By Kris Parfitt
- The Capitol Hill Times -
“How come this place is so narrow?”
“What’s a Cut?”
“Did a really straight glacier carve this part?”
The Montlake Cut serves as a picturesque portal for Opening Day, and best marks the beginning of spring and the day upon which our regional water way officially opens to maritime pleasures. These questions were overheard this past Opening Day Parade by children observing the boat parade at the Montlake Cut. Good questions! How did this particular and peculiar part of the Seattle Ship Canal come to exist?
Until the 1860s, the area between what is now the Seattle Yacht Club and the Husky Stadium was a thin strip of land separating two bodies of water. This isthmus was an easy canoe portage for the Salish Indians who thrived in what is now referred to as the Puget Sound. In their language, Lashootseed – a combined word meaning Salt Water and Language – the isthmus was called hah-chu-AHBSH, or “the place where canoes are portaged.” Thickly forested with Douglas fir, Red Cedar, Salal and Wapato (a tuberous root favored by the Salish for its taste and nutrition), it was a favored camping area used to fish for salmon and hunt small game.
Logging, one of Seattle’s original and largest industries, required many complex logistical plans to move trees from point-of-fell to port-of-sail. One of these logistical endeavors included creating a ship canal from Lake Washington to the Puget Sound to provide easier passage of logs and boats.
Prior to the existence of the Montlake Cut, logjams rafted from felled trees around Lake Washington were hand portaged from Union Bay on Lake Washington into the aptly named Portage Bay on the most northeastern bank of Lake Union.
The Montlake neighborhood was temporarily referred to as Union City in the 1880s due to the proximity of Lake Union and Union Bay. Real estate magnates, the Hagan brothers, wanted to name the area Montlake because it sounded more exclusive and would entice the wealthy to purchase the more expensive homes and property near the isthmus.
Harvey Pike, son of John Henry Pike (for whom Pike Street is named), purchased the isthmus and thought he could increase the value of his property by dividing it with a log flume. He took on the project with a shovel, pick and wheel barrow, however he lacked brawn and funds and soon abandoned his project.
In 1883, a group of Seattle founders sponsored by David Denny finished Pike’s project using Chinese laborers to dig a deeper sluice – a waterway used to move logs – from Lake Washington into the millpond on Portage Bay (where the Seattle Yacht Club resides today).
The Montlake Cut, as it is seen today, was finished in 1916 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and was originally referred to as Erickson’s Cut after the contractor who managed the final project. The finished cut was, and still is, 2,500 feet long, 350 feet wide and an average of 30 feet deep.
Within 24 hours of the opening of the Montlake Cut, Lake Washington lowered 9 to 12 feet to meet the existing level of Lake Union. This exposed new real estate around the “Big Water” lake. One of the most notable landscape changes was at what is now known as Seward Park.
For close to eight years, the Montlake Cut’s existence prevented transportation from the Montlake neighborhood to where the University of Washington stands now. A bascule-style bridge was designed to allow north and south land traffic and east and west maritime traffic to co-exist. Bascule, French for seesaw or balanced, operates using a concrete counterbalance under each end of the bridge to lift or draw both spans using minimal effort.
One of University of Washington’s original architects, Carl F. Gould, continued the UW’s gothic theme to design the bridge. The bridge first opened in 1925, nine years after the Montlake Cut first flowed.
Montlake Urban Hike
A leisurely saunter through the Montlake neighborhood to the south of the Cut will provide excellent views and points of interest.
Take the 520 East exit from Interstate 5. Take the first exit off the freeway onto Montlake Blvd. Continue straight, onto East Lake Washington Boulevard. Turn left onto 24th Avenue East and cross over the 520 Freeway. Follow the road down and around the former MOHAI location to the large free parking area on the west side of the MOHAI building. From here, follow the red pathways marked on this map (below) either direction.
Make sure to cross the beautiful gothic-designed Montlake Bridge, stroll through the neighborhood admiring various architectural styles, explore the quaint Seattle Yacht Club and walk the length of the Montlake Cut.
•Elevation gain: None
•Time: 1 – 2.5 hrs depending on walking rate.