What began in Montlake as a tiny log flume is now an 8-mile (13-km) urban waterway for sailboats, kayakers, and an impressive fleet of industrial vessels heading to sea. In 1854, pioneer Thomas Mercer recognized the need for a passage to the ocean from Seattle’s two landlocked water bodies, Lake Washington and Lake Union, to replace the cumbersome transport of natural resources such as coal and timber. The Ship Canal and the Locks were completed in 1917 by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Four drawbridges cross the Canal at strategic points in Ballard, Fremont, the University District, and Montlake, at the western edge of Lake Washington.

Hiram Chittenden Locks

  • 3015 NW 54th St

  • 206 783 7059


  • open 7am–9pm daily

Visitor center

  • open May–Sep 10am–6pm daily, Oct–Apr 10am–4pm Thu–Mon

Opening Day Events

Seattleites naturally take water and boating very seriously, but anyone can sail the waterways. The official boating season begins May 1, with a series of water-borne celebrations sponsored by the Seattle Yacht Club. Constant drawbridge openings snarl traffic for the Parade and Regatta, as the region’s small ships fill the Ship Canal and adjacent lakes with revelers and those captains who may have waited all winter to sail.


If you plan on kayaking, be wary of weather changes any time of year, as winds can pick up and severely affect current and surface water conditions. Look out for larger ships that may sneak up unknowingly on smaller craft.

The Locks have been designated a National Historic Place. They are still operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Top 10 Sights
  1. Making the Cut

    Retired US Army Corps of Engineers general, Hiram M. Chittenden, lobbied Congress to fund the initial earth moving in 1911. Part of the Canal’s construction necessitated lowering Lake Washington’s water level by 9-ft (3-m).

  2. Bascule Bridges

    These bridges operate with counterweights and cantilevered sections that can be raised and lowered. Fremont and Ballard Bridges are the oldest, built in 1917. The former is only 30-ft (9-m) above the water line, and opens about 35 times each day.

  3. Montlake

    At the base of Capitol Hill’s northeastern tip, the upmarket community of Montlake abuts the Arboretum and the Ship Canal. Just across the Canal, the university’s huge Husky Stadium dominates the majestic view.

  4. Lake Union

    A very urban lake with Seattle’s downtown skyline framing its southern shore. Seattle’s maritime museum, Center for Wooden Boats and South Lake Union Park at the south end are worth a visit.

  5. Working Waterfront

    Seattle’s maritime industry prospers along the Ship Canal route. Tanker ships or gill netters lie in dry dock, boat dealers proliferate, and oil booms float here and there – in stark contrast to the natural ecology that struggles to survive.

  6. Christmas Ships

    Every December, local boaters celebrate the holiday season by venturing out during several cold evenings after decorating their boats with creative and colorful light displays.

  7. Sleepless in Seattle

    The idiosyncratic floating home enclaves of northern Lake Union and Portage Bay are visible almost exclusively by boats traveling the Canal and environs. One was a focal point in the Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks romantic film, Sleepless in Seattle (1993).

  8. Urban Wildlife

    Although the Ship Canal is literally and figuratively far from any wilderness it still attracts diverse wildlife. Blue heron, gulls, beaver, Canada geese, and migrating salmon are among the many creatures to look for.

  9. The Locks

    Officially completed in 1917, the Hiram C. Chittenden Locks link the Sound and Salmon Bay at Ballard. About 100,000 vessels pass through annually, as do salmon runs in the adjacent fish ladder – fully equipped with observation windows for visitors.

  10. Shilshole Bay

    The western terminus of the Ship Canal feeds into this scenic bay, home to a public marina. The water-front boasts fine seafood restaurants, meeting spaces, and Golden Gardens park.

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