About Lake Union and the Lake Washington Ship Canal
Lake Union is one of North America’s most diverse and interesting urban water bodies. A freshwater lake in the middle of a large city, it connects to the saltwater through the Lake Washington Ship Canal, allowing it to be used for a wide variety of purposes.
Even before the Lake Washington Ship Canal opened in 1917, Lake Union was an active place. Several sawmills were on its banks, as it is far easier to move heavy logs around on the water. Seattle built its first coal gas plant on the north shore of Lake Union, piping gas south to the downtown area for lighting. In 1920, a large coal-fired powerplant was built on the southeast shore, providing electricity to the city.
In 1916, William Boeing launched his first airplane, the Boeing Model 1, known as the B&W seaplane. Soon after, seaplane service began on the lake, including airmail service to Victoria, British Columbia. Lake Union remains the oldest continually operating international airport in the country.
The opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in 1917 changed the lake forever. Now it was connected to the salt water, with locks that could accommodate large ships. Lake Union and the ship canal became centers of shipbuilding and repair, and the lumber business grew now that large log rafts could be easily brought from both Lake Washington and Puget Sound. The lake had scrapyards, a cement plant, several large shipyards and dozens of smaller boatshops.
As the city grew and matured, some of these industries began to fade, and much of the lakeshore took on a new look. Floating home communities, which had originally consisted of little more than shacks on log rafts, began to expand. Marinas sprouted, offering freshwater storage for boats that cruise the inland waters to Canada. Before state laws restricted the use of shorelines to water-dependent activities, a few office and apartment building were built on the lake.
Today Lake Union and the Lake Washington Ship Canal host a dizzying array of activities, from heavy industry to paddleboard rentals. The lake provides thousands of jobs, supports the unique Seattle lifestyle of living on the water (literally, on it) and offers recreation opportunities to the tens of thousands of people living within walking distance of its shores.