Double Exposures: Seward Park's hidden fish hatchery

The peaceful forests of Seward Park hold many secrets. For instance, every day park visitors walk past the stone bridge and log pumphouse on the eastern shore of the peninsula, yet many of them have no idea that behind the bridge, the dry creek bed leads to an abandoned fish hatchery.

At the behest of local sport fishermen, the Seward Park Fish Hatchery was built in 1935 by a Washington Emergency Relief Act work crew. At the time the hatchery generated protest from citizens who felt that the flurry of public works projects in the park was destroying its natural forest landscape. Now the hatchery site is being redeveloped and reforested, but a few of the old rearing ponds remain, looking for all the world like ancient moss-covered ruins in the forest.

Seward Park's early years

As early as 1892, prominent landscape architect Edward O. Schwagerl identified Bailey Peninsula as a potential park, one of four "anchors" for a city-wide park and boulevard system. A decade later the Olmstead brothers agreed with this recommendation.

The 1903 Olmstead Plan praised Seattle's "valuable remains of the original evergreen forests which [once] covered the whole country." The Olmsteads noted that Bailey Peninsula was "the most available large tract of land that is uniformly and beautifully covered with woods, and should be secured... before the woods are injured."

Seattle purchased the peninsula in 1911 and named it after former Secretary of State William H. Seward. The Park Commissioners called Seward Park "magnificent" and noted that it "retains its original growth of virgin timber and vegetation, and can be converted into one of the most unique and beautiful natural parks in the world." Public access to the park was opened up with a road in 1913.

In the1920s, Seward Park's much touted "natural" state was encroached upon under the leadership of Parks Commissioner Jacob Umlauf. The marshy area near the bathing beach was filled in and planted as lawn.

Umlauf designed an ornamental Japanese garden for the entrance, and the City of Yokohama contributed 3,500 cherry trees and a stone lantern as a gesture of friendship. Umlauf encouraged children to plant holly berries in the park. (Holly has now become an invasive tree, crowding out the native species.) He also ordered the removal of hundreds of trees felled by windstorms, clearing large patches of forest.

Building the fish hatchery

The Great Depression brought another round of construction to Seward Park, as the government funded a series of public works projects in order to boost employment. Men hired under the Washington Emergency Relief Act built several picnic shelters, two caretakers' houses, and the Perimeter Road, in addition to clearing fallen trees.

The Rainier Valley Times publicly thanked the work crews, claiming "we have been told by literally hundreds of people of their appreciation for this work." But some neighbors complained that the men were cutting wood in the park for their own personal use. Umlauf received twice as many workers as he was expecting, and lamented that "we asked for 300 [men] which we could have controlled better, but we had to take more men in order to get the materials."

One story goes that Umlauf was casting around for something to do with these 300 extra men and decided to build a fish hatchery.

While the impetus to build the hatchery may well have been those extra workers, the idea of a fish hatchery on Lake Washington originated with sport fishermen. In 1934 a group of anglers encouraged the mayor to "make Lake Washington a fisherman's paradise," and even raised money for the ponds at a dance. Ben Paris, who owned a sporting goods business, was a strong advocate. He later claimed to be "personally responsible for the construction of these ponds."

When it was completed, the hatchery included 20 rearing ponds. By 1948 it was releasing 250,000 rainbow trout annually, mostly into the Cedar River. It was operated by the Washington Department of Fisheries, then the Department of Game, and finally by the Department of Wildlife. In 1978 the State did not renew its lease due to budget problems, and the University of Washington Fisheries program took over the hatchery as a research station. For the next 14 years, graduate students lived at the site, conducted research, and learned first-hand about the process of rearing rainbow trout. The University of Washington closed the research site in 1992, and the hatchery has stood empty for more than a decade.

The future of the site

Redevelopment of the fish hatchery site began last fall with the removal of most of the rearing ponds. However, the future of the site is still undefined. Current plans include a small environmental education classroom and restoration of native plants to much of the area, and five of the old fish ponds have been retained as historic artifacts.

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