Courtesy of Corps of Engineers Foundation.
Smith family and Hiram M. Chittenden Locks staff.

Corps of Engineers Foundation receives memorial donation for fish ladder improvements

Foundation aims to redesign locks experience

Almost 100 years ago the Army Corps of Engineers built the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks (Ballard Locks). It was built to support the movement of timber and coal from areas along Lake Washington to the Puget Sound. Today it remains a beloved Ballard icon and a busy Seattle tourist attraction.

But from years of use and decline in Army Corp funding have taken a toll on the facility, especially in the educational and recreational support sector. Concrete is cracking in the Fish Ladder viewing area; the educational media is outdated; and the revenue from the visitor center barely covers paying the staff.

The problem arises from the way the Army Core allocates funding. The Corps allocates administrates the locks and bases funding on commercial cargo tonnage moving through. This means that even the fishing fleet going through the locks every season don’t count as commercial cargo vessels because their hulls are emptied before coming through the locks. Originally built for commercial use in 1917, today 95 percent of the 50,000 vessels moving through the locks every year are recreation boats, according to Richard Deline, Director of the Corps of Engineers Foundation. The recent 520 bridge pieces and sporadic Salmon Bay Gravel account for the majority of the commercial activity. Funding averages to less than 60 cents per visitor, which goes to supporting the Fish Ladder, English Gardens and visitor center.

The locks were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Thousands of people come to the locks to see the boats, the Corps’ mastery of engineering and view the salmon as they move up the ladder. Also, scores of recreational boaters and commercial service vessels like Foss Maritime’s tugs move through the locks every day. However, admission and services remain free to the public.

"The main issue is that the budgeting process established many years ago by Congress (for the nation) is that Corps project funding is based on commercial cargo (and other things) and that process is not likely to change anytime soon, especially with our existing Congress,” said Deline. “Unfortunately, the Locks has virtually no commercial cargo anymore and hence budgets do not match the needs, especially for a one hundred old facility."

With its centennial approaching in 2017, Deline said the foundation is trying to improve the deteriorating facility into something the City can really be proud of. The Corps of Engineers Foundation (National non-profit) in partnership with Discover Your Northwest (regional non-profit) have produced a Locks Master Plan that would improve the visitor experience at the Locks with public involvement and funding. Seatte-based architectural firm, Jones & Jones, donated designs for updating the Visitor Center and Fish Ladder.

Deline said that they really want to make the most improvements to the fish ladder.

“We decided to focus on the fish ladder because that’s where people like to go. When the salmon are there it’s great. People come a long way to see the ladder. But without the fish, there isn’t much for educational materials there for visitors.”

Plans for the fish ladder include better lighting, acoustics and larger viewing windows, along with digital display technologies to better educate the public and to at least provide some interactive experience when salmon are not visible.

There are also plans for six portable touch screen kiosks to be placed through out the facility. Two of these screens have already been set up, along with a new HD projection system in the visitor center theatre.

Support for these efforts are already underway. The Family of James Smith donated a memorial gift of $7,545 in honor of their father who loved visiting the locks. The family raised the money by placing a small ad in the Seattle Times and it slowly grew from donations.

“The Chittenden Locks and fish ladder topped Dad's list of favorite places in Seattle. After he passed away, we wanted to give a gift in his memory, so we contacted the Corps of Engineers Foundation. The locks, fish ladder, and gardens represent Dad's hobbies, and are such a beautiful and peaceful setting! We are very pleased to know that our gift is so timely, as the need is great and it will contribute to improvements as you prepare to celebrate your 100th anniversary,” wrote a relative of James Smith.

As a Federal agency the Corps cannot accept monetary gifts, but as a non-profit the Corps of Engineers Foundation can and will use the funds for the Fish Ladder improvements.

Deline said that sustaining the funding in the future is crucial to the vitality of the locks, and so the foundation has formulated a plan to involve public funding. The public will soon be able to support improvements to the fish ladder through purchasing tile plaques.

"This major memorial gift is setting a precedent," said Deline. “That’s the first ever gift to the Corps of engineers ever nation wide. It’s not a lot but in the scope of things, but it’s a big deal “

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Ballard locks receive memorial donation from family; Foundation aims to redesign locks experience

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