Houseboats of Lake Union

In a recent edition of Shavings (May/June 2007), the newsletter of Seattle’s Center for Wooden Boats, Dick Wagner wrote about Gas Works Park, the Duck Dodge race across Lake Union on summer nights when the daylight lingers, and the 1909 international exposition.

The fair was burdened with the name Alaskan-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. The shore of Portage Bay, where the university now stands, was picked for the site. The citizens of Seattle were eager to promote their new city. They planned exhibits of a Tokyo tea house and an Igorrate tribal village. They launched a transcontinental automobile race from New York to Seattle. (In 1900, Seattle had only one motor car.)

But there was a problem.

The state had no money to build an exhibit nor any idea how to raise the money. Someone suggested the legislature sell Lake Union.

The fact that the state didn’t actually own Lake Union was incidental. They had the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s designate the lake as navigable. After all, native canoes had been navigating the lake since prehistory. That bit of legal legerdemain allowed the Corp to define the “harbor lines.” The state then appropriated the sliver of space between the harbor line and the shore—another dubious legal maneuver—and sold it to entrepreneurs for $10 per waterfront foot.

Through this single, stunning piece of imaginative finance, the state earned enough to finance Washington’s official exhibit. The new landowners rented their sunken lots as houseboat moorage.

It seems an oddly appropriate beginning for Lake Union’s eclectic community of houseboats.

Schooner framed between houseboats, Lake Union

Schooner framed between Lake Union houseboats. Click thrumbnail for larger image. Photo attribution: stormyafternoon on Flickr.

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