A Virtual Museum about Lake Union History

When Vaun Raymond was looking for a thesis project to complete his Masters in Digital Media at the University of Washington, he asked Dick Wagner, founder of The Wooden Boats Center, what, if he could do a museum about anything, would it be? Wagner responded, “Lake Union.”

Wagner’s answer literally launched Raymond’s Lake Union Virtual Museum; the first video project was shot in part from a boat on Lake Union.

The museum is a multi-media website combining text, photographs and videos to tell stories about Seattle’s unique urban lake.  Since its beginning in 2008, the website has grown to 52 pages with dozens of photos and 11 documentary videos on various aspects of the lake’s history.  The website can be found at www.lakeunionhistory.org.

 “It’s a museum you can visit from home,” said Raymond who was a guest speaker at a Sept. 17 Eastlake Community Council  public meeting on the history of Lake Union.

The discussion of the virtual turned surprisingly real as two of the featured subjects of the videos were in the audience. Richard Haag the architect for Gasworks Park was there and so was Jackie Swanson a descendant of John Cheshiahud, for whom the Lake Union Loop is named.

Hagg spoke about the controversy surrounding Gas Works development. When the city started discussing ideas for turning the site into a park in the 1970’s people just assumed that the old gas works plant would be removed. The plant which had converted coal and later oil into synthetic natural gas was shut down in 1956 with the introduction of new technologies for natural gas.

Richard Haag at Gas Works Park from video

Richard Haag at Gas Works Park from video

Haag came across the shuttered plant in 1958 when he moved to Seattle. “That place is magic,” he thought. “I want to work with that site.” Just over a decade later he would get his wish.

In 1969 Haag was hired by the city to do an analysis of the gas works property to determine how to turn it into a park. While doing the analysis he became convinced that the structures were the most sacred thing about the place, but keeping them would be another matter.

The park was originally going to be named for Myrtle Edwards. The park concept was being spearheaded by her family, but the family was adamantly against saving the structures and denounced the idea at public meetings. The sentiment from the family and many members of the public was, “Save that pile of junk?  What is going on here?”

Haag had a painting commissioned to show how the park might eventually look with the gas works and revealed it at a public hearing that over 700 people attended. That helped sway public opinion enough to let the project go forward.  The Edwards family withdrew the councilwoman’s name for the park. And instead the park, the first of its kind, became most known for, as Haag referred to them, its “industrial ruins.”

Jackie Swanson, a Native American, featured in the “First People” video was philosophical about her people’s history around the lake.  She noted her great grandmother had been born where Ivar’s Salmon House now stands, and her family’s roots in the Pacific Northwest go far back.  She described herself as Ancient Duwamish.

Jackie Swanson from video

Jackie Swanson from video

John Cheshiahud was one of the last Native Americans still living on the shores of Lake Union once white settlements had taken over. “What we got from Cheshiahud was always do our best,” she said.

John Cheshiahud was a master canoe carver. He carved a canoe for David Denny, and they became good friends learning each other’s language. Denny thought so highly of Cheshiahud that he ensured a burial spot for him at the Washelli Cemetery, even though the cemetery was segregated at the time.

“When you know the history of a place, the place becomes populated with the past,” noted Swanson.

More and more people are learning the history of Lake Union through Raymond’s project. Robert Onstad, Manager of Chandler’s restaurant, was also introduced at the meeting because he has set up a viewing room at Chandler’s that shows the videos as an option for patrons waiting for their table. It’s been much appreciated, he said.  “Guests want to know about what they’re seeing out their window.”

Besides “Gas Works” and “First People,” Raymond has also produced videos about Lake Union on “Boat Shops,” “Shipwrecks,” “Houseboats,” “World’s Fair (1909),” “Rowing,” “Seaplanes,” “Harbor Patrol,” and “Lake Union Drydock.”

What’s Raymond’s favorite? He declined to say in a phone interview, but he did mention that “Seaplanes” has turned out to be the most popular with over 86,000 YouTube views.

Being on the Internet the museum has a vast geographic distribution, he noted.  Recently a pilot association in Florida wanting to establish a seaplane business in their community asked Raymond if they could use the Seaplane video at community meetings. He said yes.

He also said yes when a design group in California wanted to use the Gas Works video for community education as they were planning to turn a similar abandoned structure into a park.

“People are looking at Lake Union as a model,” Raymond said, “and it’s neat to be able to contribute to that.”

This article first appeared in The Eastlake News, Winter 2013/14 issue.