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Four cities to remember historic Sammamish River boat races on Sunday in Kenmore

Ralph Payne
Ralph Payne's C-Stock hydro hits the railroad trestle near Blyth Park during the Sammamish Slough Race in the early 1960s.
— image credit: Photo by Bob Carver, from the collection of the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum.

The idea of racing hydroplane boats 80-100 miles per hour up and down the Sammamish River would shock many people these days. But it used to be commonplace from 1933-1976.

“It brought up to 80,000 people to see the races,” said artist Amberly “Gaul” Culley, whose father-in-law, Dave Culley, used to race on the river. “It was definitely dangerous and exciting.”

The city of Kenmore and Gaul, along with King County’s 4Culture’s Historic Sites program, will present “Remembering History: The Sammamish Slough Boat Races Event” from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday at Kenmore City Hall.

The event features guest speakers and past slough boat race drivers, videos and photos of the races. The Recreational Boating Association of Washington President Steve Greaves will be the keynote speaker and Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum representatives will also be on hand.

“We have provided most of the historical material, including films, news clippings and photos,” said Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum Executive Director David Williams, who graduated from Bothell High School in 1975.

It will also feature a Classic Boat Show with the Unlimited Hydroplane MISS WAHOO and a build your very own origami boat workshop.

The Sammamish River “Slough Race” featured hydroplane greats like Bill Muncie, Lee Sutter and Chip Hanauer, who raced the slough.

“It would take place during the first week of April and kick off boating season,” Gaul said.

The event is an “intracity engagement project” as the races would start in Kenmore, go through Bothell, Woodinville and turn around near Marymoor Park in Redmond, then come back where it finished in Kenmore.

“It was a timed race,” Gaul said. “They would go up, stop, turnaround and then come back.”

The races were a springtime staple for nearly a half century for the greater Lake Washington area.

“It was the biggest thing the community did,” said Williams. “This was a big deal. We would pack our lunches and the entire family would talk and socialize and watch the races all day long.”

Williams said most spectators would not find out the winner of the race until they checked the newspaper.

“The boats went by so fast that you only really saw the race for about 10 seconds,” said Williams. “But it established civic pride.”

Gaul said that the history of the races has an “elemental value” to the four cities.

“Kenmore, Bothell and Woodinville are celebrating the builders of their cities and the Sammamish River is a big part of that,” said Gaul. “This is one of several events to celebrate the history of the area.”

According to Kenmore City Manager Rob Karlinsey, it is a chance to celebrate an event that put Kenmore and the surrounding area “on the map.”

“People came here from outside the state for this,” said Karlinsey. “If you don’t spend time on it people will forget about it over time.”

Karlinsey said the antique boat show will take place across the street from City Hall near the skate park. Organizers chose to have the event at City Hall because it was difficult to find an open spot near the river that was large enough.

Karlinsey first learned of the idea at a Kenmore Heritage Society meeting.

“(Gaul) was making a presentation and I told her I would love for the city to be in support role,” said Karlinsey.

He said that events like this bring the community together with its history.

Gaul said the project is her first out of grad school. The Bothell resident received a Masters in Fine Arts in Printmaking from San Francisco State University in 2012.

“I am interested in community-based learning and identifying with a place,” said Gaul, who has received a lot of help from the four city’s historical clubs in the event’s creation.

She will produce several art projects to commemorate the event that will be placed along the river. “’The Winners and The Innovators’ re-establishes visual narratives of the Sammamish River ‘Slough Boat Races,’” said Gaul, who gained a grant through the King County 4Culture. “They are etched glass drawings that will be placed along the slough.”

The drawings will be permanent and remind those who visit of the river’s history.

But Gaul has a personal interest in keeping the memory of the races alive beyond her art. Dave Culley raced on the Slough and went on to be part of the pit crew for the Miss Budweiser.

The Unlimited Hydroplane SLO-MO-SHUN IV surprised the nation, winning the Gold Cup in 1950 in Detroit. This was significant, as the winner of the Gold Cup played host to the race the following year and the Seafair Hydro races on Lake Washington were born. The races on the Slough continued on for more than a quarter century.

The end of the races on the Slough were nearly tragic. In 1976, one of the boats jumped the banks of the Sammamish River after missing a turn and hit a University of Washington pole vaulter. The athlete sued the race organizers after being injured to the point he could not compete for the Huskies.

“That was when they lost their liability insurance,” said Gaul. “But the races had consistently gotten faster and faster.”

But the races still hold a huge historic place for hydro racing.

“Among the most popular outboard-hydroplane events during Seattle area summers were the races from Redmond to Kenmore by way of the Sammamish Slough …” said Phil Lampman, a blogger for the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent. “This annual event was a thrill to watch, especially near the Bothell Bridge.”

Kenmore City Hall is located at 18120 68th Ave. N.E. For more information on the event, visit www.kenmorewa.gov/events.

Event for Thursday

The Kenmore event will be accompanied by a kick-off event in downtown Seattle for Gaul’s art work from 6-8 p.m. on Thursday. “The Winners and The Innovators” is currently on display at 4Culture’s offices, 101 Prefontaine Place S., Seattle. The artwork re-establishes visual narratives of the Sammamish River Slough Boat Races. A reception will be held at 4Culture during the First Thursday Seattle Art Walk.

Photo by Bob Carver, from the collection of the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum.

Spectators at the Bothell Bridge during the Sammamish Slough Race in the late 1950s.

The start of the B Utility Runabout heat of the Sammamish Slough Race. (Circa 1955)

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