Peter Lape

Ghosts of Seattle's maritime past lie at bottom of Lake Union

Erik Foreman, using a closed-circuit rebreather, investigates the upside-down wheelhouse of a Navy vessel. 
Photo Chris Borgen

By Deborah Bach - Seattle Times

Beneath Lake Union's inky surface is a graveyard of old boats, an underwater museum of waterlogged artifacts of Seattle'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 archaeology project to locate and document vessels and other historic artifacts.

With little fanfare, using the latest in underwater technology, divers and amateur archaeologists have been scouring the 40-foot-deep lake, looking at more than 20 spots where sunken vessels may lie.

"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 found a dozen shipwrecks — some stacked on top of each other. Those include old sloops, a cannery tender, a powerboat that once was 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 found in 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.

Because native people once lived on the shores of Lake Union, Lape said, undiscovered native watercraft likely lie at the bottom of the lake.

"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 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 fewer than two feet.