Seattle’s Houseboat Neighborhoods Stay Afloat on Seas of Change
by Candace Brown
Busy Interstate 5 runs right through Seattle, Washington, but below the freeway and crowded hills, close to downtown, the surface of Lake Union shines like a misplaced mirror. When the first white settlers arrived in 1851, a forest of giant old growth evergreens surrounded this 571 acre lake, but before long, the loggers’ saws would claim those firs and cedars. Settlement on the shores of Seattle’s bays, lakes, and waterways was soon followed by the appearance of houseboats—houses constructed on rafts and semi-permanently moored to a dock. Originally crude shelters on rafts intended for loggers, fishermen, and other workers, later ones were permanently occupied “floating homes” that ranged from makeshift shacks to regular houses. On Lake Washington, the wealthy built more elegant examples to use as summer homes.
The former Hospitality House from Seattle's Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exhibition
Lake Union to begin to change from a pristine gem between forested hills to a scene of industry, commerce, and even military use. It had a Naval armory and training facility, a steam powered coal gasification plant, shipyards, such as Lake Union Dry Dock Company, which opened in 1919, a car assembly plant, shipping terminals, and more. Throughout all of that, the number of houseboats grew. It reached about 2,000 by the late 1930s and about 2,500 by the end of World War II. Many were occupied by respectable poor or working class, people. Later, the demographic changed to include a more Bohemian crowd—society’s non-conformists, those with radical political views, artists, musicians, and college students.
Older style houseboats
These days, all the houseboats must be connected to public utilities, including sewer. However, in the past, their raw sewage went straight into the water, in addition to industrial wastes already polluting the lake. That fact added to the controversy over their very existence. In the early 1960s, the future of these floating homes seemed grim, as development eliminated their moorages and they were considered to be eyesores and polluters.
As a long time resident of one neighborhood of floating homes on Lake Union’s east side, Jann McFarland has seen it all. In spite of the challenges, the lifestyle is one she and her husband, Sid McFarland, love. They wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
Looking down the dock
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