Monthly Archives: June 2014

Historic Virginia-V steam ferry cruise and seaplane centennial celebration

Ride the historic Virginia-V steam ferry and enjoy a narrated history of Lake Union by local historian Jules James as part of the Center for Wooden Boats Festival July 4th-6th. The boat ride includes a special display celebrating the seaplanes’ centennial this year.

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Did you know Lake Union is the location for the first flights of the Boeing Company’s first three models: the B & W, the Model C and the B-1? All three were water flyers. The B-1 flying boat accumulated more miles flown than any other aircraft in America from 1920 to 1925.

The one-hour history cruise is offered Saturday, July 5, and Sunday, July 6, at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m.

Book your passage. Tickets may be purchased online or aboard the Virginia-V. Adult tickets are $10, kids under 11, $5, and a family of 4, $20.  Free for children under 5, but each must have a ticket.

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Jules James

Jules James

Travel the Spur Line, the west side of Lake Union

Living in Eastlake, I had never walked through Westlake. I had biked through it a few times going around the lake, both appreciating the long stretch of parking that acts as a quasi bike lane and dreading that stretch due to having to watch for cars. There wasn’t much time to really see Westlake, but all that changes when you’re on foot.

True there are barren stretches of private parking lots and boxy buildings blocking the lake, but there are also surprising and delightful street end parks, eclectic businesses and interesting buildings, not to mention the, colorful houseboat communities and the remnants of a mysterious old railroad.

When I started to get curious about Westlake, I looked online for information, but there was very little beyond the neighborhood’s major claim to fame – the Sleepless in Seattle houseboat.  So finding anything out about Westlake would take some digging – and walking.

Of course there’s the lake itself, but a little known main attraction for walking Westlake is Spur Line, the public artwork that takes several forms and shows up all along the waterfront.

Spur Line was commissioned over ten years ago as part of the major public works project for Westlake that included water line, sewer, and roadway improvements. Bainbridge artist, Maggie Smith, saved for possible recycling everything she could get her hands on as demolition occurred and an old railroad along the waterfront was torn out.

Spur Line starts as pieces of rail embedded in the walkway.  More rails would have been used, Smith told me in an interview, but bicycle groups who are understandably leery about rail tracks in their right of way were adamantly against it. Smith, who says she is definitely a bicycle proponent, tried to explain that her design would not affect the path’s safety. But the groups remained unconvinced and in fact dictated certain design elements that Smith argued against, such as the rail’s limited use and the short parallel tracks that could only be used in the walkway, which ultimately won out.

7 Days a week

She had better success using quotes from her historical research of the area that show up as bronze words embedded in the walkway. Where she uses the native tongue, Lushootseed, the English translation is nearby. There are also “humble,” the artist calls them, benches for sitting using reclaimed rail hardware. At street end outlooks are plaques on old boom logs with snippets of quotes giving a glimpse of how life once was around the lake, mostly rather gritty, occasionally lyrical.

The snippets come from Smith’s research interviewing neighborhood luminaries like Dick Wagner, Dave LeClercq, and John Franco. Paul Dorpat and the late Peggy Stockley were helpful too, she wrote in an email, in directing her to other resources, archives and newspapers. She wanted to highlight not just the railroad but also the maritime history around the lake.

Reading the plaques forces you to take your time, look out over the water, and consider what you’ve read. With its benches and quirky listening tube (you can hear water rushing through pipes below), Spur Line is meant to slow people down, a difficult trick in this busy area.

 

Thanks to Spur Line and practically tripping over an old railroad trestle at the north end of the lake, I became interested in that old rail line. When did it run? When did it stop?  There was nothing online.

Nothing in a cursory library search either.

That’s when I contacted Maggie Smith, as the artist of Spur Line, she had to know. It was the Northern Pacific Railway, she told me. She had interviewed some of the men who had worked on it in the 40s and 50s and used their quotes on the plaques. The railroad ran from the Seattle Pacific University area of Salmon Bay, along the ship canal, down the west side of Lake Union, down to Terry Avenue and Denny Way in South Lake Union/Cascade neighborhood. It serviced the Ford Assembly Plant, or U-Storage building today, along with other businesses and industries around the lake. It was a switching track, she said. A spur line, a secondary track.

It was great to get this information, but I was having a hard time finding any documentation, even a map, to back it up. Maps showed the streetcar, but this was a different line, not in the road, but right near the water.

Finally, I asked a couple of railroad buffs where I work, both Seattleites and members of the Seattle Street Railway Historical Society. They quickly dug up information.

One brought me Kurt E. Armbruster’s book Orphan Road; The Railroad Comes to Seattle, 1853-1911.  That book nailed the line’s history in about three paragraphs and is the only written account my co-worker has seen about the line.  My other co-worker dug up a Kroll’s 1947 Seattle map that clearly showed the line. According to Armbruster, the line had a deeded right of way up the east side of the lake as far north as Hamlin. It was only built out to the City Light building, Zymogentics today. The map showed that as well.

It operated from 1911 to the mid 1990s.  My co-workers recalled seeing it occasionally on Terry Avenue and Denny Way around its maintenance base.

Part of the reason it was difficult to find out any information, they told me, was that toward the end of its life in the 1980s and 90s, the train ran mostly in the middle of the night.

It must have been a sight.

 

The old railroad is gone now although a few stretches of original track still exist on the north end outside Westlake’s improved stretch. I’m almost hesitant to mention the old trestle over the water. It’s not part of the Cheshiahud Loop Trail. It’s in an area that feels almost rural with a small patch of woods screening the roaring traffic of Westlake Avenue. Go there if you’re curious but don’t attempt to walk on the trestle as I did. Although an old rail path leads to it, the trestle is slippery and rotting, with uneven gaps, and there’s no warning – proof of just how undiscovered it is.

Besides the public art Spur Line, people have put out private art in one form or another along Westlake. Small gardens show up.

There’s a variety of businesses from maternity lingerie to welding foundries with intriguing quotes on their marquee. There’s a cigar shop and a hair salon that’s also part local art gallery. There are marinas galore with everything you could possibly do on the water or in it. When I recently walked the route, I passed through a cloud of black-clad scuba divers returning from the depths.

And there’s the Alice Through the Looking Glass view of your own neighborhood from the other side.

Once you start walking, there’s a lot to see.

slide show

 

Train stuck on track
Charming build westlake
Old City Light
Marina Mart
Best walkway in Seattle
Houseboat com w yellow house
Humble bench
Private garden art boat planter
Street overpass with lookout
listening tube
Steam punk clock tower
Antique window
houseboat community
woman sclupture
China Harbor
Building complex across street
Trestle

Spur Line is the public art that stretches all along Westlake and includes all kinds of surprising elements, like plaques that reflect and recall life along the shore.

This cool old building was still available for lease in May.

OK this isn't the greatest photograph, but you get the picture. Westlake offers some great views including this one of the Old City Light building, now Zymogenetics, and St. Mark's Cathedral on the top of the hill. Imagine what a really good photographer could do.

Another great retro building, this one with a lighthouse on top.

One of the best walkways in Seattle is this small garden railroad path that leads to the entry of one of Westlake's houseboat communities.

Glimpses of the colorful house boat communities can be seen along Westlake.

There are many unique benches like this made from the old rail line as part of the Spur Line public art. "They're just humble places to sit," says the Spur Line artist, Maggie Smith.

This rowboat planter, with new shoots starting to bloom, is one of several private artworks and gardens set out for public enjoyment.

This sweeping nautical-like overpass also offers a lookout over the lake.

This curious pipe with a terrible background setting is actually a listening tube and part of the public artwork Spur Line. Notice the rail in the sidewalk with the bronze words "Stop Look and Listen." Put your ear up to the pipe and you will hear the sound of rushing water below.

With its exposed iron work, analog clock, and glass elevator, this building seems vaguely steam punk.

This wonderful window of wrought iron and green plants houses antique goods for auction.

Houseboats and yachts intermingle.

A wonderful piece of private art that was put out for public enjoyment, and shown here as it once was, was unfortunately recently vandalized.

The old China Harbor restaurant is like a huge ship docked on the shores of Lake Union.

This amazing conglomeration of buildings on the west side of Westlake Avenue is like collage artwork.

This photo taken from the north end of Westlake in an area that feels almost rural shows the old railroad trestle.