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The Man Who Dredged, Filled, and Sculpted Lake Sawyer

by Bill Kombol

Jim Hawk was responsible for the vision behind dredging, filling, and sculpted what is now known as Lake Sawyer Park. He lived on Lake Sawyer for nearly two-thirds of his life.  That’s a long time for a 95-year-old who built his lake home in 1961.  His name is Jim Hawk and he’s arguably done more to craft the Lake Sawyer we know today than any other person.

LS065- Lake Sawyer, circa 1985 looking south east. Jim Hawk’s completed project can be seen at the top of this photo at the south end of the lake.

Jim Hawk was born in Seattle on April 27, 1926.  His father, Ray Hawk was of Dutch descent but left his Pennsylvania home at age 13.  His mother, Mary Romano, was the daughter of Italian immigrants.  His grandfather, Sam Romano was blinded by a dynamite blast at age 18, returning to Italy where doctors restored his sight. Sam came back to Seattle and started a family-owned construction company, Romano Engineering which developed the Riverton quarry and built highways, bridges, dams, and other projects.  

The extended family lived in one large home in the Mt. Baker neighborhood of Seattle with Jim’s Italian grandmother, Anna who spoiled Jim and his cousins rotten.  Growing up Jim loved chemistry and inventions.  With money earned from cutting lawns and landscape work, he’d head straight to Scientific Supply Company to buy chemicals and lab equipment.  Often his mother signed permission slips so Jim could purchase ingredients which could only be sold to adults.  Jim was known as the “mad bomber” of the neighborhood making rockets and bombs from his chemistry set. 

Jim graduated from Franklin High School in 1944 and would have been drafted for World War II, but for an automobile accident near Skykomish which left him nearly dead and lying in the river bed.  He spent a long time recovering from a collapsed lung.  That fall he enrolled at Seattle University graduating in 1948 with a degree in chemistry, his childhood hobby.  However, one of his most consequential lessons came from a Jesuit priest in an American history course Jim hadn’t wanted to take, but was required to graduate.  To this day, Jim remembers the opening lecture.  “All history teaches is that we never learn from our mistakes.”  A light came on in Jim’s brain.

After graduating from Seattle University, Jim was accepted into graduate school at the University of Washington.  He joined the chemical engineering program seeking a PhD in electro-chemistry.  Jim demonstrated his early brilliance by proposing an idea of creating fluorocarbons through electrolysis with hydrocarbons.  The professor was amazed as Jim described a process which had only recently been theorized.  However, his graduate studies fizzled when Jim took a heavy load of classes.  One consisted of memorization which didn’t teach him to think; another by a professor who on day one asked his students, “Which course am I teaching?” And the third, who, “Didn’t teach you to think outside the box,” as Jim recalled, “The biggest dud of my life.”

Around this time, the Romano family business began to disintegrate.  His dad, Ray Hawk started Black River Quarry, Inc. mining a rock deposit near Tukwila where the Black River once flowed from Lake Washington into the Green / Duwamish River.  The Black River disappeared in 1916 after Lake Washington was lowered 9 feet and connected to Puget Sound through the Ballard locks.  Ray was having problems running his quarry so reached out to Jim who dropped out of grad school.  He planned to help his Dad for a short time.  Jim easily solved early problems though each day brought new challenges so he stayed on full time.  Eventually Jim took over the business. 

Grand projects like redirecting the White, Black, and Cedar River, plus lowering the level of Lake Washington were common in the early 1900s.

Jim’s talents were always larger than his business life.  In 1953, he filmed a nature movie from the cockpit of his Super Cub float plane.  The movie was professionally shot in 16 millimeter wide-angle, commercial cinemascope, color film with Jim narrating.  He offered the movie to Disney but they declined.  In 1958, Jim married Mary Jo Burns and by 1961 they’d built the Lake Sawyer home where they still live today.

In February 1966, Jim purchased a 31-acre parcel of primarily swamp land from John D. Nelson for $37,000.  Nelson bought the property in 1945 from Pacific Coast Coal Co. at a price of $820. It was located at the south end of Lake Sawyer with access from the terminus of S.E. 312th Street.  Jim’s vision was to turn the marshy property into a lakefront residential development.

This 1936 aerial view of the south end of Lake Sawyer shows the swampy area where Hawk dredged and filled in the late 1960s. The Lake Sawyer Road is the bright white line to the left. Ravensdale Creek be seen to the north, while Frog Lake through which Rock Creek flowed is southeast of the lake.

Jim’s company, Black River Quarry (BRQ) mined rock much of which was sold during wet winter months.  But Jim had a problem of keeping key employees busy during the slow summer season.  He employed four extremely talented individual who could do just about anything when it came to earthmoving.  Chris Peterson was one of the best shovel operators to be found, even in his 70s.  John Yourkoski was a journeyman bulldozer operator who also ran loader and dragline.  Walt Schoebert was a master mechanic with a knack for tinkering and building machines from component parts.  Don Shay worked in the office and was always ready with sage advice. 

Jim spoke with experts, but nobody had ideas for building a road through a twin-creek delta, half swamp and the other half peat bog.  So he read widely about bogs and contacted Leno Bassett who mined peat in the Cottage Lake area.  Bassett provided good advice and Jim’s plans soon took hold.  Hawk obtained Hydraulic Project Approval from the Department of Game & Fisheries in 1967 for a channel change and excavation of the shore of Lake Sawyer.  The permit allowed dredging two creeks and the lake’s bottom with requirements to protect water quality.  Work was done on an intermittent basis to prevent excessive siltation.  Production was prohibited on weekends and holidays to protect recreational users of the lake.

LS015- Southeast end of Lake Sawyer, circa 1968-69. This view shows the early construction of gravel dikes and the dredging of the Ravensdale Creek inlet to the right. Aerial photo by Jim Hawk.

Jim’s plan was to refashion the swamp into 31 acres of dry land surrounded by open water the two separated by piling and wooden wall panels.  The topography was surveyed by Jim and BRQ employees using probing devices to determine whether they were standing on peat soils floating on water.  After the initial survey was complete a rudimentary plan was developed to build access roads and perimeter dikes throughout the dense jungle of interlocking vegetation. Behind these dikes new dry land would be formed from dredged and fill material.  Outside the dikes open water connected Ravensdale and Rock creeks to Lake Sawyer.

To gain access through the marsh, a floating road concept was utilized.  In some places peat and mud extended down over 40 feet before reaching compactible soils.  Downed logs, brush, and debris from clearing were used as a mat that was pushed down into the peat and mud by a bulldozer.  A gravel road several feet thick rested above the “floating vegetation mat” below.  Pit run gravel was obtained from three barrow sites on the property.  Those gravel deposits rose 10-15 feet above surrounding terrain.  Most of the older-growth trees outside the gravel extraction areas were preserved. 

LS026- South end of Lake Sawyer, circa 1968-71. This was the staging area for the piling and panels forming the pier wall which separated land and water. Photo by Jim Hawk.

This floating road needed to be stable enough to support bulldozers and a 53-ton Northwest brand cable-operated shovel.  The shovel doubled as a crane, equipped with a 3/4 cubic yard clam bucket for digging or a dragline bucket for open water dredging.  Other miscellaneous equipment supported the operation.  When remembering the challenge, Jim laughed out loud, “Nobody else in their right mind would have tried it.”

The long-term success of the project depended on using the best bulkhead materials available.  Jim found piling at the Wyckoff Company consisting of hemlock poles, pressure-treated with Chemonite preservative, yet still needed to find a long lasting cable to hold everything in place.  In a stroke of luck, Jim talked to Pacific Iron & Metal who’d just found 14,000 lineal feet of surplus 3/4” stainless steel cable which could be had for 50-cents a foot.  Jim bought it all.

During the summers of 1967 and 1968, the initial work of building a perimeter road to separate Frog Lake from Lake Sawyer was completed.  The dragline shovel operating from the road excavated mud from the lake and built a containment berm just inside the gravel road.  The pile driver used the same perimeter road to drive treated wood piling until these long poles reached a firm foundation.  The piling were driven at an average 10-foot spacing with treated wooden walls placed between, thereby providing a sturdy barrier between land and water.  

The first phase of the project ended, but the next stage of dredging and pumping was even more challenging.  The dredge–pumps Jim investigated were typically used in oceans and rivers, far too large for a small lake.  Once again he consulted experts but found no clear answers for available technology.  Ever persevering, Jim and his master mechanic, Walt Schoebert began designing their own machine.  It was a tall order as it had to float; move around the lake; cut through a dense mat of peat, roots, and mud; shred the mixed result; then pump it through pipes into diked areas.  In addition, the machine had to work around and through ancient logs littering the bottom of this jungle-strewn bog.  

LS021- The south end of Lake Sawyer, circa 1969-71. The cutting and dredging machine created by Walt Schoebert and Hawk is parked next to recently installed piling. The gravel dike road is partially covered by water to the right of the piling. Bob Eaton’s white boathouse located at 23232 S.E. 312th (now owned by Adam & Jenna Running) can be seen in the distance. Photo by Jim Hawk.

The next order of business was building a barge consisting of sealed floatation tubes connected by decking where machinery could be housed.  Paddle wheels were installed on each side of the floating wing tubes for propulsion.  A 4-cylinder GM diesel engine was bolted down to power the large hydraulic pump driving the machinery.  A cutting wheel was developed which could be lowered by boom into the muddy vegetated morass.  The cutting knives were protected within a collecting box.  The emulsified cuttings consisted of chopped roots, peat, mud, and wood shreds.  In order to suck this slurry and water mix, a pump designed for sewage plants was chosen.  That impeller pump thrust the slurry mixture through heavy rubber piping to containment areas behind dikes.  If they hit a log or something impenetrable, the cutting heads stopped and the differential caused the pump to stall.  The boom then lifted the log out of water and resume dredging.  Jim attributed the success of their home-made dredging machinery to his mechanic, “Walt Schoebert could build anything.”

LS029- All of the components of Hawk’s plan can be seen operating in this circa 1969-71 photo. The gravel dikes contain the hydraulically dredged and pumped slurry of lake sediment, while the log booms retain floating debris. Ravensdale Creek enters into the long canal in the center. The large peninsula of pumped sediment is to the right. To the far right is the larger inlet where Frog Lake flows into Lake Sawyer. Aerial photo looking east by Jim Hawk.

The system worked so well you could clearly see the cutting knives through the water when wearing Polarized sun glasses.  In addition, a floating log boom was constructed to curtain off the work zone and ensure no floating debris left the active dredging area.  No complaints were ever registered by lake residents.  Bob Eaton, the closest neighbor in the last residence on S.E. 312th Street was always supportive.  An official from Department of Fisheries and Game once stopped by the job site and declared the operation, “The cleanest lake clean-up we’ve ever seen.” 

The dredging work continued over the next three summers allowing the muddy mix to consolidate during the fall, winter, and spring seasons.  The project was completed by 1972.  During five years of operation there was never an accident or mishap. 

LS032 – This view looking southeast shows Hawk’s work circa 1969 with Frog Lake visible in the center right of the photo and Palmer Coking Coal’s slag pile near Highway 169 in Black Diamond in the far upper right. Aerial photo by Jim Hawk.

The completed land form was ready for development, but the property lacked sewers and wasn’t currently viable as the 31-lot plat Jim envisioned.  So rather than develop the few lots that could be served with septic tanks and drain fields, Hawk pursued other ventures.  When asked why he didn’t move forward, Jim said, “I’d accomplished the job and had no need to sell.  Frankly, we were hoping for something better than just a dozen more homes on Lake Sawyer.”  When asked if he was proud of all he’d accomplished, Jim demurred, “It worked,” then added, “plus it gave me satisfaction to do something that all those experts and soil engineers couldn’t do.” 

This June 1, 1970 aerial photo shows the vast changes completed to date. Hawk’s work was finished the following year.

With his newly developed dredging technology, Jim turned his attention to helping Lake Sawyer residents rid their shorelines of unwelcome milfoil.  This non-native and invasive plant sets down a deep set of tangled roots which envelope shallow areas of the lake.  Using concepts similar to his recently utilized dredging equipment, Jim invented a machine to remove milfoil.  It consisted of a cutting edge on the bottom surrounded by a screened cage allowing excess water to drain.  The machine worked so well, he even received a patent and named it the “Water Bulldozer.” It was mounted on a self-propelled barge.  Jim tested the equipment by cleaning out much of the boot at the north end of Lake Sawyer.  Inspectors from the Department of Fisheries told him it worked great but they would still require each lot owner to apply for a separate hydraulic permit.  Jim lamented, “It was a great idea that didn’t work because of bureaucracy.” 

In 1985, Hawk turned his attention back to the Lake Sawyer jewel he’d sculpted more than a decade earlier.  He installed rockeries along certain shorelines where unprotected gravel bulkheads were eroding. But, the regulatory climate had changed.  The government agencies which had once praised his work refused to issue permits.  King County filed criminal charges against Hawk in Aukeen District Court claiming he’d harmed the environment by failing to secure a hydraulic permit.  The judge who heard the case declared Hawk’s existing restoration sufficient and Jim was order to pay court costs of $8.  King County and the State Department of Fisheries followed up with letters certifying compliance with permit conditions.

LS184 – In 1985, Hawk undertook additional work on his property, but ran afoul of new regulations. Restoration included adding gravel to shorelines and planting Douglas fir and red cedar trees along the lake shore.

When completed, Jim Hawk had created over one mile (5,600 lineal feet) of Lake Sawyer waterfront in three main sections surrounded by two navigable bodies of water.  But Jim was on to other ventures.  In April 1989, Hawk sold his 31-acre Lake Sawyer property to Palmer Coking Coal Company, who owned 480 surrounding acres.  With proceeds from the sale Jim assembled acreage to build the Jade Green Golf Course on the Lake Holm Road, east of Black Diamond. 

Ten years later, much of Hawk’s Lake Sawyer improvements became part of a 162-acre acquisition by King County of a planned regional park.  Portions of the park land and open space within city limits were deeded to Black Diamond in 2005.  Today the developed Lake Sawyer waterfront created by Jim Hawk is the focal point of a park through which a future trail connecting the Cedar and Green Rivers will pass.

Jim Hawk in the kitchen of his home on Lake Sawyer. This photo was taken the day of the interview, March 25, 2017.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Jim Hawk, the son of Pennsylvania Dutch and Italian ancestors constructed this remarkable development at the south end of Lake Sawyer.  After all, it was practical Dutch engineers in the Netherlands who created an incredible system of dikes and canals reclaiming vast areas of that country from the sea.  And in Seattle, it was Italian immigrants, with surnames like Segale, Merlino, Scarsella, Scocollo, Fiorito, Pierotti, and Scalzo who built the vast reach of roads, bridges, cuts and fills throughout the Puget Sound area.

Jim Hawk was never afraid to dream big. In 1983, he directed preparation of drawings showing a series of connected waterways anchored by his earlier work on the south end of Lake Sawyer. Environmental regulations had tightened and the grand ideas envisioned by his Lake Sawyer Project were out of step with the times and never seriously pursued.

This story was written from an interview conducted by Bill Kombol on March 25, 2017.  One key but little discussed element of Jim’s life was recounted by Scott Sandwith, his former son-in-law.  Scott suggests the foundation that enabled Jim to build so much was his wife, Mary Jo’s eternal support for his “brilliant plans and ideas.”  Scott continues, “Mary Jo and Jim are two matched souls who embody what a marriage can be” resulting in the amazing and supportive legacy of five children, seven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.   Jim and Mary Jo Hawk live in the same family home they built in 1961, located at dock #104.