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Seattle Geographical Lessons: Making the Montlake Cut

Seattle is known for tree-huggers, Earth-firsters, moss-between-the-toes nature lovers. So, here's a story about how Seattle got this way by leveling hills, filling valleys, and rerouting water.


Imagine trying to get permission to drop a lake's level by ten feet, drain a river, and replace a strip of land with a bridge. That's what they did when they made the Montlake Cut.

The Montlake Cut is not natural. It wasn't made just to have an awesome place to race rowing shells, or to draw a very definite border on the south edge of UW's campus, or to have an excuse for a drawbridge that interrupts traffic. It was made to open a canal to Lake Washington and open an opportunity for ships to sail from the Pacific past Seattle and link the inland communities growing around Lake Washington.

Boaters, including the Navy, shipping companies, and pleasure craft understand the benefit of taking saltwater vessels into fresh water. Get away from the storms (or your enemies) and hassle the barnacles that aren't adaptable. There were plenty of people who wanted the ship canal and the Crittenden Docks to connect Lake Union to the sea.

That worked well, but have you noticed how crowded Lake Union gets? Here are all of these vessels, and just on the other side of a small gap is much larger Lake Washington and a lot of land to develop. So, in 1909 they cut through a streambed, got out of the way, punched a hole in the remaining earth, and got out of the way.

They had to get out of the way because Lake Washington was ten feet higher than Lake Union. That little stream drained a bit of it, but the majority of the runoff from the Cascades that flowed into Lake Washington meandered around and then exited by flowing down the Black River and into the Duwamish.

Ten feet of water the length of Lake Washington is a non-trivial volume of water. Dropping the level of the lake ten feet was non-trivial as well. The Black River became a trickle through a marsh. Lake towns like Renton were less likely to flood, and also had easier access to ship out coal and lumber. Take a bit of shoreline, build a dock, and have ready access to Seattle, no locks or traffic (or tolls) to worry about.


These days, the majority of ship traffic doesn't get to Lake Washington. Roads and rails took care of a lot of the traffic. Residential areas arose though. As Seattle grew, people had more options of where to live. The exposed land and new shoreline was easier to build on, after it dried out a bit. No need to fell trees. A blank slate of landscaping canvas.

If you're looking for homes along Lake Washington, and you find a very old one with a very long lawn, ask whether they were originally a waterfront site with waves lapping at the porch. You might be surprised how much things have changed.
· Montlake Cut [Montlake]
· Montlake Cut [HL]
· All History Lesson coverage [CS]
Map Image: Dennis Bratland/Wikimedia