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The History of Houseboats on Lake Union

Jun 12th, 2024

The houseboats on Lake Union are a vibrant piece of Seattle’s history. Once upon a time, the city was covered with houseboats and floating communities, though today all that’s left are a handful scattered around Lake Union and Portage Bay.

Here’s a brief look into the history behind these houseboats and why they’re such a big part of Seattle’s story!

Lake Union’s floating houses

Seattle’s maritime history

Seattle's story is centered around its two main natural resources: water and forests. 

Seattle was established as a small settlement in 1853, where the surrounding dense forests provided a seemingly endless supply of Douglas fir and other valuable timber. These trees were felled and milled, and their lumber shipped up and down the coast to Vancouver, Portland, San Francisco and beyond. 

A period of rebuilding following the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 and the Klondike Gold rush caused Seattle’s population to skyrocket, and by the early 20th century the city was a hub for trade, travel, transportation and business. 

Seattle’s houseboat colonies

The lumber and fishing industries drew many seasonal workers to Seattle, many of whom constructed floating shacks, houses, bunkhouses and cookhouses to tow up the river for their use during working periods. In the off-season, workers would tow their houses back to Seattle where the workers could live rent-free. By 1902 there were already 1,000 people living in houseboats, with more than a few owned by wealthy owners who constructed elegant wooden floating houses as vacation dwellings. 

The construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in 1917 allowed vessels from the Puget Sound to access Lake Washington via Lake Union. This passage to the protected inland waters cemented Seattle as an ideal location for ship- and boat-building, and the boating industry soared from there. Wooden boats, ferries, ships and pleasure craft were being built by the droves, and the city’s population was full of talented shipbuilders, fisherman, navigators and the like.

The small colony of houseboats on Lake Union was started by notable resident Robert Patten, then known as “Umbrella Man”, in the 1890s when he moved to Seattle. He built a houseboat on Lake Union where he worked as a fisherman and as a handyman, though he became widely known for his eccentric umbrella-shaped hat and his larger-than-life personality. He was so well-known, in fact, that The Seattle Times had a daily cartoon featuring him giving the weather report! He was also known to spin wild tales about his life, regaling listeners about his heroism in the Civil War as well as the Indian and Mexican wars, and that he was close personal friends with President Abraham Lincoln. 

All that to say that Patten was instrumental in building a community of houseboats on Lake Union, and that landowners on the shores of Lake Union also found great value in renting out their moorings to those houseboats. 

The labor issues that ran rampant in Seattle heavily impacted those living in houseboat colonies. The arrival of Prohibition in 1916, the General Strike of 1919, the economic crisis of 1929 and, of course, the Great Depression in the 1930s only made it worse. The fishermen, boatbuilders and seasonal workers who made up the majority of the houseboat population fell on hard times, and mistrust toward these communities grew from the more affluent neighborhoods on land. 

The houseboats face adversity

Though the post-World War II period saw an increase in economic strength, many people chose to continue living in houseboats all over Seattle. However, many still saw the houseboat colonies as slums and proceeded to lodge complaints against the floating neighborhoods. 

Complaints included concerns about water quality, property values and criminal activity surrounding the houseboats, and many small houseboat communities were ordered to leave their moors. 

The steady eviction of houseboat communities continued into the 1960s as development (both commercial and municipal) expanded around Lake Union’s shores. The houseboaters formed the Floating Homes Association nonprofit in order to better face the legal challenges presented by developers, and by 1964 there was a special advisory committee on houseboats in the Seattle City Council. 

Additional development on the shores of the lake spurred greater regulations for water usage and underwater space, which also impacted the houseboat communities. Higher standards for dwellings, moorings and sewer hookups were too expensive for many houseboat owners to handle, and by 1970 only 450 houseboats remained on Lake Union. 

The houseboat community stands its ground

Although Lake Union’s number of houseboats continued to fall, the actual houseboat community was becoming more and more popular. The floating community became a haven for artists, students, musicians and scholars, and the counterculture revolution of the 1970s saw an even greater concentration of like-minded residents in the neighborhood.

Higher mooring fees drove a wedge between houseboat owners and the owners of the shoreside docks throughout the ‘70s, though residents were adamant about staying put in their floating homes. Their saving grace came in the form of a documentary series called “This Old House,” which took viewers on tours through unique old houses around the nation — with one particular episode featuring an in-depth tour through one of Lake Union’s renovated houseboats.

The houseboat inspired filmmaker Jeff Asch who subsequently wrote and created 1993’s “Sleepless in Seattle” starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. The houseboat on which the story was set became an instant tourist attraction, and the added press and visibility shed more light on the issues and challenges faced by houseboat owners on Lake Union.

The legacy of Seattle’s houseboats

Today, the future of Seattle’s houseboats remains uncertain. Battles over mooring slips, sewage lines, constructions, renovations and waterway governance are constantly being waged between the houseboats communities and the City, with strict laws in place to ensure environmental practices are being followed by anyone looking to live in the floating communities. 

The tenacity and vibrancy of the houseboat communities, though, has remained strong since their beginnings, and the people who live in the houseboats today are as proud of their homes as those who lived on them a century ago. The floating neighborhoods are the culmination of a bright and exciting history of industry, innovation, tenacity and perseverance — and that's not likely to change at all.

If you live anywhere in or near our luxury Seattle apartments, be sure to check out these houseboats next time you’re near Lake Union!

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Featured photo by Lei JiangLei Jiang on Unsplash

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives on Oahu in Hawai'i. She loves to travel, camp, spearfish and hike. She's also part of a super cool canoe club and is pretty decent at it. Colleen enjoys Star Wars and also not being cold ever.

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