A Little “Dirt” On Seattle Houseboats History You May Not Know
Seattle Houseboats History Has A “Colorful” Background & Entrepreneurial Spirit Transcends Time…
To look at all the colorful and cheery Lake Union floating homes today is to never know how truly Seattle houseboats history is. Seattle floating homes are a living and evolving part of Seattle’s history. From their humble beginnings over a hundred years ago as floating shanties compiled of pillaged lumber, it is amazing to see that some sell for over $3 Million dollars in today’s real estate market.
Seattle houseboats were originally built in two different ways. Either the worker would utilize his commuting work boat and build living quarters above it, or they would gather “loose” logs and raft them together to build a completely free floating structure. It was an inexpensive way of living and was tax free on top of it.
At the peak, the Seattle floating homes community was as large as two thousand houseboats lining the shores of the city in various locations which even included Madison Park in Lake Washington. The residents of the surrounding Seattle neighborhoods reportedly snubbed them and looked down at this way of life. They apparently felt that it was beneath their standards and so began the struggle of Seattle houseboats to Stay Afloat In Seattle™. Today there are around 500 Seattle floating homes and probably another two or three hundred liveaboards that are officially newly categorized as Seattle Floating On-Water Residences (final count once all have registered themselves in the latest legislation). The latest Seattle floating home dock was a new construction floating home development called Ward’s Cove. Very specific requirements need to be in place in order to develop new construction Seattle floating homes, so it is next to impossible to do so.
If The City Historically Wanted Them Gone, Why Did They Allow Docks To Begin With?
The short answer is The University of Washington. Wait. What? The long answer is that Seattle has a very long history of making some incredibly hairbrained decisions as far as infrastructure goes. A perfect example (and my apologies for going off subject here for a minute, but….) The Denny Regrade: The hill is too big? Scrape it into the Puget Sound. In 1900, the city decided to basically eliminate a whole hill which covered 62 city blocks. Denny Hill was a significantly beautiful hill in Seattle. It had a gorgeous crowned jewel of a hotel atop it that was so grand that even President Theodore Roosevelt stayed there! It had an old cemetery and a beautiful park on it with expansivel views in all directions. In all, they removed a reported six million cubic yards of earth.
Connecting the dots: What does this all have to do with Seattle houseboats and The University of Washington? Let’s go backwards. The modern day campus of The University of Washington was largely laid out and shaped by The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909. In 1907 the city of Seattle platted and sold the submerged “parcels” in Lake Union to the adjacent waterfront property land owners. This enabled docks to be built and Seattle houseboats to be moored to them. According to The Lake Union Mail on an article about Submerged Parcels Park on the Cheshiahud Loop, “The “Lake Union Shore Lands” were created in 1907 as a funding mechanism for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (S.B. #101). Water extending from shore approximately one block (roughly 400 feet) was platted as buildable land, then sold. These parcels didn’t sink, they started sunk. And they were considered valuable.” Now you know how a World’s Fair, Denny Hill, The University of Washington, and Seattle Houseboats are related.
More Shady Past on The Lake: Life Afloat In Seattle℠: You Want To Stay Dry, Except When It Comes To Your Drink…..
Creativity has always been a strong characteristic of the Seattle floating homes community. This was never so true as during the prohibition era. According to the 1996 article by Sharon Boswell in The Seattle Times, “But for those who couldn’t afford the pleasures of Doc’s or one of the hundreds of other boozy night spots and music clubs along Jackson Street, in Belltown or even on Lake Union houseboats, there was always a bottle of locally produced bootleg available to consume in the privacy of home.” If floating homes seem like an unlikely place to get your alcohol fix then consider that In his highly acclaimed book, “Seattle’s Unsinkable Houseboats”, Howard Droker tells the story of a very enterprising entrepreneur who along with the cedar bark he sold off his boat, also sold smuggled Canadian liquor.
It’s absolutely true. If you take a peek under carpets of older floating homes you will see the leftover evidence of the Prohibition era and how crafty houseboaters were able to not stay dry. Many of them have hidden trap doors under the floor that were used for storing alcohol. At one point in time there were regular “rum run” routes such as the one Droker writes about which would make their rounds delivering to Lake Union floating homes. These booze hatches were ingenious and stored between the floating logs with a wire cage so that the waters of the lake itself could keep the liquor cold and well hidden. According to HistoryLink.org, The Seattle Times noted at one point that in regard to those wild times, “Some of the stories behind the houseboat population are as colorful as anything that ever came out of Seattle’s history, but respect for another’s privacy and past is an unspoken code on the lake.”
Seattle Houseboats Are Still Afloat & Strong Today
Go experience their magic – Take a kayak tour through Lake Union and Portage Bay where you will find what is left of the Seattle floating homes community. Take a walk around Lake Union on the Cheshiahud Loop. Lake Union is the very heart of the city. Try and imagine the colorful past as you look at the beauty and creativeness which is so abundant today. This is a living and breathing Seattle neighborhood, but also a significant part of Northwest history. It is as vibrant as the wonderful people who live in it. I am so thankful to have known so many of them and appreciate how they have enriched my life so far. Please also take a minute and donate to the Seattle Floating Homes Association if you can.
Want more information on Seattle houseboats?
We are happy to help! Please call Courtney. We are Seattle Houseboats Experts ℠, and have been Seattle Realtors specializing in floating homes and waterfront for many years. We look forward to helping you find your piece of Lake Union.
The Lake Union Loop In Seattle
Univeristy Bridge looking Southwest
The Lake Union Loop:
According to all the city sites online, the Lake Union Loop (Cheshiahud Loop) is 6.2 miles long, but walking it in the 90 degree heat made it feel like at least 8 if not 9 miles long. It could be because the Southwest portion of South Lake Union Park is not completed yet. In fact, it has a barricade at the very furthest point you can go behind the Navy building – of course there is no warning that there will be a chain link fence at the very end of the trail and you will have to backtrack….
We started our journey around Lake Union at Gasworks Park.
I had two very obliging 10 yr olds with me for the trip so it can be done with older children. We walked East on the Burke-Gilman Trail and to the University Bridge. The hardest part here is just making sure you don’t get in the path of a bike. For me it was making sure the girls stayed to the edge of the path. We crossed the University Bridge which was an amazing site and headed into the heart of Eastlake.
Looking across from the University Bridge
Eastlake Portion of The Loop
Most of the trail in Eastlake is along the water and there are wonderful sights to see along the way. There is one little jaunt up half a block when the trail meets a dead end leading to the the Mallard Cove Houseboats! It is half a block up a steep hill so the girls complain and I admit it probably was the hardest point of the trail altogether.
Once you hit Roanoke though, you head right back down the hill to the water and pass the Roanoke Reef Houseboats and the other side of Mallard Cove. There are patches f shade as you work your way South past the various houseboat docks on your right. By the time we hit Pete’s, we decided that we would go ahead and take advantage of their much needed air conditioning and search for a little trail snack. We took our time finding those Clif Bars and soaked up the cool air before heading back out in the 90 plus degree day.
A peek at the Malibu in South Lake Union
Getting into South Lake Union….
Further down Fairview Ave E the Seattle houseboat docks stop and then there is a patch of century old industrial buildings before curving toward the West to head towards South Lake Union and Westlake. The Cheshiahud Loop, though, not completed around the far West end of Lake Union is simply delightful once you hit the boardwalk.
You head West and until you are directed to head closer to the water and walk along the shop front boardwalks on the water side. Much like Santa Cruz, this is a wonderful way to see Lake Union and I highly recommend at least heading to this part and checking it out! Right as you hit the boardwalk, you can look right and on most days the Malibu is docked right there. The M V Malibu is a historic Landmark and is a beautiful wooden boat – you should see it!
South Lake Union Center For Wooden Boats
Speaking of Wooden Boats, if you like wood boats or even if you don’t, the Center For Wooden Boats is a must see stop in Seattle. This is a collection of beautiful and mighty boats and a rich source of Lake Union history.
South Lake Union to Westlake
As you walk further along you can go past the Naval Reserve Building (big white one) and stay on the dock for more great boats at the North end of the Lake Union Park which is still being constructed. This is where you can stop and take in more views of this gorgeous place. We abruptly came to a chain link barrier right when we got to the new pedestrian bridge in the park. I was really hoping it was open, but knew that it probably wasn’t. We had to completely back track back to the path leading to the Naval Reserve Building and then head to Westlake on the busier street side path.
Westlake into Fremont and back to the Burke-Gilman Trail
One of the beautiful wooden ships we saw along the way
Once we hit Westlake, the Lake Union Loop was a very smooth and there are some beautiful boats and houseboats to see including the very famous Sleepless in Seattle houseboat. It is a very straight forward walk all the way up a nicely paved sidewalk until you hit the Diamond Marina. We stopped in and got some cool air conditioning and protein shakes at the local Starbucks and then kept going. Once you hit the North End of Westlake, you can choose a couple paths. At this point you can either head to the busier Westlake street side sidewalk and cross the Fremont Bridge from there or go straight past the turn off and along the old railway to a set of stairs leading up to the Fremont Bridge. I prefer the lower route which is a combination of gravel and abandoned railroad track. Along with a collection of charming North Westlake houseboats, there is also a cool over the water trestle you can choose to cross (carefully) or take the gravel road path.
Seattle Houseboats Along The Way
Crossing the Fremont Bridge is easy as there are dedicated lanes just as there are on the University Bridge. We then met the Burke-Gilman Trail again and headed East to Gasworks.
Lake Union Loop walk. Check.
Whew!!! I definitely recommend this, just bring a water!!!! The Lake Union Loop (Cheshiahud Trail) is a work in progress and improving almost daily – I am excited to do this at least once a week and hopefully not in 90 degree temps again.
Email me and let me know what your favorite Lake Union Loop spots are!