Under the inky surface of Seattle’s Lake Union is a graveyard of old boats, an underwater museum of waterlogged artifacts of the city’s industrial and maritime history that have mostly lain untouched for decades — until now.
The Center for Wooden Boats, on the south end of the lake, is leading an underwater archeology project to locate and document vessels and other historic artifacts. With little fanfare, using the latest in underwater technology, divers and amateur archeologists have been scouring the 40-foot-deep lake, looking in more than 20 spots where there might be sunken vessels.
“What I feel that we’re uncovering is a new museum under the water,” Center for Wooden Boats founder Dick Wagner said.
Peter Lape, an associate professor at the Burke Museum and one of two archeologists involved in the project, said the lake provides a valuable opportunity to see tangible pieces of Seattle’s history.
“It’s such a weird, interesting lake, being right in the middle of a big city with thousands of years of maritime history that have dropped things into the bottom of that mud,” Lape said. “It’s surprising and cool that there are these major shipwrecks just sitting down there that you can rent a kayak and paddle over.”
Teams of highly-trained and well-equipped volunteer divers have so far found a dozen shipwrecks, some stacked on top of each other. Those include old sloops, a cannery tender, a powerboat that was once a liveaboard, a 1942 minesweeper named Gypsy Queen, a 1908 navy barge named Foss 54 and an 1888 tugboat, the J.E. Boyden.
The 85-foot Boyden was used to help square-rigged merchant ships transit the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. In one of its more memorable chapters, the tug was off Cape Flattery when its crew spotted a Makah tribal canoe towing a whale carcass. The tribe members asked for help and the Boyden towed the whale and canoe to Neah Bay, where a feast was held that evening, according to documents the center found through the Museum of History & Industry.
The Boyden later served as a lumber and coal tug before it was retired in 1935 on Lake Union, where it eventually sank.
Lape said that since native people once lived on the shores of Lake Union, there are likely native watercraft in the lake that haven’t yet been discovered.
“I think our city has been great at bulldozing over its history whenever it has a chance,” he said. “This is a place where the physical objects of that history are there to look at, at least through video.”
The murky depths
The wrecks found in the lake have been identified by comparing divers’ observations with archival documents, historical photos, Coast Guard records and news articles.
This is not work for the claustrophobic. Underwater visibility can be less than two feet. Around the edges of the lake, where the wrecks tend to be, can seem like a landfill with sunken boats and other items piled on top of each other.
Not surprisingly, the divers this appeals to are not your casual, vacation-in-the-tropics types. Pretty fish, colorful coral — they’re not interested in all that. For them, combing the murky depths in 45-degree water is worth it if there’s a chance to explore a wreck.
A group of divers belonging to the Maritime Documentation Society, whose focus is finding and documenting maritime wrecks, has been diving Lake Union for years. The group recently joined forces with the Center for Wooden Boats on the archaeology project, sharing information about wrecks they’ve discovered. Diving in Lake Union requires a permit from the Seattle Police Department.
A core group dives the lake several times a week, using their own underwater scooters to get them to and from wreck sites. Employing an approach they call “mowing the lawn,” they go back and forth along a small area, shooting video and taking photos.
Video footage of the wrecks — complete with creepy organ music — can be seen on the website of DCS Films, a company founded by a trio of wreck-obsessed Seattle divers. Among them is Dan Warter, who’s part of the core group diving Lake Union.
“I love identifying the wrecks and putting the history to them,” Warter said. “People have no idea what’s down there.”
Fellow diver Chris Borgen said it’s exciting to go on each dive with no idea what he might find.
“It’s kind of like jumping back in history,” Borgen said.
Some days the divers will descend at a location where a target has been identified and find nothing.
“Sometimes we get right where the coordinates are and can’t find it,” diver Erik Foreman said. “But some days we’ll do an hour and a half dive and find seven wrecks.”
The few divers they’ve taken on their lake excursions, Foreman said, usually aren’t keen to repeat the experience.
“Most people we take never want to go again,” he said.
What lies beneath
Lake Union was created about 13,000 years ago by the Vashon Glacier, which left behind a 900-acre basin. The Duwamish once had a winter village on its shores, building longhouses and traversing the waters of the lake by canoe. Elk grazed on skunk cabbage near what is now Portage Bay and deer drank from the edges of the lake where Gas Works Park now stands.
By the late 1800s, the winter village was mostly abandoned and the lake had become a center of commercial activity. Railway tracks were built around the lake to serve nearby sawmills and villages, and steamboats carried farmers, loggers and schoolchildren across the lake.
Houseboats became popular summer homes on Lake Union in the early 1900s, occupied by a new middle class created by the Alaska Gold Rush. After the ship canal opened in 1917, the lake quickly became a hub for mills and boatbuilding. A spate of boat shops opened on Lake Union between 1919 and 1929, building pleasure yachts as well as tugs, trawlers and halibut schooners.
And each successive wave of development left its mark on the lake bottom.
Over the ensuing decades, boatbuilding waned and new types of developments sprung up around the lake. In the 1960s, Dick and Colleen Wagner, who later founded the Center for Wooden Boats, were living in a houseboat on the lake. Dick Wagner recalls a neighbor once telling him that he sank someone’s tugboat on the lake out of spite. Wagner began wondering how many sunken boats were concealed beneath the lake’s surface.
Several decades later, those musings led to the archeology project now under way. The center received a federal grant to research the lake’s history. That led to Wagner writing a book, “Legends of the Lake,” a series of essays chronicling the lake’s geological and cultural history that further stoked his curiosity.
“I decided we ought to look at the inside of the lake, too,” Wagner said.
The archeology project got under way more than a year ago and started with studying sonar scans done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. With the help of Ross Laboratories, a Seattle company that makes hydrographic survey equipment, the lake was scanned to identify archeological targets. Divers then started combing the lake to try to find them.
The diving is expected to take another year of so. In the meantime, the Center for Wooden Boats has set up a website to provide information about the project and plans to eventually develop videos and publications about the artifacts found. It’s possible some of the artifacts could later be recovered for curation.
John Goodfellow, who’s co-managing the project, said the goal is to better understand and highlight the lake’s role in the city’s development as a maritime center.
“If you look at a map, the lake is this big, empty blue spot,” Goodfellow said. “We’re trying to fill it in and make it dynamic. This lake has history that is preserved. It’s a huge archeological park in the middle of the city.”
Anyone with information about possible wrecks in Lake Union can contact Dick Wagner at email@example.com or at 206.382.2628, ext. 28.