I have long been fascinated by ballast, the material carried by ships in order to provide stability. I first got interested when I was researching the use of slate in Boston, particularly for the city’s early tombstones. I had read that those tombstones were made of slate that had arrived from Wales in the bottom of ships. When I tried to find any primary evidence, such as ship ladings or contemporary documents, I couldn’t, in part, perhaps, because slate wouldn’t have made a great ballast. Ballast typically consisted of ceramic trash, river cobbles, or other small, easily-moved rock. (Pliny the Elder though wrote of a great Roman ship using roughly 240,000 gallons of lentils for ballast.)
In recent years, archaeologists have started to study ballast (though I have not read of them looking at lentils) as a way to track the travels of ships. Initial research has focused on rock from Scandinavia in York and on ballast found on the pirate Blackbeard’s ship Queen Anne’s Revenge.
With its early maritime-based economy, Seattle relied heavily on ballast, which resulted in one of the city’s more infamous landscapes: Ballast Island. As the name implies, the island was born out of merchant ships dumping their ballast after arrival in Seattle. At present, ships carry water as a stabilizing ballast, which creates its own problems. Historically, when ships arrived in port with ballast of rocks and bricks, most of which came from San Francisco, Seattle’s major trading partner, it was dumped where the ships docked.
Reflecting the international trade, ballast rock from Valparaiso, Sydney, Boston, and Liverpool ended up here, wrote J. Willis Sayre’s This City of Ours. This list shows up repeatedly in books about Seattle. There is no reason to doubt Sayre’s observation of where the ballast originated but also no references to support it either. Many early articles in the Daily Intelligencer wondered why the city didn’t use the ballast for something useful, such as filling in wharves or macadamizing roads. The stone could be collected and broken up for the roads by “city prisoners…at a trifling expense,” noted a January 29, 1877, editorial.
Ballast Island soon grew large enough to show up on maps and in photographs, with the latter typically featuring canoes and tents. Ironically, the artificial island made of exotic rocks was one of the few spots in Seattle where Native people were tolerated, notes Coll Thrush in Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place. In addition to being a stopping over point for tribes from outside the region who were headed to work the hop fields, Ballast Island became a refuge for locals, including several Native families that white settlers had burned out of their homes in West Seattle. By the late 1890s, Ballast Island had been subsumed by the growth of the railroads, and the Native people had lost this refuge. In Thrush’s sobering language, Ballast Island exemplified how “urban development and Indian dispossession went hand in hand.”
Several years ago the Ballast Island deposits became newsworthy again because of our infamous tunnel boring machine, Bertha, which had developed a few issues requiring orthodontic reconstruction of its cutting teeth. During the excavation to reach Bertha, archaeologists excavated sand, silt, pebbles, brick, and wood, as well as cobbles (size 3 soccer ball) and boulders of yellowish brown sandstone. They found no artifacts or other evidence of Native occupation.
One of the archaeologists happened to be in San Francisco soon after the dig. Curious about the stone he had seen in Seattle, he walked over to Telegraph Hill. The sandstone looked exactly like what he had seen in Seattle. He was not surprised. Since San Francisco was the city’s earliest trading partner, rock from there was the original, and most abundant source, for Ballast Island. Individual ships dumped as much as 300 tons of rock and sand from quarries on Telegraph Hill into Elliott Bay.
I know of one other connection between San Francisco and ballast. Out on the Washington coast, in the town of Oysterville, are several homes (John Crellin, R.H. Espy, and Tom Crellin) made from lumber often described as “redwood ballast.” Back in the 1860s, Oysterville supplied Olympia oysters to San Francisco, whose citizens had an insatiable desire for the PNW’s most edible native mollusk. Limited amounts of wood and no mill led to Oystervillians seeking out good lumber in any way they could and one source was in the bottom of ships headed north for oysters. Certainly a splendid means of acquiring building supplies but ballast (which is more often heavy, dense, and doesn’t float) is perhaps not the best word to describe the light and buoyant redwood. Instead, one might be inclined to refer to said redwood as dunnage, or material used to secure, stabilize, and protect cargo transported in containers.
No matter the source or the material, ballast (not just in Seattle but in many places) seems to have achieved a slightly mythical (as in the many disproved claims for its usage) status. I have read of it being used (with good evidence) for paving, for buildings, for artwork. In many places though it simply got dumped and forgotten, which seems a horrible end for any type of rock, particularly rocks so invaluable to sailors worldwide. Like many prosaic items, ballast can reveal many stories, if one takes the time to look.
Word of the Week - Macadamize - A method of road building and repair using crushed, compacted stone popularized by Scottish engineer John Loudon McAdam (1756-1836). Subsequent improvements added tar to a macadamized road, and tarmac was born, proliferated, and spread.
Thanks to LisaRuth Elliott of Foundsf.org for the use of the images and to Sydney Stevens for information about Oysterville. A different version of this newsletter originally appeared on my website geologywriter.com.
And, tonight’s the night (7pm, 5/12, Third Place Lake Forest Park) for my interview with Iris Graville and her splendid new book: Writer in a Life Vest.