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Lake Union hides a graveyard of historic shipwrecks

Beneath the urban lake’s surface are a multitude of reminders of a different era

A diver poses with a Lake Union shipwreck.
| Courtesy of Chris Borgen

In the middle of Seattle, sandwiched between a collection of skyscrapers and traffic, there’s a small, glistening waterway known as Lake Union. The 580 acres of freshwater offers a calm reprieve from the rapidly expanding city, and has become a magnet for kayakers and paddle boaters, along with pedestrians and bike riders.

But descend just a few feet below its idyllic surface and the water tells a very different story. The dark, murky water is home to a veritable graveyard of ancient ships.

From old school wooden boats, sailboats, and ferries to tugboats and military ships from World War II, these deteriorating vessels pepper the entire lake, offering a glimpse into both the waterway’s past as an industrial hub and even a taste of the city’s collective maritime history.

In recent years, teams from the Maritime Documentation Society, a group that works to explore and document historic shipwrecks, and the Center for Wooden Boats, a maritime museum with facilities on Lake Union and Camano Island, joined forces to find out more about this mysterious boat burial ground. For about five years, beginning in 2011, they used scanning technology to digitally inspect the water for boats and ship remnants, then repeatedly sent teams of divers below its surface to search for them.

Present-day Lake Union gives no indication of the wrecks hiding beneath the surface.
Hallie Golden

Those teams have discovered as many as 75 shipwrecks in Lake Union. And by locating a name or number on the boat’s bow or stern, or any other truly distinguishing characteristics, the team has identified about 25 of them.

Divers have found about 75 wrecks below the lake’s surface.
Courtesy of Chris Borgen

Dan Warter, one of the project’s divers from the Maritime Documentation Society, did extensive historical research on the ships. He looked through maritime books and old photographs at the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), and was able to discover the history behind some of the wrecks.

There was the Gypsy Queen, a giant World War II minesweeper that had been converted into a couple’s traveling home before it sunk, according to Warter. Divers found it fully intact, sitting under about 35 feet of water, just below another hull of a large ship. They also found the J.E. Boyden, which was built in 1888 and used first to transport coal and then later logs, and occasionally helped American Indian tribes pull in their whale catches.

But he said his favorite find was the Kahleneerg, an old shrimp boat with a very interesting past. Its owners operated it in Puget Sound, and then brought it through nearby Elliott Bay to gather shrimp. Warter said during one of these trips, the crew accidentally pulled up an octopus. They ended up bringing it to the Seattle Aquarium, and it became one of the first octopuses at that facility.

“We spent a lot of time going down, and just searching different wrecks, doing a lot of different research, talking to a lot of people,” said Chris Borgen, another diver that worked for years on this project. “And then it was also kind of luck as well, finding wrecks that we didn’t even know were there.”

But why are all of these shipwrecks in Lake Union?

Present-day Lake Union glimmers beneath the Space Needle.
Hallie Golden

In the early 1900s, the lake was a key industrial site that offered ship construction and fitting, especially for military boats, said Warter. Sometimes, when one of the ships got too old to be useful, rather than spend the money to transport it out of the lake, owners would simply sink the ships—often in secret.

“A lot of times when people, back in those times, they were trying to get rid of something, they would just strip it down to the hull and sink it out in the lake,” said Warter, who compared this project to a treasure hunt. “A lot of times there’s not much left except for the hull or they’re very burnt.”

A diver explores the remains of a ship.
Courtesy of Chris Borgen

But in recent years, the project has been put on hold. Later scans have indicated that the divers have found most of the ships in the lake. The areas where maritime mysteries still exist are likely near the shoreline. Those areas will be a challenge to access because they’re filled with present-day boats and docks.

For now, Warter and Borgen are simply hoping to find a way to share all of the information they’ve collected with the public. While some of their findings are online, they’d like to present their findings in a more widely available and permanent format. One idea was for the city to put up signs around the lake with maps showing where the different wrecks are located.

“In 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 years from now, video and digital archives of the wrecks that we have documented is going to be a valuable resource,” said Warter. “So we’ve got to figure out somewhere and somehow to put this someplace so everyone can get access to it.”

Museum of History & Industry

860 Terry Avenue North, , WA 98109 Visit Website

Lake Union

, , WA

The Center for Wooden Boats

1010 Valley Street, , WA 98109 Visit Website