It took 80 years for Seattle's premier water passage to be named a historic engineering landmark.
But as boater David Tideman passed through the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks yesterday on a voyage from Lake Union to Elliott Bay, the watery link proved its worth in a matter of minutes.
"Going through is always an adventure," said Tideman, 43, who traverses the Locks in his 20-foot boat, the "Suzy Jane," a couple of times a year. "If I did it every day, it probably wouldn't be that exciting, but I never know what's going to happen," he said.
Tideman's anxious passage, and the more confident navigation of other boaters, provided the thrills for hundreds of onlookers who visited the Locks yesterday as the waterway was honored by the American Society of Civil Engineers as a "National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark."
The award paid tribute to the Locks' unique mechanical design and its value to thousands of commercial and recreational vessels making the passage between Puget Sound and Lake Union and Lake Washington each year.
Building the Locks "impacted and affected the entire region," said Edward Groff, president of the engineers' group. "It was essential to Seattle's development."
The award was presented on the 80th anniversary of the 1917 dedication of the Locks and the Lake Washington Ship Canal.
"I've never had a guest (from out of town) who I didn't take here," said King County Executive Ron Sims, who helped present the award. The construction of the Locks "was an engineering feat that changed the face of King County," Sims said.
True to Sims' words, many of yesterday's visitors were tourists from landlocked locales who watched the boats passing back and forth between Salmon Bay and Puget Sound with fascination.
"At first I thought it was going to be boring, but when I saw the boats, it became a lot more interesting," said Noey Uychutin, 13, of Stockton, Calif. "This was really the first sight we'd seen in Seattle, other than the Seattle Center."
Waiting his turn behind larger commercial boats, Tideman wasn't intimidated by the onlookers. He and other boaters played to a receptive crowd, who watched through a sporadic drizzle beneath umbrellas and raincoats.
"The crowd's part of the action," he said. "It's a wonderful place, a great design, and a nice place for them to come and watch."
Barbara Schneider, in town from New Jersey, enjoyed watching salmon climb the Locks' fish ladder, a journey visitors watch from behind glass windows.
"They're trying so hard - it's fascinating," the 48-year-old said. "This was one of the things I had to see if I came here."
The opening of the Locks in 1917 helped transform Seattle into a hub of international commerce, and helped to regulate water levels and prevent salt water from disturbing the two lakes' freshwater ecosystems.
When built, the Locks was the second-biggest system in the world, behind the Panama Canal.
In the past, the engineers' group has presented similar awards to the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia and the Eiffel Tower.
The Locks is Seattle's third-most-visited tourist attraction, drawing about 1.5 million visitors each year.