On July 4, 1917, the SS Roosevelt steamed its way through the Government Locks, christening the massive civil engineering undertaking and officially connecting Lake Union and Lake Washington to Puget Sound.

Exactly 100 years later, thousands of Seattleites came out to celebrate the centennial of one of Seattle’s most-visited attractions. The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, renamed after the engineer, historian and conservationist who planned the locks and secured their funding, celebrated a century in operation with thousands.

According to Bill Dowell, public service specialist for the locks (most commonly referred to as the Ballard Locks due to their location), 22,000 people came out to the water on the Fourth of July, with an additional 40,000 enjoying the music, sunshine and history July 3.

“People who have been here a long time said it was the biggest crowd they had seen here since the tall ships came through the locks,” he said.

As it was in 1917, when crowds of young but booming Seattle lined the shores of from Leschi Park to the Montlake Cut down to the Ballard Locks. A newspaper of the time estimated that half of the city’s population came out to watch a procession of ships head through the locks.

The 184-foot SS Roosevelt was a famous ship in its own right at the time, having taken Admiral Robert Peary to the North Pole in 1909. It led a procession of more than 200 boats through the locks, pausing for speeches there and at the Fremont bridge and then on to Lake Washington and Leschi Park.

Chittenden, then in his early 50s, planned two cuts to connect the bodies of water, the Montlake Cut near the University of Washington connecting Lake Union and Lake Washington, and the Fremont Cut between Salmon Bay and Lake Union. A series of locks were planned at the west end of Salmon Bay in the fishing village of Ballard, which was incorporated into Seattle in 1907.

In 1910, Chittenden was able to secure the funding for the project. Work began the next year. The smaller of the two locks actually opened to some traffic in 1916, but it wasn’t until 1917 that the larger of the two locks was completed and opened to the SS Roosevelt.

Susan Connole, member of Friends of the Ballard Locks, said traffic through the locks was already well established by the time the larger one was officially opened.

The large lock went into limited operation in February 1916 but it wasn't until the spillway dam was completed and Salmon Bay flooded in July that the small lock would be operational,” she wrote in an email. “The first lockage in the small lock happened on July 25, 1916 and both locks went into commercial operation on August 3, 1916, with a celebratory group of about 2,500 citizens gathered alongside.”

Once the spillway dam was completed and the locks were closed, Salmon Bay transformed into a freshwater body. When the Montlake Cut was completed, Lake Washington lowered by nine feet to match the level of Lake Union, freeing up land in Seattle and the Eastside.

By that July 4, 1917, the father of the locks was too ill to attend. Chittenden was confined to a wheelchair and could not make it to the celebration, despite living in Seattle. He had penned a letter that a local dignitary read at the opening.

Chittenden, a New Yorker by birth and westerner by choice, died at his home in Seattle on Oct. 9, 1917. But his legacy lives on through his work in Yellowstone National Park and the locks named after him.

“He had a fish ladder built at the time, which was really forward-thinking,” Dowell said. “He thought about the environment. It didn’t work very well though. It had only 10 weirs, so fish were having to jump two feet a weir.”

In 1976, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers added 11 more weirs, reducing the height fish had to jump to make it upstream.

Sockeye, Chinook and Coho salmon are all present depending on the time of year in the fish ladder, which has a viewing platform. Steelhead salmon are very rarely seen climbing the ladder, a fact which Dowell attributes to a pesky sea lion, “Herschel” which decimated the Steelhead population in 1984. Every successive California sea lion returning to the locks has been named Herschel ever since.

The locks remain one of Seattle’s most visited attractions, a working site which employs 53 full time and locks through 45,000 ships each year. Several pieces of the locks are still original, including the gates. In 2014 the original spillway gates were replaced and just this year the pump plant was finally changed out.

Despite those changes, the original wooden gates and cement structures maintain a certain turn-of-the-century grandeur and practicality. The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks do more than transport ships from the Sound to Lake Union, they can transport you back in time.