Fill in the Ship Canal

Seattle pre-canal (Wikipedia)

When the City Fathers began construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal over a century ago, shipping on Lake Washington was an important industry. Today, however, it’s hard to make that claim.

Lake Washington has been left to the pleasure boats. People enjoying their yachts isn’t the worst thing in the world, but we clearly would not launch such a huge infrastructure project today for such a trivial purpose.

Meanwhile, the ship canal massively inflates the complexity and cost of most transportation lines that cross it. University Link had to lose lots of altitude from Capitol Hill to go under the cut, a constraint that both lengthened the tunnel and essentially eliminated the possibility of additional stations.

Pedestrian Bridge on 3rd Ave W/NW, 1912

Pedestrian Bridge on 3rd Ave W/NW, 1912

On the other side of town, Seattle and Sound Transit are trying to figure out how to pay for a new drawbridge at Fremont and some sort of grade-separated crossing at Ballard. If Seattle gets what it needs, it will be many additional hundreds of millions of dollars to cross this entirely artificial barrier.

Weighed against the cost of pushing dirt into a ditch, restoring the path between Fremont and Ballard to a creek, and the denial of boating routes to a wealthy few, the choice is clear. There are many legal obstacles (not least the fact that both canals are historic places of some kind). But the right thing to do is the right thing to do, even if those in the wrong will fight against it.


  1. Mike says

    It still is heavily used for industry… Although I agree less so. There is lakeside concrete in Fremont and the big concrete factory in kenmore both of which use large barges to get their sand and aggregate delivered.

    • PSF says

      Rather than fill it in, just drain it more.

      Blow up the Ballard locks, and watch the water level in the montlake cut drop from 30′ to a couple.

      The side benefit is that we’d get a bike path around the lake for free.

      • Possib says

        If you eliminate the locks you will allow salt water into Lake Washington. That would have other consequences.

      • Benjamin C says

        Salt water will likely get into Lake Washington sometime in the next 150 years anyway.

  2. eweb says

    Lake Union has a number of shipyards and dry docks, and the fishing industry makes use of the ship canal on a near daily basis. With competition coming from Tacoma shipyards, and a number of Alaska shipyards coming online in the next few years, the last thing we want to do is push the fishing industry, which provides thousands of jobs and spends millions of dollars, out of Seattle.

  3. Brent says

    Actually, Eastlake will love this. You’ve just solved the Ducks problem!

    This is a rather cheap solution to get that NOISE to go away. Make it stop!

  4. David L says

    Also, we have a very good source of dirt for this plan. So many of our transportation problems are because certain hills are too steep for rail or even buses. Flatten Queen Anne and First Hill just a bit, and running surface rail in dedicated guideways suddenly becomes an option. Use the dirt to fill in the ship canal (and also that pesky Lake Union; it gets in the way too).

    • Brent says

      Meh. Why not just have a whole lot of docks and APodBoats? Or build kitchen space on the docks, and have APodDocks?

  5. J. Reddoch says

    Grand idea. I think we should do anything to get the Black River flowing again.

  6. John Bailo says

    Yes fill in the canal…but then, create a Deep Bore Boat Tunnel.

    Since we’ve already got the equipment here for LINK, just keep going and cut two super wide tunnels (might have to do a few passes) for yachts.

    Boating would be more like a giant flume ride…put animatronics inside like Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland…..keep the kids entertained instead of being bored from being stuck in all those tedious locks.

    • says

      An alternative would be an aqueduct with locks on both ends. It’s not like ships aren’t already using the Ballard Locks as it is; what’s another step?

    • Nathanael says

      It would be much simpler to operate the deep bore tunnel if it didn’t have to be kept free of water. So let it flood, and then run submarine shuttles through it. It could also be used for farming blind cave fish.

  7. miws says

    David L, I was thinking the same thing, about QA Hill, anyhow.

    That would solve two problems, as it would also get rid of the Counterbalance “tunnel” that still exists, and is probably due at any time to collapse under QA Av roadway.

    First Hill?

    Maybe regrade that to the south, filling in that section of I-90, to severely limit access to Mercer Island, to punish all those whiny rich folks bitching about potential tolls.


  8. mic says

    It’s interesting to see Green Lk drain into Lk Washington, then out to the Duwamish via Renton and Black River.

      • aw says

        It certainly doesn’t flow through the Black River to the Duwamish these days.

        Does Ravenna Creek still exist? I don’t think I’ve seen it. Is it under Ravenna Blvd. somewhere?

      • bovine says


        yeah, sorry – I just meant the ‘into Lake Washington’ part.

        I believe is flows under Ravenna Blvd, yes. Or at least so I have been told. Isn’t that what is at the flows into Cowen Park?

      • alexjonlin says

        I don’t think it flows out of Green Lake anymore – if it does then it’s just a tiny trickle through a pipe under Ravenna Blvd. Then it goes through Cowen and Ravenna Parks, south along 25th, and over to the slough to empty into Union Bay.

  9. Stephen says

    Serious rail transportation should never be at grade anyways. Assuming that the solution we want is a subway system, then that’s what we need to build. Draining all that water won’t help a bit, because we’d still need to dig those tunnels anyways. While it was an issue for the university link, presumably the fremont and ballard subways won’t have the same elevation changes so it doesn’t really matter.

  10. Eric Goodman says

    NO. I shall fight you to the depths!!! j/k
    Well I hope that’s an april fool’s joke, but in case not, I’d just like to make the point that not all boaters are wealthy. If you are middle class in America you can afford to pick one or two of a variety of different hobbies. Sometimes that involves some tradeoffs. For me, carefully choosing my residential location, riding transit and avoiding the purchase of another automobile was the way I figured out how to be able to afford my sailboat. Boating gives a sense of freedom and control, helps develop confidence in adapting to changing conditions, provides an ability to harvest wild food and to travel to places you can’t get in a bus, train, bike or car. We sailors also make quite a nice postcard picture for the tourists. The reason we like to be in the lakes or rivers(my boat is in Everett) is for the fresh water, which significantly cuts down growth on the bottom and makes cleaning much easier, less frequent and less needy of harsh chemicals. Last time I hauled out a power wash was all that was needed. Cool map btw.

    • Mike Orr says

      All it means is that if you sail around Lake Washington you’ll be unaffected. If you sail out on the Sound, you’ll have to have a second boat moored on the Sound side. That won’t be a problem for rich people. Those who can’t afford a second boat would have to choose one location or the other. It may create a need for larger marinas on the Sound. And I suppose there would be a new demand for “rental boats” on the lake, so that people who don’t want to buy a boat just for the lake could rent one for a few hours.

  11. lazarus says

    You have officially lost your minds. This is purely nuts and does nothing to advance your credability.

    And, if any one is even tempted to consider such a thing, do you really think it would be cheaper than just paying for an under crossing? Remember Lake Washington was lowered as part of the locks project. So if you are going to restore the original lake level you will need to condemn all the lake front property. And if you don’t restore the lake level you will need a major new canal project to reconnect the outflownin Renton.

    Filling in one canal just to build another somewhere else? Not to smart. And we haven’t even started to talk salmon and shoreline rev’s yet.

    Get with it. The Ship Canal is part of Seattle. Deal with it or move.

  12. Sam says

    This post got me to thinking … why not Good To Go or tolls for boats going through the canal? Boats use bridges just as much as cars do, they just use them in a different way.

  13. Patrick says

    This has some merit, but fails due to lack of ambition. Instead of just the canal, why turn the locks into a dam and drain all of Lake Washington? Imagine the thousands of acres of new land for development. This would be the full realization of the GMA, creating land inside the urban boundary instead of despoiling land outside of it.

    Now I know what you’re going to say, wouldn’t an elaborate system of pumps be needed to keep the Sammamish from refilling it? Yes, that’s true, but to paraphrase our founders “New Orleans Alki”.

    • Brendan says

      The sides of the lake would form an inversion layer around the area, so you’d need an elaborate system of smog pumps to keep pollution from settling in the new valley. You could then build a new city inside the lake and connect the dense buildings via another elaborate system of trams and walkways creating multiple layers of walking space, like Gensler’s amazing vision for LA.

    • Mike Orr says

      I was thinking the same thing, only filling in the lake as opposed to just draining it.

  14. stevesliva says

    As we’re opposed to all forms of transport except grade-separated rail, and we also hate rich people, we should also raise the lake level and flood out Bill Gates and Boeing Renton. Win-win.

      • Breadbaker says

        We can build an artificial lake somewhere and build a gondola over it. Which makes it into a tourist attraction. I’m sure one of the casinos would sponsor it.

  15. Al S. says

    Thanks for daring to propose an out-of-the box solution even though it is obviously an April Fools story. It might seem totally silly, but it does reveal a painful insight about ship canal crossing transit investments — why do transit funds have to pay the hundreds of millions of capital money to accommodate boaters?

  16. Adam Parent says

    I see one little flaw in this proposal. It is my understanding that the ship canal and the locks are critical for maintaining the water level in Lake Washington. Our ability to precisely control the water level in the lake is what makes having floating bridges possible for us. This precision control of the water level is even more critical when running rail over a floating bridge. (Cars can run over expansion joints, but rails can’t). So, it may not be as trivial as it seems at first glance. I’m not a civil engineer, so I certainly may be wrong, but it is something to consider I’m sure.

      • Adam Parent says

        True, but there aren’t any plans that I am aware of to run rails over hood canal either.

    • Mike Orr says

      That’s what a Locks engineer said at one of the tours. The bridges depend on a stable water level. Of course, if the runoff were redirected to an underground river, there could still be a smaller lock at the end to maintain the water level.

  17. cascadianone says

    To be frank, you got me. Unfortunately, you got me sooo good, I’m now wondering if anyone actually has quantified the economic value of boat crossings VERSUS the infrastructure costs from maintaining that capability…

  18. monorail says

    What we really need are ice roads like they have in the arctic. We could lay light-rail tracks directly on the ice, and then there would be no need for more bridges. It’s just a matter of keeping the ship canal frozen throughout the year.

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