The Ballard Locks' Namesake Led A Complicated Life As He Shaped Modern Seattle

Jul 3, 2017

The Ballard Locks are officially called the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks.

The name appears on signs as you come into Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood and on the property of the locks themselves.

Hiram Martin Chittenden was a district engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers, around the time the plan for the locks was finalized and put into motion. And his life story is nothing short of amazing.

Historian John Caldbick wrote an essay for HistoryLink, a free online reference of Washington state history. In the essay, and in this interview with KNKX, Caldbick tells a colorful story about a complicated man who was instrumental in shaping the Seattle we know today.

Interview highlights from John Caldbick:

Hiram M. Chittenden, 1858 - 1917.
Credit U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

On Chittenden’s personality: “I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a photograph of him smiling. And there aren’t a great number of photographs of him. But it seems that in his personal life – with his family and his children and his friends, and he had a lot of friends – he was funny, he was humorous. Never risqué. I thought it was interesting that when he was at West Point he wrote letters where he complained about his fellow cadets’ profanity. So he definitely had a priggish side to him. … He probably was not the easiest guy to work for, or with. But he had lots of friends, a loving family, and even people who disagreed with him on things had a lot of respect for him.”

On the societal damage of the locks: “It was not a very enlightened time in a lot of ways. He was a very strong believer in social Darwinism – survival of the fittest among human groups, as well as in nature at large. Native Americans? He thought they should be treated more fairly than they were being treated. He complained about that at times. But he also basically thought they were a doomed people, and that eventually there would not be any more here. But that was the social and intellectual environment back there. You cannot look at [people in the 19th and early 20th centuries] through a 21st century lens. There would be far too many villains and far too few heroes if you did that.”

Declining health: “[President Theodore] Roosevelt thought everybody in the Army should be robust. In 1907, he ordered that all Army officers other than infantry take a 50-mile horseback ride as part of their annual physical. Chittenden at that point was in terrible shape but he insisted on doing it. He had to really argue to get his doctor’s permission to let him do it. He absolutely should not have done that. That was really the beginning of the drastic deterioration in his health.”