Years before settlers arrived along the White River in the 1850s, the White, Stuck, and Green rivers ran their natural course. The White River ran westward along the southern border of what would become King County. Near what would become Auburn, it merged with the Green River, which flowed roughly parallel to the White River through the mountains, but much farther north.
The Stuck River separated from the White River a few miles south of the confluence with the Green River. Muckleshoot Indians remembered when the Stuck was just a brook that could be stepped over during low water. The tiny Stuck River closely followed the path of the White for two miles, before flowing west down the Puyallup Valley towards Commencement Bay. In some locations the two rivers were separated by only a few hundred feet.
For centuries, Native Americans lived seasonally in the river valleys, and used the surrounding territory for fishing, hunting, and gathering plants they cultivated. The first non-Indian settlers came to the valleys to farm. The soil was rich and the crops abundant, but farmers were soon plagued with annual floods that sent water spilling in every direction.
King County farmers would prevent floods on their land by dynamiting logjams and bluffs, diverting the White River into the Stuck. This flooded Pierce county farms. Pierce County farmers would then dynamite other logjams and bluffs, which would send the White River north, flooding King County farms. It went on like this for years, widening the Stuck River.
In 1898, a group of farmers blew up a bluff with more dynamite than they realized. Logs were blown high into the air, and a landslide diverted much of the White River into the Stuck River. King County farmers were jubilant, Pierce County farmers were not. King County farmers immediately began building an embankment to protect their land.
By this time, the original water courses were totally obliterated. Lawsuits were brought forth by Pierce County farmers to determine the “natural” flow of the rivers, but the State Supreme Court sided with King County. In effect, they ruled that White River runoff into the Stuck was legal. Nevertheless, some King County farmers continued to patrol the bluffs and logjams with rifles.
The Great Flood of 1906
On November 14, 1906, it all became moot. Heavy rains and a warm Chinook wind from the north began melting glaciers and snowbanks near Mount Rainier. Flood waters in the valley rose at the rate of two inches an hour, and within hours, everything south of Kent was deluged. Some buildings were almost completely submerged.
A few days later, water began receding at a rapid rate. In some places it dropped more than four feet an hour. A massive logjam of trees and debris had pushed the White River so forcefully into the Stuck River that it broke through the narrow spot and completely diverted the water towards Commencement Bay. The White River took over the channel of the Stuck River, and the Stuck River ceased to exist.
No longer did the White River merge with the Green River. Now a dry riverbed appeared in what would become the downtown area of present-day Auburn. Farmers to the north were delighted, whereas farmers to the south were disconsolate. King County posted more guards to assure that dynamite blasts would not divert the White back into its old channel, the new break being only one mile north of the county line.
Fighting the Elements
Pierce County sued to restore the White River to its former course. Meetings were held, and district Army engineer Hiram A. Chittenden (1858-1917) was called in for assistance. Chittenden noted that the original channel of the White River flowed north to the Duwamish valley, but that its new course to Puget Sound was half as long. “Nature has transferred the course and it will be simpler to perpetuate it than to change it again,” he concluded.
The suit went on for years with no decision. By 1913, both counties came to an agreement -- Pierce County would keep the White River, but King County had to pay 60 percent of flood control. Within a year, construction began on a diversion dam and drift barrier a few miles southwest of Auburn. Later, levees were built and the channel was dredged.
Little good it did. After spending more than $3 million on river modifications, another large flood inundated the valleys in 1933. Realizing that attempts to tame the river were too much for the combined efforts of two county governments, the War Department was called to the rescue.
Early studies indicated that the best solution would be a dam located on the White River 7 miles southeast of Enumclaw. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers analyzed several types of dams and decided on an earthfill dam made of rock, sand, and gravel.
Work began in 1939, after the land had been cleared for roads and a work camp. More than 500 men worked three shifts at the damsite, but two years later, work was halted by World War II. Construction resumed in 1947, and Mud Mountain Dam was completed in 1948. At the time, it was the highest rock and earth-filled dam in the world.
The dam is 432 feet high and 1,600 feet thick at the base. Its storage reservoir is 5.5 miles long, and can store 106,000 acre-feet of water. The core of the dam is sand and gravel, and the entire structure is covered with a 3-foot layer of quarry rock to protect against rain wash.
Once the dam was in operation, Puyallup Valley farmers in Pierce County never had to worry about massive flood damage again. Modifications have been made to the dam to improve safety and to protect salmon runs. As of the year 2000, it is estimated that the dam has prevented more than $300 million in flood damages.
From White to Green
After the White River was diverted towards Commencement Bay in 1906, the Green River flowed through the old White River channel unimpeded. Near Tukwila, it merged with the Black River to form the Duwamish River, but the lowering of Lake Washington in 1916 caused the Black River to disappear. Today there is no distinction between the Green and Duwamish rivers other than by name.
Around the same time that the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers were looking at methods of damming the White River, they also set their sights on the Green River, which still flooded annually even without the added water from the White. In 1948, they recommended construction of a storage dam at Eagle Gorge, far to the east into the Cascade Mountains. Congress adopted the Eagle Gorge Dam as a federal project in 1950, and advanced planning continued throughout most of the decade.
An early campaigner for flood control in the valley was Howard A. Hanson, a Seattle attorney and state legislator. Hanson turned the project in a regional undertaking, rather than a localized one, by pointing out the positive effects a storage dam on the Green River would have on the local economy.
Hanson passed away in 1957, and the dam was named in his honor. When completed in 1962, the total cost of the dam came out to $40.5 million, of which $38.5 million was federal investment. At the time of dedication, estimated annual benefits from the dam were $2 million (in 1962 dollars). As of October 1996, Howard A. Hanson Dam had prevented flood damages amounting to more than $694 million.
After the completion of both the Mud Mountain and Howard A. Hanson Dams, farming flourished in the valley, now that floods were no longer an issue. Then, things began to change. Developers, who had previously shunned the waterlogged valley, now saw miles of flat, open land. What was meant to be a boon for farmers, turned out to be just the opposite.
Farmland acreage began to decrease, as industry moved in. In 1964, the Boeing Company built a vast aerospace plant a few miles north of downtown Kent, and other companies began building warehouses up and down the valley. More jobs were created in the valley, and apartment houses and condominiums began sprouting up over the next few decades, as well as shopping centers, strip malls, and auto dealerships.
Today many maps still show the Stuck River, even though it doesn’t truly exist. It is only a short channel of the White River, which flows into Puget Sound at Commencement Bay near Tacoma. Maps also show the Green River flowing into the Duwamish River, even though the actual demarcation point between the two is vague at best. And the terms "White River Valley" and "Green River Valley" are used almost interchangeably, when referring to the area between Tukwila and Auburn.
The twentieth century brought sweeping changes to the flow of these rivers, which in turn changed the flow of development. The rivers may have been "tamed," but the fertile farmland they once nourished now lies beneath a sprawling network of homes, businesses, industries, roads, and people.