‘We have to go to the Chittenden Locks tomorrow’, I was told by my Auntie Lucy, who I’m staying with while I visit Seattle. ‘It’s amazing, there are osprey and sometimes seals and there are nesting belted kingfishers’ and the exciting list emphasised by her enthusiasm went on . . . ending with, ‘and sometimes there are logs’. I laughed at this point, I’ve never heard such excitement when talking about logs.
But she was insistent that the logs had been a sight to behold. She had seen a large group being herded (do you herd a log?) down river through the locks. ‘There is a visitor centre with a little museum it will tell you about how important logs are!’, she said when I continued to giggle. Well it had to be investigated.
The sun was shining over the locks designed by Hiram M. Chittenden and it was busy with boats and people. Next year it will be celebrating its centenary, and is now hailed as the busiest locks in the USA, transporting nearly 50,000 vessels per year through the clever water lift system. On our way to the visitor centre we watched massive salmon making their way up the salmon steps that Chittenden had the forward thinking to build into the lock system. There are excellent underwater viewing windows and interpretation about different types of fish that you might be able to see. It was all very impressive, but not knowing the geography I didn’t really understand why this lock was such a big deal, which is one of the reasons why this little visitor centre come museum is so informative.
Set in a botanical garden to the side of the locks themselves and up the stairs past the original stairs and stripes flat that flew over the lock on its opening in 1917, is the small museum space. A map with light up routes indicates clearly the different options that were available for getting from the sea to inland Lake Washington, making clear the importance of the route that was finally selected for the lock system. Hiram is introduced alongside a slightly jaundiced waxwork model set in a feature room, which has both an interpretation panel and supporting commentary acted out in the voice of Chittenden himself. Although probably a little quiet, as there is conflicting noise from a TV just around the corner, it directed you to look at props within the set up room, giving the listener things to look for while learning his story.
I enjoyed the framed birds eye views of Seattle dating from before the locks, black and white pictures of the locks creation and hand written charts tallying up the numbers of vessels transported. There was also a film that included the perspectives from people who work on the lock and in the adjacent botanical gardens.
But why did they want to get to Lake Washington? Well it supplied gravel, coal and a lot of logs. There was a really clear chart tallying the goods transported through the system indicates that logs make up 22%, much to mine and Lucy’s glee. There was a very slow, but still information interactive where you systematically worked a model lock in order to transport out a boat.
There was also information about the wildlife in the area. The interpretation alongside an American Robin nest asks ‘Would you carry mud in your mouth?’, obviously rhetorically, but the strangeness of the opening statement is enough to make you read on. Since they are central to the local ecosystem there is a lot of information about Salmon. My favourite interactive was the lifecycle of a salmon, a maze which you have to angle to roll a ball through. If you hit a sensor a red light would indicate that your fishy life had not made it to the salmon spawning ground, explained one of the many ways you had met an untimely end . . . Salmon have it pretty hard! This makes seeing them in the wild making their way up the salmon steps all the more awesome.
On our way back to the car Lucy stopped dead and pointed. I thought at first that maybe she had seen a belted kingfisher, which we had heard the chattering call of but had not been lucky enough to spot, but no, much to our amusement it was a very large log floating in the water.