compelled to annex to Seattle. Ballard officially became part of Seattle on May 29th 1907, but maintains its independent spirit today. 





                    The Ballard Locks




After several private attempts, the US Army Corp of Engineers, led by general Hiram M Chittenden, began construction on the canal project connecting Lake Washington with Puget Sound in 1910. This construction included digging one cut between Salmon Bay and Lake Union and another between Lake Union and Lake Washington; building four draw bridges (Ballard, Fremont, Montlake, and University); and engineering the ship locks. At one point, Chittenden declared: "The large lock will be one of the greatest structures of its kind in the world, exceeded in size only by the locks of the Panama Canal"The locks officially opened on July 4th, 1917, "creating one immense non-tidal inner harbor with a shore line of 85 miles in length, affording magnificent facilities for wharfage and for factories and industrial plants" (The Lake Washington Canal: What it will Mean to the People, by Gen. H.M. Chittenden) and linking Seattle’s busy fresh water ports with outside shipping commerce. The locks have been in use and maintained by the US Army Corp of Engineers ever since. 

Some Ballard Locks Statistics:


  • 1.3 million people visit the locks every year, making it the second most visited tourist attraction in Seattle (after Pike's place, and before the Space Needle)

  • The locks can elevate a 760' long vessel 26 feet in 10-15 minutes, allowing it to travel from the lower level of the Puget Sound to the higher level of the canal

  • The fish ladder is one of a few in the world where saltwater meets freshwater

  • Over one million tons of cargo, fuel, materials, and seafood pass through the locks annually 

  • When the project was complete, Lake Washington dropped 9 1/2 feet

  • Today, the Locks move 60-70,000 boats per year, from single-person kayaks to submarines and everything in between

Check out Friends of the Ballard Locks for more great info and pictures about the locks. 

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