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Lake Washington has the distinction of being the second largest natural lake in the state of Washington. This glacial lake is long and narrow, a "ribbon lake" that is approximately 15 miles long. Lake Washington is fed primarily by the Cedar River in the southeast corner and the Sammamish River in the northeast corner, along with other minor tributaries and creeks.
Prior to 1854, Lake Washington was called "Xacuabs" which means "great amount of water" by the native Duwamish people. In 1853 Congress authorized the creation of the Washington Territory, named in honor of President George Washington. Then, on July 4, 1854, Thomas Mercer suggested to the new settlers that they also rename the lake after the first president. A few weeks later it was officially passed, and the lake has been called Lake Washington ever since.
On September 1, 1911 under the direction of the Army Corps of Engineers, Lake Washington Ship Canal was begun to connect Lake Washington to the Puget Sound. The official grand opening for the 8.6-mile Lake Washington Ship Canal was on July 4, 1917, but vessels were passing through the canal prior to that date. To prevent the saltwater of Puget Sound from mixing with Lake Washington's freshwater, and to maintain the water level of Lake Washington to that of the Puget Sound, a series of locks were built in the middle of the canal. These locks were named after the Seattle District Engineer for the Corps of Engineers from April 1906 to September 1908, U.S. Army Major Hiram M. Chittenden. Although today the locals call them the Ballard Locks because of their location next to the community of Ballard, the Lake Washington Ship Canal and Hiram M. Chittenden Locks and Dam were officially registered on United States National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
The Army Corps of Engineers realized that the Chittenden Locks could hinder the spawning of returning salmon and steelhead, so they constructed a ten-step fish ladder to enable the fish to migrate back to Lake Washington and its tributaries. In 1976, a new 21-step fish ladder replaced the old one to create a more gradual incline. In addition, new technology allowed many advances to make more "attraction water" to help the fish locate the fish ladder. On the 18th step, they built an underwater viewing room with six lighted windows so visitors could watch as the sockeye, chinook, and coho salmon, as well as steelhead migrate through the ladder to their spawning waters.
Today the historical Lake Washington Ship Canal, Crittenden Locks and fish ladder are visited annually by over 1.5 million visitors. The Gift Shop and Visitor Center are open year round and offer free guided tours through the area from March 1 to November 30. Outside the Visitor Center is the Carl S. English, Jr. Botanical Garden which offers a large number of plant species that are beautiful year round. From August to May, visitors may see harbor seal and sea lions "fishing" around the Locks, even though measures are taken to discourage their presence to protect the spawning steelhead.
Because Lake Washington's depth and muddy bottoms would prevent placement of towers or support pilings, typical suspension bridges and causeways were not a viable means for vehicles crossing the lake. Three floating concrete bridges span Lake Washington by incorporating hollow concrete pontoons that float on the water and are anchored to each other with cables and to weights on the bottom of the lake. The road surface is then placed on top of these pontoons. Evergreen Point Floating Bridge, the longest floating bridge in the world, Lacey V. Murrow Memorial Bridge, the second longest floating bridge in the world, and Third Lake Washington Bridge, the fifth longest floating bridge in the world, allow easy access for motorists to cross Lake Washington.
Bordered by Seattle and twelve other cities, demand for waterfront property is high. A majority of the Lake Washington shoreline is now classified as urban residential. However, Kenmore Air and Boeing Company along with a few smaller industrial developments claim a small amount of valuable shoreline. The only significant undeveloped shoreline is public land owned by the cities and used for parks and recreation areas.
Whether you go for the big city excitement, the historical significance, or just to enjoy the natural beauty, a visit to Lake Washington definitely will be a cherished memory.
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