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Curbed Seattle History Lessons - The Lake Washington Ferry

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 - or using the water to find routes.


By H. E. Fowler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It is possible to commute directly from Kirkland to Renton, or Mercer Island to UW without driving on the bridges. All you need is a boat. Or a ferry. Once upon a time there was such a service on Lake Washington. The routes were different, but the boats were there and the traffic flowed - for a while, and maybe again.

If you live in Leschi or Madison Park, you're close to where ferries and steamboats docked as they serviced the lake. Before the bridges were built the lake was a big marine highway connecting dots of people and businesses around the lake. Leaving from the eastern shore of Seattle, boats would take you to and from Bellevue, Kirkland, Mercer Island, Medina, Juanita, and Houghton (between Bellevue and Kirkland.) A steamship even made the run up to Bothell via the Sammamish Slough. If the Slough had been deeper the service may have carried on to Lake Sammamish. Imagine commuting from Issaquah to Ballard by boat.


By Anders Beer Wilse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Vessels caught fire, ran aground, sunk, and generally had a tough time. Travel by boat was the best option for a long time, but it was adventurous. Some boats were built elsewhere and sailed up the Duwamish and Black rivers into the lake, before the cut was made at Montlake. The rest were built at a shipyard at what is now Carillon Point. Lake Washington is the state's second biggest lake and surrounded by cities and towns, so it was natural for it to be nautical.

The bridges changed the story. It took a long time to find a way to bridge a lake as wide and deep as Lake Washington, but eventually the technique of building floating bridges was developed (and have only sunk once or twice!) After the bridges were complete and after World War II, the ferries were finally retired. The places they landed, though, are still around as parks or marinas, or memories. Ironically, the two main places on the Seattle side are close to where the bridges touch land: Madison and Leschi. But, maybe someday, ferries on the Lake, again?
· Lake Washington Ferry [Wikipedia]
· Leschi's Last Run [History Link]
· Lake Washington Shipyard [Wikipedia]
· Lake Washington Boats [Wikipedia]
· Hood Canal Bridge [Wikipedia]
· I-90 Bridge [Wikipedia]
· All History Lesson coverage [CS]
Written by Tom Trimbath