A look back at Black River | Renton Reporter (2023)

On July 4, 1917, two-thirds of Seattle’s residents watched the grand opening of the ship canal, the portal between Lake Washington and South Lake Union.

David Williams, a Seattle-based writer who focuses on natural history, joined the Renton History Museum to share the story of the ship canal and what it did to Renton, including the Black River. His talk, “the Locks, the Lake and the Loss of the Black River,” was Thursday, April 18.

Kate Dugdale, engagement coordinator with the Renton History Museum, said they chose this event as a program for Earth Day.

“I personally am interested in the environmental history of this area, and the museum tries to do programs that appeal to all aspects of the history of Renton, whether it’s art history or natural history,” Dugdale said.

The event taught guests about the history of building the canal and its cultural, political and environmental effects.

The story began with an early Seattle settler. In 1854, Thomas Mercer proposed the name Lake Union in hopes it would someday unite Lake Washington and the Puget Sound.

King County and the state of Washington funded the federally supported locks. It took about five years to complete the locks, but creating the cuts in the land developed over a long period of time, Williams said.

It was opened officially in 1917, but there were many battles and proposals that it took to get there. There were six different routes proposed for the locks, including enhancing the Duwamish and Black rivers, and even cutting a ship canal through Beacon Hill to Lake Washington.

That idea actually had work done, and they even began to wash away the west side of Beacon Hill. Fortunately, it was stopped, Williams said.

Williams has written two books on the subject, one being “Waterway: The Story of Seattle’s Locks and Ship Canal.” He said he’s been thinking and writing about this for several years, and has long been interested in the relationship between people and landscape.

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“How do we influence the landscape around us, but also how does it influence us?” Williams said.

The greater Seattle area is a prime example of major landscape changes, including Renton.

The city wasn’t heavily considered by the Army Corp of Engineers, who worked on the project, Williams said, but rather they focused on how to make Lake Washington more profitable. Nevertheless, Renton was influenced by three big changes.

The first was in the early 1900s when the Cedar River was channelized. Historically, the river didn’t flow into Lake Washington and periodically flooded Renton. The river had to be moved to connect with Lake Washington to supplement the loss of water now flowing into Lake Union. It was important to the development of Renton that the river no longer threatened the town, Williams said.

The Army Corp of Engineers redirected the river straight into Lake Washington, instead of the Black River.

The second change was connecting Lake Washington to salt water caused the lake to drop nine feet in elevation, which exposed land and offered more waterside land for Renton.

The structure of the city reflects that the landscape changed after the city was established.

“Renton, after being a town for many years, all of the sudden had all this new land available,” Williams said. “I would assume that was a benefit.”

The marsh that dried out is where the Boeing factory now stands.

Although not a direct result, Williams said one can argue that Boeing being built on the newly dried up portion of the lake was important.

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“It certainly played a role in Boeing putting a plant in Renton,” he said.

The elevation change also dropped the lake below the Black River, so the river dried up and died.

The river was a portal for boats to Elliott Bay, and eliminated a destination resort near the mouth of the Black River. David said it’s unclear how the Black River impacted the nearby coal industry, except that some of the fill for the river came from the industry.

The canal also created the Fishermen’s Terminal and Ballard locks, with fresh water and a mild climate that made it viable. The west-to-east connection also spurred development along the Lake Washington cities, including a shipyard in Kirkland. It was critical for the development of the Eastside.

The loss of the Black River had some important ecological changes for migratory fish, including salmon who had to find a new route into Lake Washington.

It’s unclear how fish handled the new route and how many were lost to the new migration, but Williams said there were channels added in the 1880s that could have initially got fish rerouting before the big change. He said it also might not have been that difficult for them to detect the new route.

“All we know is the salmon successfully did it, with some new physiological and biological challenges,” he said.

This also mattered culturally for the people who had lived off fish at the Black River.

David M. Buerge is a historian who has worked with the Duwamish tribe on their applications for recognition. In October 1985 he released an article, “The Life and Death of the Black River,” where he told the history of the Duwamish people living on the river, and then being ultimately pushed out by white settlers purchasing land around the river.

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The article says that in the 5,000 years the Black River flowed it was an important waterway in the area. It was a short river, but its connections made it an important link for boats and fisheries.

Archaeologist found evidence of the Duwamish in the area at least 1,500 years ago. In 1792, there were three recorded Black River settlements, and appeared to have been wealthy and well-connected.

In 1854, there were counted 200 native people living along the river as farmers, tour guides, fishing and cultivating the land.

The subchief at the time was quoted saying the Black River was their home and they would die there if it came to it.

“This land on Black River belongs to us – our fathers died here,” he is quoted saying. “We do not wish to fight the whites … we will lie down and be shot like dogs rather than leave.”

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But slowly settlers moved in, and once they had purchased titles to the land, there was nothing Duwamish could do, they lost their rights in a treaty signed in 1854. Soon Renton formed and the trains came in. A new sawmill cut down trees as old as millenia.

Sarah Samson with the Renton History Museum said the loss of the Black River in 1917 was the final blow for the Duwamish villages that had been along the river for thousands of years.

Near the end of the 1800s many of the Duwamish moved away from the Black River, only a few were still there when it was lost, including the family of Henry Moses.

Buerge’s article ends with a description of the Moses family watching the river dry away. He said while the Duwamish would live on, the river and connection to this area was about to be severed.

“That was quite a day for the white people at least. The waters just went down, down, until our landing and canoes stood dry and there was no Black River at all,” Joseph Moses said.

Samson said Joseph Moses continued to live along the river until he died in 1954.

Williams and Samson both said that one piece of evidence of the Black River found in Renton today is where Hardie Avenue curves around Fred Meyer, a remnant of the way the river flowed through the city.

Williams’ website is available at geologywriter.com. Renton History Museum events and information is at rentonhistory.org.

David Williams, author, presents on the history of connecting Lake Union with Lake Washington, that resulted in the loss of the Black River in Renton, in “The Loss, the Lake and the Loss of the Black River,” Thursday, April 18, at the Renton History Museum. Photo courtesy of Renton History Museum

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