Lake Washington is 18 miles as a crow would fly from the southern tip in Renton to the northern tip in Kenmore, and about 3 miles at its widest. Because the lake goes down about 200 feet at its deepest, building bridges has always been a challenge.
Settlers began exploring Lake Washington shortly after Seattle was founded in 1851. This was long before it was connected to Lake Union and the salt water, so boats had to be built on the lake or dragged up the Black River, through what is now Renton. The earliest explorers used canoes and rowboats, and steamboats began to appear on Lake Washington in the 1880s.
In the 1860s, coal was discovered in the foothills to the east of Lake Washington, and for years that coal was hauled across the lake to Seattle. Timber was cut along the shore and floated to mills in Seattle. The lakeshore and the Eastside were quite sparsely settled during the 19th Century, until Peter Kirk tried to build a steel mill in what is now Kirkland. The mill failed, but the Eastside finally had a city, and the lake became a livelier place.
As Seattle grew rapidly in the late nineteenth and early 20th century, Lake Washington became a popular place for steamboat excursions, moonlight cruises and trips to dance halls on Mercer Island, Kirkland and Meydenbauer Bay.
Everything changed in 1917 when the Lake Washington Ship Canal opened. This connected Lake Washington to Lake Union and Puget Sound. On its own, Lake Washington was about nine feet higher than Lake Union, so before the canal could open, Lake Washington had to be lowered to the same level, exposing new waterfront property.
The ship canal allowed for industrial development along the lake, with shipyards, sawmills and even the headquarters of a whaling fleet. But mostly the shore became a popular place to live, especially on the Eastside. Many of the early homes were vacation cottages, but larger homes took root after the Mercer Island Bridge opened in 1940, and residents did not have to rely on ferries.
Today Lake Washington is lined with beautiful homes, vibrant cities and popular parks. Residents can be found swimming, boating, fishing and just looking out at the water. The three bridges across the lake link Seattle with the Eastside cities, including Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland and Issaquah.