Checking out the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks

When I moved to Seattle, I didn’t know anything about the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, more commonly known as the Ballard Locks. When I found out they existed, I thought that watching the rain fall would be more interesting. But more and more friends recommended the locks, and I learned that they are the third-most visited attraction in Seattle. My interested piqued, the locks landed on my new Seattle bucket list.

With a Saturday to spare and sun in the sky, I drove out to Ballard.

Seattle and the surrounding bodies of water have a long-standing, tight-knit relationship. Ships routinely move fuel, lumber, fish, and other goods between Puget Sound and Seattle’s lakes — Union and Washington. On a smaller level, Seattleites take their boats out every chance they get.

There’s just one problem with all of this: Puget Sound is full of saltwater, whereas the lakes and connecting cuts are freshwater. Not just that, but the water levels in Puget Sound rarely align with the water levels inland. The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks fix all this, in short, by acting as boat elevators.

The exhibits in the visitor center gave a good overview of the locks’ history and why they matter. Hiram M. Chittenden, who designed the locks, changed Seattle forever with his work, which also steadied the water levels in Lake Washington and Lake Union. In the process, he made the lakes less prone to flooding, more hospitable for residents and businesses, and safer to travel. Those are no small accomplishments for a city so closely tied to its lakes and waterways.

From there, I walked out to the locks themselves. The large lock was closed for maintenance while the small lock stayed busy with boaters enjoying a rare sunny November day. Boaters would glide into the lock, tie their vessel to the wall, let the water level go up or down by the appropriate amount, untie, and head on their way — all while looking like zoo animals as dozens of on-lookers gawked and took photos. The process took about 10 minutes in all.

I finished my time at the locks with a walk through the attached Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden and a park ranger-guided tour, which gave more insight on the history of the locks and how they work.

With the tour in the books, I headed out to Golden Gardens Park to watch the sunset. With winter moving in like Saruman’s army, I knew the chance to see sunsets would be few and far between in the coming months. As it usually does, the sunset took my breath away.

No trip to Ballard would be complete without a trip to Paseo, so I stopped in for dinner. There I saw this discomforting sign:

I don’t even like Sundays and Mondays, when Paseo is typically closed. I just never know if I’ll be in the mood for one of their overstuffed Cuban sandwiches, and I don’t like knowing that I can’t have one if the mood strikes. So five solid weeks without Paseo is giving me pause. There are support groups for this kind of thing, right?


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