As I alluded to in the previous post on smaller lakes, the large Seattle lakes provide the form and contribute to the overall sense of place. River cities are shaped differently than coastal and lake cities, and the relationship with water differs due to this morphology. In either case, any urban waterway will exist in balance with many factors of urbanization, industrialization, influencing the ecological and social connections between hydrological and other systems.
In addition, because these larger water bodies exist in tandem with anthropocentric activities, they accumulate a mix of the odd and off-beat. And while I was excited about the idea of “Searching for the Mystery Sharks of Seattle”, those particular mysteries ended up a bit further outside the realm of our local water bodies. However, in Seattle, there is still evidence of some strange things in both Lake Washington and Lake Union, worth a bit of exploration.
Starting with Lake Union, which seems to have a bit less info, this article from Seattle Magazine from 2013, “Unlocking Lake Union’s waterlogged secrets — one sunken treasure at a time” is a good overview of some of the exploration.
One endeavor is the Center for Wooden Boats and their Underwater Archeology Project, starting in 2008. A good overview of this is the form of a post from 2011 by Dick Wagner “Beneath the Waters” recounts some of the finds, including a range of boats from back into the 1880s, as well as cars, motorcycles and even a Vespa scooter.
A video ‘Shipwrecks of Lake Union: Seattle’s Hidden History” the explorations from 2012: “This short video documents the Lake Union underwater archaeology project that The Center for Wooden Boats Founding Director Dick Wagner has been helping lead for the last several years. CWB is working with the UW’s Burke Museum, The State Department of Ecology, and others to locate and document vessels and other historic artifacts. Using the latest in underwater technology, divers and amateur archaeologists have been scouring the 40-foot-deep lake, looking at more spots where sunken vessels lie.”
The wreck of the J.E. Boyden, which is one of the finds of the Underwater Archaeology Project above, is located in the south part of the lake, “One of the oldest and best documented wrecks in Lake Union, the J.E. Boyden was built in 1888 and has been on the lake bottom since 1935.”
The Global Underwater Explorers Seattle group, which educates divers. From their site: “our exploration projects will have the ultimate goal of gathering consistent observational data and documenting the degradation or appreciation of our submerged resources over time. Through data analysis, we aim to drive policy-changing efforts to conserve, protect and create public awareness for our submerged resources” They also maintain Project Baseline, which is an interactive online map which displays bathymetry of Lake Union and Washington, with documentation of these wrecks as well as unknown and unexplored underway element. The Lake Union area in whole, which also shows the lake to be quite shallow, maxing out at about 40 feet at the deepest points.
A zoom in on the south section offers some interesting underwater topography, and the information about the Boyden, with a pop-up of info. Go to the map and check it out and you can see the distinct shape of the boat on the surface.
There’s definitely some novelty to the concept of shipwrecks, and the information appeals to a certain geeky longing that seems visceral to the water. As summed in the Seattle Magazine article there’s more to it that that:
“The effort to record these old wrecks is not simply a matter for scuba heads or boat geeks. Lake Union is the heart of Seattle’s maritime origins; filling in the story of its transformation from a pristine natural lake to a center for industry (including sawmills, brick making and boatbuilding) to a recreation hub through photos and film is of tremendous value.”
As for Lake Washington, the significantly larger water body, it doesn’t take much digging to uncover a range of good stories and mysteries. A 2014 KUOW Story is a good starting point: “What’s On The Botton of Lake Washington? Planes, Trains And…” hints at the diversity of subsurface elements, including planes “ Lake Washington is like a treasure trove for old plane wrecks. There are at least seven at the bottom of the Lake. They’re a frozen piece of our wartime history, a time when mock air battles raged over these waters. Midair collisions would send airplanes crashing into the lake.”
One there’s no shortage of, much like Lake Union, are ships, many of them either lost in accidents, or purposely scuttled. Per the KUOW story, “…there are about 400 boats beneath the surface: ferries, barges, three Navy minesweepers, mostly in the shallower waters off Kirkland, where the Lake Washington Shipyards used to be. Now, it’s a graveyard for wrecked boats. “These are full-on, full-sized ferries on the bottom, right underneath all the yachts that are parked there now,” said diver Ben Griner, also aboard. As for the minesweepers, one day they were docked, the next they were gone.”
For as long as there’s been water and something staring into its depths, there’s been the desire to dive in and see what’s underneath. Overlapping with the Global Underwater Explorers (GUE Seattle), is the Maritime Documentation Society, (link is to Facebook, as their original link is bad) is one of those groups that do this on a regular basis, with a mission. From their page, it is focused on “exploration and documentation of existing, undiscovered, and natural historic shipwrecks. Our goal is to create public awareness and expand the wealth of history for present and future generations.”
Some good videos are also found via DCS Films, which is ‘Dedicated to Advanced Technical Diving and Underwater Cinematography’ is a good resource to see what its like submarine, and they have some info on Lake Washington Relics. A clip from a story from “KCPQ 13 on the artifacts of Lake Washington A joint effort of the Maritime Documentation Society, DCS Films, and GUE Seattle” offers a bit of the footage.
Similarly the afforementioned GUE-Seattle has some great info about explorations on their blog, along with the maps shown before. Some of the stories of the dives are a fun read, to understand that equipped with a bit of info such as a general location and some scans, the fun is in exploration. One such as this exploration of LW250, an unknown object, seen here in the bathymetric view.
And the interesting perspective of the side sonar imagery, seen below.
From the post: “We found a well-preserved wooden sailboat in good condition and it was a pleasure exploring it. As is true with most fish stories and dive stories, this was the most spectacular boat even found. It had a hole in the deck with treasures of very old bottles, ledgers of misplaced bank funds, police ID badges, a revolver, and an attaché case chained to the railing…..actually it had none of that, but it was as exciting as if it did. Just to be there on this boat that no one had ever seen was thrilling. The boat actually had a Washington state registration number and the last year sticker on the side was 1983.”
A snip of the GUE-Seattle Bathymetry shows part of the Lake (it’s a really big lake) showing a range of underwater explorations, and also the relative depths, as you see see beyond the east side tidal zones, the edge of Lake washington falls off sharply from the Seattle shoreline (on the left side of the map).
And while the shipwrecks are cool, I’m really fascinated with the bathymetric info as an interesting exploration of hidden hydrology that goes beyond creeks and rivers – especially as there was so much manipulation of the Lake levels amidst the re-plumbining of the entire region, this information provides some great clues to a history unique to a lake-shaped city.
AN UNDERWATER FOREST
My interest in this topic in general was piqued by the May 2011 KUOW story “The spooky, underwater forests of Lake Washington and Lake Sammamish”, which describes 1000 year old forests off the edges of areas of both lakes. Remnants of an 1100 year old seismic event, areas of these forests were discovered The caption helps explain this image : ” This image is a close up of the standing timber on the south end of Mercer Island. The image is generated using a side scan sonar towed behind a boat about 20 feet off the bottom. The trees are visible mostly from the shadows they cast.
There was a video I do recall seeing, but all the links now seem to be gone. It was bit disorienting, so aside from a glimpse of something tree-like, it was alot of darkness and blurriness, which makes one thin. Ben Griner of Coastal Sensing who explored the Lake via sonar and underwater is, quoted in the story “…describes the drowned trees off the southern coast of Mercer Island as a thrill to swim through (although he gets not everyone would see it that way). “It’s certainly a disorienting dive,” he said. “A lot of people call it really freaky. Other people describe it as exciting and interesting.” The lake is pitch black at that depth — and being underwater can mess with one’s sense of movement. Griner said it’s sometimes difficult to tell if the water is moving or he is, and divers often bump into things. “Because of how long the forest has been under water and how busy the lake is, most trees are just the trunks now,” he said. “It can be a little creepy, but it’s really fun to swim through the trees.”
From the Wikipedia page, the location of the underwater forests are located in yellow, adjacent to Mercer Island to the south, and another segment. Per the page, the earthquake from around 900 C.E. created “The landslides on heavily wooded land created “bizarre submerged forests” of old-growth timber, preserved by the cool water and low oxygen in the deep lake. These sunken forests were known to early European settlers of the Seattle area, for whom the snags could be a hazard to ships on the lake, and as early as 1919, nearly 200 of the sunken trees had been removed from depths of 65–132 feet (20–40 m)”
David Williams, who does his usual engagingly thorough job of discussing this topic back in 2014 on a post “What Lies Beneath – the Secrets of Lake Washington” discusses ships, and these Submerged Forests as well, explaining a chapter in the story (also mentioned in the KUOW story).
“Mostly forgotten, the trees merited public attention in the 1990s. In 1994, John Tortorelli was caught salvaging wood from the submerged forests. Unfortunately for him the state Department of Natural Resources owns the trees, plus he damaged an underwater sewer line. Found guilty of three counts of theft and three of trafficking in stolen property, Tortorelli received a jail term of three and a half years”
The post includes this map, highlighting the locations of the souther sections identified above.
COAL CAR ENDNOTE
As many discussed the other submerged worlds of ships and forests, both the KUOW article and David Williams mention coal cars on the bottom of the Lake as well. Williams elaborates on the the eastside coal connection, which saw a constant stream of “… coal was loaded on railroad cars at Newcastle and lowered 900 feet by tram to Lake Washington, where the cars traveled on a barge to Union Bay and then on a tram over the narrow neck of land now crossed by SR-520. A second barge carried the coal cars across Lake Union to a train (Seattle’s first) that carried the coal its final mile to a final tram, which lowered the ore down to a massive coal bunker at the base of Pike Street. It was on one of these trips across Lake Washington that the barge dropped its load of coal cars now sitting at the bottom of the lake.”
With that frequency, the accident was bound to happen. To verify this concept, a cool shot from Coastal Sensing shows the scattered remains of perhaps these same “Coal Cars in Lake Washington Seattle. Lost in a storm while transporting coal from Coal Creek to the small city of Seattle.” (read more about this here).
HEADER: Lake Union and Lake Washington Bathymetry – via GUE-Seattle Project Baseline Map