A little piece of our local history: KCTS public television recently aired a special called “The Boys of ‘36” regarding the 1936 USA rowing team that unexpectedly won gold at the Olympics held in Berlin, Germany during Hitler’s reign. These young men were from the University of WA rowing team, and came from humble origins: sons of loggers, fishermen, and shipyard workers. They overcame great odds (financially, physically, and emotionally) during the Depression era to accomplish this. One of them even joined the team so he’d have enough food to eat each day. Recently, the last remaining member of the team passed away in his 90’s.

A book entitled “The Boys in the Boat” was written by local author Daniel James Brown about this team, which became a bestseller. This Olympic event was an important moment in not only Seattle’s, but our country’s history.

Originated from the Inside Passage Blog, originally published on “Shavings”, a CWB blog.

By Dick Wagner, Founding Director of The Center for Wooden Boats

Western Washington has a mystique. It’s a unique blend of snow-capped mountains, misty rain forests, waters everywhere (an inland sea, bays, lakes, rivers), whales, elk, salmon, and mild, mosquito-free climate. These diverse natural elements are entwined in a complex, self-sustaining order. The threads of its beautiful tapestry began to weave together about 13,000 years ago when the 3,000-foot-deep Vashon Glacier retreated.

Unfortunately, after thousands of years of perfect primal coordination, this mixture of natural wonders is falling apart. A textbook example of why this is happening to our once perfectly-aligned environment is Seattle’s little Lake Union, now one of the most heavily-altered water systems in western Washington.

The Pre-industrial Lake

When the lake was at its prime, many shoreline plants were of value to the birds and fish and also the human inhabitants. Native tribespeople used Oregon grape for food, made dye from its roots, and an infusion of its bark for skin and mouth sores. They employed yarrow for hair wash, perfume, colds, stomach trouble, and as a general tonic. Skunk cabbage roots were an emergency food; the raw root is as hot as a pepper. It was also used as a blood purifier and for stomach and bladder trouble. Cabbage leaves were made into a healing poultice and also rolled into berry containers or drinking cups. The blossoms, when heated, were applied to rheumatic parts for relief. Springtime skunk cabbage was gobbled by the elk.

Native healers drew on nightshade leaves to make a drink for liver and yellow jaundice. The juice from the berries thinned blood. A poultice of nightshade leaves was used for rheumatism, skin diseases and abscesses. Natives cooked lady fern and bracken roots and served them with salmon eggs. Nettle was peeled into thin strips and twisted into strong twine for securing bone and stone tool handles and duck nets. Spirea stems also were used to make twine. Pond lily roots were heated and applied to rheumatic body parts.

When the wapato was lost, native peoples also was lost a cash cow that needed no cultivation. Wapato is the root of arrowhead, an edible tuber. Duwamish women felt for the roots with their bare feet while walking in the shallows, pulled them, and brought them back by canoe to the longhouse, where they were roasted. This “baked potato” was considered haute cuisine. The wapato by Lake Union was so plentiful that there was a surplus to trade with other native groups. Wapato was the chief part of the Duwamish economy for many generations.

The Era of Change

The first residents of Lake Union were about 100 Native Americans whom we call the Duwamish. In the basin of Lakes Union-Washington-Sammamish there were approximately 2,000 more Native Americans. Before the coming of European and American settlers, a roughly balanced relationship was maintained between plants, animals and humans. Today, about 500,000 people live around the lake and about a million live in the greater basin. A growing human population creates buildings, highways, bulkheads, docks, dams and parking lots that all challenge this region’s ecological equilibrium. The process of filling in a South Lake Union shoreline in 1962 forced a mountain up from the lake’s bottom – a mountain of muck. Now a red navigation buoy is moored to warn of the peak of the lake’s pinnacle only 10’ below the surface of the water.

The filling of Lake Union’s shoreline and building of docks and bulkheads began in 1870 and continued until 1967. Between the Fremont Bridge and University Bridge are 700 acres of water. It used to be 900 acres. The fill displaced shallow water which was an incubator, home, hotel and restaurant for a chain of plants and animals. Small fish, including minnows, salmon and trout fry, used the shallows to feed. The plants on and adjoining the lake included wapato, skunk cabbage, nightshade, cranberries, elderberries, smartweed, lady’s thumb, nettles, spirea, miralus, forget-me-nots, yellow mustard, water celery, pond lily, camas, Oregon grape, coltsfoot, yarrow, duckweed, cattail, willow, cottonwood, alder and Indian plum.

Birds feeding in the shallows included killdeer, flycatchers, red-winged blackbirds, white-crowned sparrows, towhees, robins, black swifts, kingfishers, ospreys, Cooper’s hawks, chickadees, tule wrens, red-backed sandpipers, greater and lesser yellow-legs, great blue herons, goldfinches, bitterns, Virginia rails, and the herring, short-billed, ring-billed, California, and glacous-winged gulls. Nesting waterfowl were pied-billed grebes, mallards, coots, and cormorants, and meadowlarks. Migrating waterfowl, including red breasted mergansers, scaups, wood ducks, pintail, buffleheads, eared grebes, western grebes, common loons, bald pates, blue-winged teals, shovellers, green-winged teals, gadwalls, dowitchers, bald eagles, black-tailed plovers, whistling swans, and Canada geese, found food in the shallows, which also were home to frogs, tadpoles, turtles, snails, crawfish, mussels, dragonflies, damsel flies, nightjars, protezoans, mice, muskrats, weasels, otters, mink, and beavers.

When creatures lose their usual places for food, nesting, hibernation or refuge, they leave. There are no more meadowlarks around Lake Union because there are no more meadows. Fortunately, even though the salmon population has dramatically declined in Lake Washington, there are still enough near-shore habitats for the Lake Union sockeye fry to linger for a year. My litmus test is that the great blue herons and kingfishers still hang out in the shallow areas for a good meal of young sockeye. On the other hand, a litmus test was not needed in 2008 to prove that the waterfowl population, both permanent and migrating, was virtually wiped out on Lake Union. The only birds now seen are a stunningly reduced number of Canada geese, mallards, coots, seagulls, kingfishers, blue herons, and cormorants. The weasel and mink are gone. There are small numbers of muskrats, otters and beavers.

In the late 1960s our child’s first words were “quack quack.” Mallard talk on Lake Union now is virtually lost, but not forgotten.

In the beginning, Lake Union’s connection to Puget Sound was Ross Creek at the north end, which emptied into Salmon Bay, an inlet of the Sound. The 8’ to 20’ flood tide pushed up the creek to its mouth where the Fremont Bridge now stands. The brackish water of the creek and Salmon Bay was an environmental adjustment for the salmon coming home from the ocean to spawn in the lake’s freshwater streams and also for the salmon fry waiting to grow big enough to swim in the Pacific Ocean. Native legends refer to whales entering Lake Union through a hidden tunnel. In fact, any of them could have done it simply riding the tide into the lake. It’s probable that fish-eating orcas would be tempted to ambush the home-coming salmon at the mouth of Ross Creek.

When the Ballard Locks were completed in 1916, a convenient connection between the lake and the Sound was provided for boaters. There was no more transition between saltwater and freshwater. This was an inconvenient connection for salmon and even the whales. In addition, road and trolley tracks were installed on fill around the lake. Salmon spawning streams were redirected into pipes as their outlets were filled and bulk-headed; these pipes were barren of the pebbles needed for fertile eggs to be laid.

As the lakeside developed, the shallows disappeared. Bright street lights were installed. The sounds of motor vehicles, seaplanes, trolleys, sawmills and boatyards replaced the calls of birds. The forests around the lake were logged off. This cut-and-build development expelled the nesting places and sealed off the sand and gravel that was the habitat of small fish, frogs, salamanders and turtles.

Because of the Locks and because the logged lake basin allowed stormwater to drain into the lake, it was deliberately lowered two-and-a-half feet each fall and raised the same amount each spring. The change of depth had an impact on remaining marshlands. In addition, during our rainy season, the stormwater pipes overflowed and added street and sidewalk dirt and trash to the lake. The lakeside didn’t have a sewer system installed until 1967. Because of the steady flow of the Cedar River through Lake Union, the streams in pipes and the underwater springs, the lake was relatively clean. The crayfish were so prevalent in the lake that they were commercially fished through the 1970s. Crayfish will not live in toxic waters.

There was little or no direct human predation of the plants and animals of Lake Union but new species introduced to Lake Union caused unexpected impacts. The Norway rat was the scourge of the shoreside. They ate the bird eggs in the marshland nests. The rats came from Europe via trade vessels. Carp came from Asia via Europe. They root up the shallow water plants and roots that were food for waterfowl. There are now 24 non-native fish that have been introduced to the lake, including smallmouth and largemouth bass, which eat juvenile salmon. The non-native Eurasian watermilfoil dominates much of the shoreline and the non-native Himalayan blackberries have smothered many historic waterside plants.

Lake Union Today

What Lake Union was we will never see again. Even if there was a skunk cabbage farm on the lakeshore, the elk wouldn’t dare try to cross the congested traffic to get a nibble. What we can achieve is a lake sustained to the best possible state of ecologic balance.

How can we go about this?

We can crusade against the further building of lake-edge bulkheads and roads. We can advocate for the removal of all non-native plants and against the introduction of non-native fish. Then, seed-by-seed, drop-by-drop, bird-by-bird, fish-by-fish, Lake Union can recover some of the elements that were integral parts of its Northwest mystique.

Featured photo: Engraving of Lake Union, 1891. Source: University of Washington Special Collections.

The iconic Lake Union landmark, the houseboat featured in the 1993 film ‘Sleepless in Seattle’, was recently featured in a video report with King 5’s Evening Magazine.

Owners Loretta Metcalf and Jim Healy bought the house 20 years ago, after Loretta had seen the houseboat in the movie. “I told Jim … If I would go see ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ he would go see ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ … I poked him and I said, ‘I want to live in that house,’” she said.

The two were just dating then, and living in Princeton, New Jersey. There were no plans to relocate to the Seattle area until Jim had a job interview here. When she visited with him, Loretta stopped by the houseboat and noticed it was for sale. “I sat in the window seat and I thought, ‘This is where I’m gonna live,’” she said.

Soon thereafter, Jim got the job and Loretta achieved her dream to own the ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ houseboat. “We were married here about six months after we bought the house,” Jim said.

Click below to watch the Evening Magazine look inside the houseboat:

These days they’re putting on a new roof, and have plans to paint the place next.

Luckily, they like the tourist attention. The Seattle Ride the Ducks, Seattle Ferry Service’s Sunday Cruise, and several other water-bound tourism activities include a pass by the famous houseboat. “We love it. We like tourists,” Loretta said.

After the movie was released in 1993, things really changed for houseboats in Lake Union. Where before they were ramshackle floating shacks, many now sell for over $1 million. (There’s a picture of the ‘Sleepless’ house in the Evening Magazine report – and it isn’t pretty!

Learn lots more about Lake Union’s houseboats and floating homes in the Museum of History and Industry’s new exhibit, “Still Afloat: A Contemporary History of Seattle’s Floating Homes”.

Featured photo from

Beginning next weekend, on June 15th, the Museum of History and Industry in South Lake Union will be opening their newest exhibit, entitled “Still Afloat: Seattle’s Floating Homes”. It’s going to be one of those Lake Union events that you won’t want to miss this summer.

According to MOHAI, the exhibit “offers an exploration of floating homes through stories, pictures, and artifacts, illustrating both the cultural and technological intricacies of this one-of-a-kind community.”

This new exhibit at MOHAI will include historic photos, architectural diagrams, personal objects, and video interviews with old and new residents. Each of these facets will help visitors to see and understand what life on a houseboat is like and how it’s possible to keep the structures floating on Lake Union.

History has squeezed our range down to just Portage Bay and Lake Union within the boundaries of Seattle. There are about 500 legal floating home moorages left from a high of several thousand after World War II,” according to the SFHA.

Houseboats have been floating on Lake Union since Seattle’s earliest days, when the first were built for logging camp workers. Later, they became homes for fishermen, boat makers, and the like, until the lifestyle on the water really became popular in the 1930s for people looking for cheap residences to last the depression.

By the end of the 1930s, there were over 2000 houseboats clustered around Lake Union and Portage Bay. Because of government projects, today there are only about 480 floating homes.

Being that the houseboats are one of the most iconic features of Seattle’s Lake Union, this should prove to be a great exhibit for Seattleites and tourists, alike. The exhibit will run through November 3rd of this year, and is produced with a partnership between MOHAI and the Seattle Floating Homes Association.

Tickets for MOHAI are $14 admission for adults, and $12 for seniors, students, and military personnel. Children aged 14 and under are admitted free of charge. Click here to purchase tickets online.

Featured photo from

The Seattle Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) opens on December 29th. To extend their celebrations alongside the holidays, the museum will be hosting a Family Day on January 1st.

The New Year’s Day celebration is planned to showcase MOHAI’s family-focused programs, including Exploration Packs, Family Labs, MiniMOHAI, and more. Curious George and Clifford the Big Red Dog characters will also make appearances at the Jan. 1st event to charm young and old alike.

MOHAI has designed their programs for families and children with a more hands-on approach for younger visitors, with the intent to make history and education more appealing and fun for kids. Many of their new programs are very interactive, to initiate learning as a form of activity and play in addition to education.

Tickets follow basic admission prices for the new South Lake Union museum, which moved from the Madison Valley to their new location to open this Saturday, Dec. 29th.

Purchase tickets here, or buy them at the door for the Jan. 1st Family Day event. Join other Lake Union and Seattle residents and families for this experience for all ages!

When: January 1, 2013, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Where: MOHAI, 860 Terry Ave N. Seattle, 98109
Cost: $14 for adults, $12 for students, seniors, and military, Free for youths 14 and under