Lake Union (Seattle) Tour

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 7/27/2007
  • Essay 8166

This is a tour of Seattle's historic South Lake Union neighborhood, including the Cascade neighborhood and portions of the Denny Regrade. It was written and curated by Paula Becker with the assistance of Walt Crowley and Paul Dorpat. Map by Marie McCaffrey. Preparation of this feature was underwritten by Vulcan Inc., a Paul G. Allen Company. This tour begins at Lake Union Park, then loosely follows the course of the Westlake Streetcar, with forays into the Cascade neighborhood and into the Seattle Center area. The tour was updated in 2012.
Also available as a printable walking tour (pdf format). A new tour of the South Lake Union neighborhood has been published on our new HistoryLink.Tours site. 

Seattle's "Little Lake"

Lake Union is located near the geographic center of the city of Seattle. The South Lake Union neighborhood embraces Lake Union's southern shore. Westlake Avenue is the major arterial street along Lake Union's western shore, and Fairview Avenue serves the same function along the eastern shore. Lake Washington lies to the east of Lake Union, and Puget Sound to the west. Carved by the receding Vashon Glacier some 14,000 years ago, Lake Union was called "meman harishu" (Little Lake) by the Duwamish people who lived along on the lake’s southern shore, or "tenas chuck" in Chinook Trade Jargon. Indians fished and caught waterfowl by raising nets on nearby bluffs. The lakeshore abounded in wild roses, red currant and squaw berry bushes, along with deer, elk, bear, and cougar. Tall stands of virgin Douglas fir and cedar cradled the lake.

Seattle pioneer David Denny filed the first claim on the south end of Lake Union in January 1853. This claim included the future Seattle Center area and much of what would become lower Queen Anne and was bordered to the south by what became Denny Way. Denny and his bride, Louisa Boren Denny, built a small cabin and began a family. In time the Dennys further enlarged their holdings along the southern and southeastern shoreline. Thomas Mercer filed the second area claim north of the Dennys' (north of Mercer Street), settling here with his four daughters in 1853. At the settlers' Fourth of July picnic in 1854, Mercer proposed calling the lake "Union" because he was sure a canal would soon link it to Lake Washington, Salmon Bay, and Puget Sound. A little more than six decades later, Mercer's conviction was finally proven correct.

David Denny platted the area between what would become Denny Way and the south shore of Lake Union in the 1860s. When Seattle was incorporated in 1869, Howell Street (one block south of the Dennys' claim) was the northern city limit. In 1883 Seattle annexed the area north to McGraw Street/Galer Street, and it absorbed the rest of the area in 1891. Meanwhile, L. H. Griffith laid streetcar tracks from today's Westlake Center down Westlake Avenue to the south shore in just five days in 1890 and he later extended the line along the lake's western shore to Ballard. David Denny built the Latona Bridge (replaced in 1919 by the University Bridge) and new streetcar lines to spur development of his holdings north of the lake.

To the west, a narrow stream at what would become Fremont emptied Lake Union into Salmon Bay. To the east, a natural dam at Montlake separated Lake Union from Lake Washington. In 1861 Harvey Pike excavated a narrow canal for logs at this dam site. After 1863 coal from Newcastle was transported by barge across Lake Washington and Lake Union and then portaged to the Seattle harbor. In 1872, the Seattle Coal & Transportation Co. built a narrow-gauge railway, Seattle's first, from south Lake Union to Pike Street. The line was replaced by a better rail link in 1877 and Mayor Gideon Weed proposed paving the route we know today as Westlake Avenue, but this was not done for another quarter of a century.

Boatyards and Bridges

Construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal required that Lake Washington and Lake Union be at equal elevations. Between July and October 1916 the level of Lake Washington was lowered nearly nine feet to the level of Lake Union. Two years later the waters of Salmon Bay were raised behind the Chittenden Locks to the level of Lake Union.

As the Lake Washington Ship Canal's Government Locks (now Hiram Chittenden Locks) neared its 1917 completion, the shores of Lake Union sprouted dozens of boat yards. For most of the remaining years of the twentieth century, Lake Union was one of the top wooden-boat building centers in the world, utilizing rot-resistant local Douglas fir for framing and Western Red Cedar for planking.

During and after World War I, a fleet of wooden vessels built locally for the war but never used was moored in Lake Union. Before completion of the George Washington Memorial Bridge (called Aurora Bridge) in 1932, a number of tall-masted ships were moored on Lake Union. Too tall to pass beneath the bridge, these ships were towed out before the center span was put in place. Last to depart was the steel-hull bark Monongahela, a four-masted vessel built in Glasgow in 1892.

Flattening Out and Filling In

Regrading activities on Denny Hill and in the Belltown area brought drastic changes to the South Lake Union neighborhood, obliterating the hills between which it had nestled and transforming a gentle valley into an open plain. Between 1907 and 1911 as much as 20 million gallons of water a day were sucked from Lake Union and used to to sluice away half of Denny Hill. Another regrade, conducted between 1928 and 1931, used electric-powered excavators and a series of conveyor belts to remove the rest of the hill.

Lake Union's industrial potential increased dramatically when the Ship Canal and Hiram Chittenden Locks opened in 1917. Factories, automobile dealerships, and other industry both light and heavy crowded into the area southeast of Lake Union, called the Cascade neighborhood.

The Cascade Neighborhood

South Lake Union's Cascade Neighborhood was an ethnic melting pot of immigrants from Scandinavia, Greece, Russia, and the Balkans, a comfortable middle-class neighborhood of modest houses and small farms that took the name "Cascade" despite the fact that nearby Capitol Hill obstructed any view of the Cascade Mountains. Poorer families moored their houseboats between mills, canneries, and shipyards along the western and eastern Lake Union shorelines. During the 1950s many single-family homes were torn down as land use increasingly shifted toward the commercial.

South Lake Union's long tenure as utilitarian home to mill and coal wharf, commercial laundries, building-material suppliers, and automobile dealerships may lack glamour, but the neighborhood has a history of inspiring grand plans. An early twentieth-century real-estate company dubbed the south end of Lake Union the "Big Funnel," implying that it was the strategic route for Seattle's rapid expansion northward. Seattle municipal planning director Virgil G. Bogue (1846-1916) targeted the Cascade neighborhood for dramatic change in his 1911 Plan For Seattle. The Bogue plan called for the creation of a large apartment district, a civic center complex in the Denny Regrade area, a Grand Central Station (sited roughly at Dexter and Valley), a rapid-transit tunnel to Kirkland, and a major ferry terminal at the south end of Lake Union. Seattle voters rejected the plan in 1912.

When the Seattle Freeway (now Interstate 5) was completed in the 1960s, Mercer Street became a major access road, effectively cutting off from the city Lake Union's south shore. A large swath of buildings in the Cascade neighborhood also fell when the Seattle Freeway right-of-way was cleared. In 1972 Seattle voters rejected a plan to build the Bay Freeway connecting SR 520, I-5, and SR 99 along Mercer Street. If built this project would have destroyed the Cascade neighborhood and further walled off South Lake Union from downtown Seattle.

The Commons Idea

The Seattle Commons, first proposed by architect Fred Bassetti and Seattle Times columnist John Hinterberger in 1991 and envisioned as a vast 61-acre civic lawn framed by high-tech laboratories, condos, bistros, and tree-lined promenades, was a more recent dream for breathing new life into the Cascade/South Lake Union neighborhood. The plan entailed substantial public cost to turn a working-class neighborhood in to an upscale "urban village," and Seattle voters rejected the Seattle Commons levy on September 19, 1995. Skeptical voters also rejected a second, smaller-scale Commons levy on May 21, 1996.

Although the Seattle Commons plan failed at the polls, it drew attention to the neighborhood's potential and spurred substantial property assembly and investment by Paul Allen's Vulcan Real Estate Co. and others, setting the stage for South Lake Union's current twenty-first century revival.

Linking Past and Future

In March 2005, the University of Washington announced plans to triple its biomedical research space in South Lake Union, joining the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, ZymoGenetics, the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, Seattle Cancer Alliance, and several other biotech companies in further cementing the South Lake Union neighborhood's status as a major center for biomedical research. Group Health Cooperative will open its new administrative center in the neighborhood in fall 2007, and Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center is establishing a new research center nearby. South Lake Union is expected to serve as the cradle of Seattle's burgeoning biotechnology sector for decades to come.

Continued public enjoyment of the lakeshore is being assured with development of Lake Union Park, which includes the former U.S. Naval Reserve Center, a landmark structure designed by B. Marcus Priteca in 1942, the Center for Wooden Boats, the NW Seaport's collection of historic vessels, and an adjacent Indian Tribal Center. The Seattle Parks Foundation has pledged $10 million to support the park's development, for which ground was formally broken on February 28, 2007, and formally opened on September 25, 2010. The Museum of History & Industry has relocated from its Montlake facility to the former Naval Reserve Center at the new Lake Union Park.

Finally, construction of a new Westlake Streetcar line was initiated in 2006 to link the neighborhood with the downtown core. It roughly follows the route of Seattle's first railroad. It entered service in fall 2007, and constitutes the city's first street railway (not counting the vintage Waterfront Streetcar line, temporarily suspended) to operate since 1940. Thus Lake Union continues to offer a dynamic link between Seattle's past and its future.

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