The Ballard Locks opened during World War One, but by that time, much of Ballard’s history had already happened. Before the Locks, Ballard was its own city—completely independent of Seattle, with its own laws and City Hall, and its own quirks and problems.
It started in the Civil War era. A few loggers and fisherman lived in the area. Scandinavians, mostly, and living pretty much alone. Organized civilization was starting farther south, in Seattle.
So when a ship’s captain bought the land that we now call Ballard, he was not happy. He and a partner were investing, and they flipped a coin to decide who got what. The captain lost, and ended up with 160 acres of already-logged land and a few Scandinavian settlers. Land too far from Seattle to be useful.
But the captain’s name was William Ballard, and thanks to the railroad, he established a community on his land. Its first lumber mill appeared in 1888, and later that same year, the first shingle mill appeared, too. The mill produced wooden shingles, and it made a lot of them. More Scandinavians came, looking for work and a place that reminded them of home.
“When you throw your eye upon Puget Sound, and behold the fleet of fish barges, rolling upon her briny breast, a reminiscence of the coast of Norway steals into your soul,” immigrant Ernst Skarstedt wrote. “Mountains, dark evergreen forests, and rushing rivers.”
Then, 1889 featured the Great Seattle Fire, which destroyed Seattle homes and wharfs and workplaces and forced many people to move north to Ballard. The once-worthless, already-logged land now had mill jobs, and it had buildings that were more than piles of ash. By the end of 1889, 1,500 people lived in Ballard, and they needed order. So the City of Ballard officially began in 1890.
Born 1890, Died 1907
The new city grew rapidly. It installed electric streetcars that made it easy to travel between Seattle and Ballard. And trouble in Scandinavia brought even more immigrants. Ballard got the nickname “Snoose Junction” from those immigrants, because so many of them chewed snoose—a type of tobacco—while they manned fishing ships or worked in the mills.
The city did well. According to legend, it kept life balanced by keeping the number of churches and the number of saloon licenses the same. And economically, it became the “shingle capital of the world.” Ballard’s ten shingle mills produced more red cedar shingles than in any other U.S. community. The population jumped from 1,500 all the way to 4,500 people in 1900, and then to 15,000 people in 1907.
But therein lay the problem. Too many people, and not enough resources. Ballard had water problems that it could not fix. It could not get enough fresh water for all those 15,000 people, nor could it handle all their sewer needs. Not on its own, anyway.
Seattle had water, and Ballard needed water more than it needed independence. Faced with no other option, the city agreed to let Seattle annex them. The people in Ballard flew the flag at half-mast, and they hung black crepe from City Hall, and on May 29, 1907, at 3:45 p.m., Ballard joined Seattle.
The Locks came ten years later, and the Ballard we know today slowly appeared. A Seattle neighborhood, but one with strong ties to Scandinavia (think Viking Days), shingle mills, and a history of independence.
Long live Ballard.