A deeper look into the Ballard Locks, where antique equipment rules

The Ballard Locks is a great place to visit, especially in the late summer and fall when the salmon are migrating into Lake Washington. I’ve been taking out-of-town friends and family there for years to observe the multitude of boats using the locks and to peer at salmon through windows of the fish ladder.

I never thought much about all the mechanical equipment that keeps the locks functioning. But during a recent visit, I was taken to a darker and more dangerous side of the facility. I walked down a spiral iron staircase some 60 feet deep into an abandoned pumping plant. Rusty iron pipes and pumps were still in place, having been shut down three years ago out of concern that a pipe might burst while someone was down in the well.

Pumps are pipes at the Ballard Locks were shut down after they became too corroded to be safe. Photo: Christopher Dunagan
Pumps and pipes used to empty the Ballard Locks for maintenance were shut down after they became too corroded to be safe.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

Growing concerns about the safety and maintenance problems inspired me to write a story about the locks for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, along with a sidebar about salmon in the Lake Washington watershed that migrate along a treacherous route through the locks.

The locks were completed in 1916, and much of the antique equipment is still in operation — including gears, pulleys and chains. The mechanical works and the big steel doors with their neatly aligned rivets remind me of the art and aesthetic design of steampunk (Wikipedia), a style with its own dedicated page on Pinterest.

A dam-safety study and growing awareness of the outmoded equipment could help bring money for a major renovation, which could cost $50 million or more. President Obama’s budget, recently submitted to Congress, includes funding for replacing the pumping plant I mentioned above but not much more. By the way, while I was at the locks in early January, contractors were beginning to remove the old pumping plant equipment — even though replacement is not yet authorized.

My trip to the locks and my follow-up reporting have given me a new perspective on a place I thought I knew fairly well. In reality, I knew very little about the inner workings of the Ballard Locks, officially known as the Hiram S. Chittenden Locks. I hope you can learn something about the facility by reading my story.

The SS Roosevelt, owned by the Bureau of Fisheries, was the first “official” ship to pass through the Ballard Locks on July 4, 1917, leading a parade of 80 boats. Photo: Army Corps of Engineers
The SS Roosevelt, owned by the Bureau of Fisheries, was the first “official” ship to pass through the Ballard Locks on July 4, 1917, leading a parade of 80 boats.
Photo: Army Corps of Engineers

Meanwhile, officials at the locks are planning a major centennial celebration. Although the first ship went through the “Government Locks” in August of 1916, the opening celebration was delayed until the Fourth of July in 1917. (Check out Friends of the Ballard Locks.) At the time, it was a major event, including fireworks and other festivities. More than 100,000 people attended, according to reports.

I’m told that supporters will roll out various activities throughout next year, in part because July 4 is now associated with many other events. For information, see ballardlocks.org.

I will try to keep up with the various centennial plans and report details of the events as information becomes available.

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