A new HistoryLink article on the Montlake Cut dives into the marshy beginnings of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, arguing the Montlake isthmus was ground zero in reversing the natural drainage of the Cedar-Duwamish River basin in the name of economic prosperity.
The article also discusses the human and environmental costs of building the canal and is a great read for its many wonderful details — Montlake’s native place name, Swa’tsugwlL translates to “carry a canoe” — the coal trains that preceded the canal — the Chinese labor that dug the first ditch — an Army Captain’s blind eye to lawsuits as he blew up earthen dams holding back Lake Washington — The Seattle Times boasting in 1917 that “every thinking person” knew the Ship Canal would bring Seattle “undisputed Pacific Coast supremacy.”
While the article focuses on the Montlake Cut’s economic intentions, it notes that industrial “supremacy” never really came (Boeing at Renton and the Navy at Sand Point notwithstanding) and instead it gave the city recreational benefits. There is more to this point: the Cut, in moving people and goods between ‘monts’ and lakes, connected people to the landscape of Lake Washington in a powerful way, through recreation, which helped shape Seattle’s contemporary environmental values. Shoreline parks, wetland lagoons, boating, Seafair — even Montlake’s later right-of-way for a floating freeway — all connected people to Seattle’s landscape of mountains, water and weather.
In connecting this history to the present, it’s clear that Montlake is still very much a place to “carry a canoe,” whether that canoe is a UW rental, a bicycle, the 545 bus or a Seattle-standard-issue silver Toyota Prius. And with big new infrastructure projects underway — light rail, 520, a possible second bascule bridge, and the planners of each now selling environmental as well as economic benefits — one wonders what unintentional consequences these projects will bring next.
Montlake Cut (Seattle) — HistoryLink.org Eassay #10221 — by Jennifer Ott