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Bill Newby and Seattle City Light's Skagit Hydroelectric Project, 1935-1996

HistoryLink.org Essay 2963 : Printer-Friendly Format

Bill Newby (b. 1935) was born in the Seattle City Light community of Newhalem on the Skagit River. He worked for City Light starting in 1955 as a laborer, digging ditches. He retired in 1996 as Director of Operations on the Skagit River hydroelectric project, responsible for three dams, four power houses, and two communities. In this interview conducted by David Wilma for HistoryLink in January 2001, he recalls life in Newhalem and on the Skagit Project.

The Interview

[In 1886, Bill's grandfather, Clarence Newby homesteaded near Marblemount where Bill's father was born.]

"They farmed. As soon as Dad was old enough to get out, he started packing, making a living packing for the Forest Service, and then helped build the railroad and helped pack City Light into the Skagit. When they were doing their Diamond exploration work [beginning in 1919], Dad was packing them in there too, pack people and supplies back in there. His title says Farrier, horse shoer, then he labored for the Skagit with a team of horses whenever it was needed, moving supplies, groceries, sled in the wintertime, get rid of the garbage, and that type of work. And he also had a small dairy herd at Newhalem to supply milk for the employees for Seattle City Light. This was before the railroad came in."

Growing Up Newhalem

[Bill was born in Newhalem in 1935.] "There was a doctor up there in Newhalem. We lived in one of the City Light houses. [Housing assignments] were strickly by bidding. In the area I lived, sort of across from Silk Stocking Row, [houses] were virtually all the same. When they built houses, it would be in a group and all in the same style of houses. Silk Stocking Row always had the higher-echelon because they had the bidding and they were the nicer houses.

"I know pretty good how it worked. It was a point per hundred dollars [of salary], two points for seniority, points for children -- five points for the first child and four points for the second child, then three points down to two points. After that, no points for children. That's how you were awarded a house. It would be whatever house came up for bid. You could bid on the best house up there, but if you were in the labor class in the early days, you were not going to get it because you would get out-bid by people that made more money and [had] more seniority.

"[If you couldn't get a house from City Light] you lived wherever you could live. In the early days up there, a family or two lived in some of the old Forest Service houses at Goddell Creek, but other than that, down here in Marblemount or whatever.

"A large, large group of people, while they were bidding, especially railroad and that, all lived in bunk houses. Many, many, many men lived in bunk houses. We had a lot of bunk houses, during that time, of railroad, and line division taking care of the railroad. During tour times, those bunk houses were strickly for the tourists that came up. Later when they stopped that, those bunk houses then were turned into bunk houses for employees.

World War II: Blackout

"[When World War II began], overnight it was black. The power house windows got painted. The houses' windows didn't get painted, they got tarpaper. Guards would walk around at night and if they could see light your house was beat on and told to get more paper across the windows where they could not see light.

"Employees, my dad, along with other dads, pulled guard duty. They run guard duty 24-hours a day and you shared in that even though you had an eight-hour shift to work during the day. When it was your turn to pull a night shift, you pulled a night shift. They had fixed guard posts with fence, it was all fenced.

"Mother would fix up a plate of food and cover it with another plate, package it all up and I thought it was the greatest thing in the world. I could get to go down to the guard shack and take Dad dinner. I thought that was a big deal to do that. I was very, very young when I did it, but I still remember doing that.

Let the Good Times Roll

"The community was a pretty self-sufficient ... to get together and have a smorgabord or have a pot-luck. Your entertainment was self-made. The adults would get together, somebody had a banjo and somebody had a drum and somebody had a guitar and they made their own music. They would have dances and it was all self-made by employees. The baseball field was fixed up by employees after hours.

"Those type of events made it a community to where now it's not that same type of community because whatever you did in those days, you had to generate it among yourselves. Radio reception was extremely poor. People tried it. They had wires strung from their houses across trees, over the river, up on the mountain. Radio was, at its best, pretty scratchy.

"You were mixed with however you happened to bid on a house. At that time in the early '40s and '50s the better houses went to the employees that had the most points. Either you had a lot of seniority, you were fairly well paid - power house personnel or management - got the better houses.

Marriages Occurred

"There were marriages that occurred. I guess my dad met my mother, as the story goes, they were working on the railroad, she was a girl living back here [indicating Marblemount, downstream from Newhalem]. Every day the train would go by and the guys would just be riding on a flat car. He started throwing her oranges. That was unheard of, but the crews that were there always had oranges and apples. And he started throwing her oranges as they would go by. I think that's the story I get out of my dad and mother.

"There was a school in Newhalem and a school in Diablo. Good schools. City Light supported the schools, hired the teachers. They had a school board which were employees. They would go to management to get money. Only to eighth grade and this provided some real problems. After the eighth grade, your children had to be farmed out. My brother was farmed out. He was quite a bit older than me and he went down to Queen Anne and then came back up here and went to Concrete his senior year. There was no high school in Newhalem.

Cattle Drives

"He continued to work there until we moved to Marblemount on our farm, the homestead, and continued to supply milk to Newhalem and to the contractors, from the dairy in Marblemount. I started with Dad, driving cattle to Jack Mountain. That's above Ross Dam. You leave Marblemount and drive them to Newhalem. They'd be pasturing at the old Crane's place, underneath the powerlines, one of the powerlines was fairly new, so there was a great pasture up there. And you were waiting for the snow to get off of Jack Mountain.

"City Light would bring a railroad car down there and we would load it full of cattle, railroad them to Diablo. Then there was a stock pen there for horses or mules, or whatever. We'd keep the cattle there overnight and then start the track up to Jack Mountain the next day, up the hill. Went through the construction site, up over the hill, up into Ruby Creek, across Ruby Creek on a swinging bridge, and went to the old Ruby Creek guard station.

What Cattle Do

"[The dam] was about a half-way point in that day's drive, so it would be a good place to hold the cattle for 10 or 15 or 20 minutes to gather all the cattle back together. If you were going to grab a sandwich out of your pocket, that would be the time to do it, at the top of the dam because the cattle couldn't get away from you. When you put cattle on top of a dam, they only do one thing and they make a tremendous mess.

"The Ross power house supervisor, Ken Hunich, very very precise: pencils all in a row, pants creased, sharp, military looking young man. He was very unhappy with me with fouling up the top of his dam. He had a few words of distaste that I really fouled up his dam.

Laboring at Diablo: Covering a Multitude of Sin

"I went to work for City Light in 1953 in the summer as a contractor [putting in lawns at Diablo]. And then in 1955, temporary in November and laid off. Hired back in about January, and been there ever since. I started out laboring and that covers a multitude of sin. The first day I was there, I was "coyoteing" a hole from the river to Gorge cookhouse for a drain pipe -- digging a hole with a shovel. From there, whatever, cutting grass, or loading trucks, shoveling gravel, like I say, whatever had to be done, that what you done. When I first started working there, I was living down in Marblemount. We would team up and maybe two or three of us would drive together. There was a road then.

"I guess I did about everything there was to do. Then as a maintenance laborer and that put you a little closer to the heavy equipment. I worked as an oiler, or drive the crane, or work with the cat operators, whatever was being done.

"I worked on the logging crew, went up on the floating camp. That was on Ross. We had a logging camp, everything was floating on Ross, the steel crew used it, it had a floating dry dock on it, to work on boats. A lot of work was being done on the dam, on the gates at that time. Worked as a deck hand on the boats on Diablo Lake.They were manufactured right up there on the lake. Logs gathered from the lake. Lumber came from Newhalem, on barge on Diablo Lake and then picked off Diablo Lake and set onto Ross Lake with the hi-line which was left over from building the dam. That's how you got material to Ross until they built a little jeep road. Now it goes from the power house to the top of the dam. But for years and years and years, that was not there. Everything went by the hi-line. Over the top of Ross into Ross Lake.

World's Fair Days

"I drove a tour bus. That was pretty interesting. One time during the day you would get caught having a group of people with no tour guide either going or coming. That was during the time of the World's Fair. Five tours a day. We were flying, moving people, and you would get caught somewhere during the day being tour guide as well as bus driver for half your run.

You always had some prank you could pull on them about the color of the water, tell them that they had taken all the kilowatts out of the water. It was a good time.

The Greatest Thing

"I thought the greatest thing in the world was to be a heavy equipment operator. The opportunity came to be a "B" Operator, to run the smaller equipment. I'd taken the exam, successfully passed the exam. But as I looked at the people around me, sort of dead ended. I was going to be there many many many years to maybe get that position. There was not a lot of turnover. There was no turnover until you got old enough or died.

"So I took a chance and went to Seattle and worked in Seattle for two-and-a-half years with the Water Department. It was a great job. I was scared to death when I went down there. Gave me an opportunity to take a lot of schooling, night schools and that. I didn't know a street from a sidewalk. They would give you an address to go to and I had a map. I wore out 15 maps, I'll tell you that. And then I came back to the Skagit for a promotion as an "A" Operator and you got to run all the big equipment.

"Then the chance came to go for foreman and I became the foreman.

The Road to Change

"It started changing dramatically when the railroad went out in 1954, that was a tremendous change to the Skagit because people had a little more freedom. They could get in and out of Diablo, they had a little bit more mobility. For years the railroad was the only way in and out of Newhalem and until 1954 that was the only way out of Diablo. Earlier in the Civilian Conservation Corps [a New Deal program to put young unemployed men to work on wilderness projects] -- they had a camp here at Bacon Creek -- they started punching a road toward Newhalem. A lot of times the road was on the railroad, tight to it, you were running right down the ties, pretty near close to it, on this little path. If you wanted to call it a road. If the sun was shining on a good day you could get in and out. At its best it was a pretty poor piece of road.

"From Newhalem to Rockport it was once a day. Down in the morning and back in the afternoon. Diablo had a morning run and an afternoon run. If there were other things going on, there would be a run around noon. Diablo to Newhalem was something like 35 to 40 minutes. Coming down this way [to Rockport] you were an hour and a half, two hours. In the early days, Newhalem was isolated, Diablo was worse.

In the Powerhouse

"I had a short stay in the power house. I was in Diablo Power House as a laborer. On a few opportunities I worked as an electrical helper and a few times as ESA [electrical station attendant], but most of the time I was outside.

"[For power house personnel] in the early days it was 21 days on and 14 days off, 21 days on, 7 days off. That took care of their vacation and weekends. That was for the operator, junior operator, and ESA. ESA was the bottom rung to become a junior operator to become a senior operator. They did the oil wiping, running to check meters for the senior operator [and so on].

"One of the power house supervisors, a very intelligent man, used to play in the band. I don't know if he had a squeeze-box, I can't remember what it was. Somebody made a comment to him, 'You mean you'd play that with these ... play in the band?' And that was the last time he ever played. It was like, he shouldn't step down to the level of this. You should stay up here at this level. I don't think it was meant in a vicious ... but it was just, I'm management and you're not. That's long, long gone.

Giving Management a Shot

"I became a foreman, then my boss was leaving, so I decided to give that a shot. The title was Manager of Camps and Services, so you had everything to do with the camps and all the services except the power houses. [If residents of Newhalem wanted a paint job or other work done on their houses] it went on a list of things to do. It was given to the carpenter shop or the paint shop. It depended. If you had a plugged toilet, you got it fixed right now.

"Some of the fixes -- people would like to have some remodeling done or cabinets built. That came on a priority list. It wouldn't happen overnight. They couldn't do it themselves. Well, some people did a few small things. You might be waiting a year or two to get your house painted depending on how the sequence went. [People] were always trying to influence me, trying to get on top of the list -- cabinets or fix the kitchen or fix the bathroom different than City Light wanted to.

"In the early days, there weren't a lot of fences. In later days, people wanted, I guess pretty near demanded, a little more security. Instead of the picket fence, they wanted it to be a fence five or six feet high. Who was going to pay for it? In the early days, City Light paid for everything. It was a budget kind of thing and you might have to wait a while to get that fence built. And sometimes the people would say, 'I will build it to your specifications.' And that was pretty successful. You would furnish them the lumber and they would build it to your specifications.

Fauna, Newhalem Style

"Until the later years, dogs and cats ran free. But in later years, a pet had to be on a leash. When the [National] Park started influencing [after 1968], pets had to be on a leash. There were not that many problems. Way back when, when I was just a kid, a fellow had a pen full of nutria, over the bank along the river. Raising nutria, no big deal. [A nutria, or coypu, is an aquatic South American rodent, three to four feet in length, sometimes raised for its fur.]

"A few people had some rabbits in a rabbit hutch, a chicken or two showed up once in awhile. We even had a pig up there for awhile. My dad raised pigs, this is back and way up, my dad raised pigs up there, on food that was thrown away from the cookhouse. And then we would butcher the pigs and just recycle it. People would have pork. Then we had a sow die once, so we raised eight pigs on the bottle in the back yard, for a short time and then they were gone. They had 4-H for awhile and they designated, off outside the housing area, a little corral and the people worked and built this corral. As you got into the '70s and '80s and '90s, they seemed to become more restrictive on pets.

Love/Hate, No Half-way Inbetween

"It's the greatest place in the world to raise a family. It was a great place for employment. It was a lot of fun. There were a lot of characters. Like when the people produced their own music and dances, smorgasbord, and that type of thing. You couldn't ask for a finer place to raise a family. You either liked it or hated it. If you hated it, you were gone, if you liked it, you never wanted to leave.

"That was the true factor, you liked it, you loved it, you hated it. There was no half-way in between. The people that hated it didn't stay there. The kids could just wander around and do whatever they want. You didn't have to worry about the things you worry about today. It just wasn't there. Your family was being raised by the community. It was just a great time.

"Later there were family issues, alcohol, and drugs. We had some domestic problems started showing up. If we had a problem, it was handled in an internal way, but in the later years, you being 'the manager' didn't really have the authority. The Camp Manager in the '20s or '30s which was Dana Currier and Hoffman. If there was a problem, they were just gone. In later years, with the unions, you had no business getting into a domestic type thing, so the sheriff would help take care of that. Newhalem is the city of Seattle shrunk way down. We'd have one robbery where they'd have a hundred. If it was a family issue you'd have a hundred a day and we'd have one a year.

"The school went the same way. Whole bunch of kids that were raising up and then we fall way down. Because that whole group of employees filled up the Skagit, raising their families, families have gone, they're still employed. When they leave there's a whole younger generation. Now the school would go up.

"That one wave came through there probably '60s, '70s. I remember one fellow, he made a good wage and was horrified. He didn't have anything, in a sense. Never wrote a check. When he went to get financial help, it was horrible because he didn't have a checking account. Those type of things sneak up on people. They're very very comfortable, extremely comfortable up there. 'Hell, I got City Light paying for everything.' They paid for everything, light power, gargage, everything, in that earlier time. So, other than what you ate ...

The Shock of the Real World

"[Retirement] was a shock to some people. I remember some people that had raised their family, their family was gone. They worked up there, made good wages, and it was a shock to them, they thought they were in hog heaven, they had $10,000 in savings, $20,000 here. 'That's no problem. I'll leave Newhalem.' Until they come out into the real world and found out that $10,000 didn't do anything, to buy a piece of property or to buy a house.

"It was a real shock to some of them, because they lived a little higher than they should have. It was looking at that future of, 'What'll I do when I get out of here?' That echoed through the area quite rapidly. It seems like it always is a wave of people that come in at the same time, there would be a whole bunch retire. For a long time you would have nobody retire."

Where Whatcom?

[The Skagit Project lies in Whatcom County, but is accessable only by driving through 70 miles of neighboring Skagit County.] "You voted Whatcom County, but you virtually had no contact with Whatcom County until the highway produced one real issue of law enforcement. And the other was trying to get a library in there, it had to be Whatcom County. So then you started getting some kind of working relationship with Whatcom County. Then when we brought a sheriff in, a deputy, now it became a real issue because you had to set up a contract with Whatcom County to provide a deputy. Then you got more involved with the politics of Whatcom County. City Light paid for the deputy.

"Way back when they had a judge, Erhardt Swanson, before I was a kid. Then they tried in the early '50s security guards, walk, punch in their meters. That was sort of a joke. The kids figured that out real quick. It became more of a fun thing for the kids. Kids are kids. They handled the problems with kids up there. It's when the road was opened for Joe Blow to drive up there, that's when a few things started happening -- disappearing of this, gas. The old days, you didn't have to put many things away. But it became quite apparent that you had to clean up your act because you were now open more to the public.

"The road coming through [in 1974] really was dramatic. Then you were open to God and everybody. Definitely you needed a deputy. He worked slowing down the people, for your own children and families. Diablo Dam and Gorge Dam became vulnerable to people driving over and mischief things started happening. A deputy had a slow, easy winter and a hard, fast summer. Drive him absolutely nuts in the summertime. I had a deputy for 13 years, George Sharp. They lived up there. I used them for security for the school kids going in and out of the canyon in the wintertime because of avalanches. George worked for me 24-hours a day. There was no such thing as an eight-hour shift.

Watching for Avalanches

"Working the canyon when we had the avalances, it went from when I was the watch, throwing a snowball, which wasn't very damn good, but that's what we used. When the operator got hit with a snowball, you'd better be leaving. Well if you miss him the first throw, you know what's happening. It went to a radio, to setting up watching across the lake where you could see way up. Of if you couldn't see, having a radio, having a double watchmen, trading off.

"We went to flare guns. You'd shoot the flare and everybody in the whole area would know you got a problem. Everybody knew what to do. To 'Talky Tooters.' Talky Tooters really helped. When the operator and everybody in the whole country heard that -- all you had to do was squeeze it and it sent a signal throughout. It's what the loggers use. They would toot that, you got it instantly and everybody got the same signal. So, every time [there was] something new you could do, you brought it in, to effect. It saved my butt, I'll tell you that.

In the Forest

"[When Highway 20 was completed across the Cascades in 1974] that brought everything. They got in some pretty hairy situations, like moving drugs. They were moving drugs down Ross Lake or up Ross Lake to get in and out of Canada. And City Light is right in the middle of it.

"The Park Service came in [in 1968] and that was another set of restrictions. Before the park, City Light virtually owned everything. You went out and you dug gravel and if you needed some trees, you went and cut a tree. When the Park came in, that was slowly to rapidly to change. They didn't want you doing these things. Logs that fell off the hillside, you cut it up for firewood. You don't do that anymore.

"[Before that] you dealt with the Forest Service and the Forest Service gave you an open book. Just take care of it. Don't even call us. Because you weren't taking advantage of them. And you worked well with the Forest Service because the Forest Service depended on you to move their mules, fire equipment, up the lake, up the boat, over the dam, up Ross Lake and you would do it for them.

"People had the freedom before of going out in the woods and picking mushrooms and picking flowers. If they wanted a plant, they'd dig it. You don't do that any more. So this was another big influence on the people of Newhalem. And in the management of City Light. Let's just stack some gravel over there. You don't do that now. You bring your gravel from Mount Vernon which is a far cry from having a pit five minutes from you instead of about a three hour trip.

Automation v. Community

"Automation really hit the Skagit [in 1973]. They took that Senior Operator, Junior Operator, ESA and said, 'The Seniors, you're here and the rest of you, you're gone. We're going to have a Senior-and-a-half a power house.' It was devastating because all of a sudden people had to pick up their families, thought they had a job for life, could see a career of senior operator, moving up through the ranks. The Columbia River loved it. They gobbled those people up. Everybody felt uneasy.

"The school went down to pretty near nothing. We closed down the school in Diablo -- one year had five children. Before that, it was like, this is security and not, It's not security. They just wiped them out. It really lost that community function. Television was starting to trickle in. Get togethers ceased because you either watched television or you drove down the road. That strong, strong community involvement faded away rapidly.

"You had a lot of people come out of the shipyards, after the war, that came up into the Skagit. Carpenters, painters, railroad people, pretty well came from other walks of life. Not a lot of transferring [to Seattle]. The Line Division influence that went back and forth. Of course that was a union and they could do that. They could transfer back and forth. The rest of the crews at the Skagit were not union for many, many, many years.

"There really weren't that many issues when we were not union. There was a pay difference, but that's just the way it was. You just accepted it. You were not allowed to touch, to do certain things, because you were now getting into that union jurisdiction. You really got told, you knew where your bounds were because you'd get beat upon pretty severely. If you crossed over into a union area.

Hot Work

"[For example] digging around a hot line. You're working a crane around a power line, without a watchman. They were union type things, and they probably should be. Because that was a safety factor. It really wasn't that big of a thing. It set up some, in the early days, it started to fade in the '60s, '70s and '80s, quite rapidly. In the early days, there was a generation against the camp services. We're better than you. Because they were power house, they were God Almighty, type of thing. It was there, but it wasn't spoken. There was a little bit left in the '50s.

"About the same time in the '50s I remember the first lady came to work in the office. Was sort of breaking that gender gap. It could have been early '53. There was a lady who was doing some temporary work in the summertime, when they'd have a bigger staff in the summertime. To help out in the office and that. She was married to a power house [employee]. There were no female employees. It was an all-man crew. In the cookhouse, there were a few ladies that broke into that. There were no female employees, anywhere.

Managing Generation

"My boss, Bucknell, went on vacation and he said, "Newby, you got it." I said, 'What do you want to be notified of?' He said, 'If Ross Dam breaks, it's not an emergency.' I didn't call him. For a 30-day period, I was over generation. It was a surprise to them. They had many years of supervision over me. I was a new kid on the block. It was all well.

"When I was still on the workforce, if the wind came that there was a boss coming from Seattle, the Director of Operations or the Superintendent, it was be busy and get the hell out of sight. [John Nelson, superintendent from 1963 to 1971] was more of a people person. He wanted to come up and see everybody and shake your hand, how's it going, and walk around with the troops.

The Vickery Era

"Gordon Vickery become superintendent [in 1972] and he was a character. His first visit, that was something else. Gordon Vickery showed up and he was sort of rolly-polly and he had sort of an orange colored jumpsuit on. That was quite a shock to the employees because they were used to seeing somebody at that rank in a suit or very good casual wear. He didn't mince any words when he answered a question. 'If you don't like it here, go somewhere else.'

"He stunned a lot of people, but there were things that Gordon Vickery accomplished that were also good. He established a bus for the crew to go back and forth to work. There were four or five of us that met with him and were talking about, How about some kind of transportation. Employees will pay the gas. Vickery's comment was, we didn't really even get done with our proposal, and he says, 'Well, why don't you do it?'

"We were flabbergasted. We sat down in a committee and made up a mileage charge, 45 cents a day from Marblemount. It came right out of our paycheck. It was a great deal for employees. And that's still going today. They now contract with SCAP [the Skagit County transit system] out of Mount Vernon.

"We got the finest training for Emergency Medical Technicians in the world. He brought doctors to the Skagit. He brought trainers to the Skagit. We went to Seattle and took got our training at Harborview. With the highway being there, we were finding ourselves with a lot of accidents.

"The Circle V Beanery. We moved the cookhouse from Newhalem to Diablo, the cooking for the entire camp for tourists. She was going to be top-notch, first class. It was adding on to the old schoolhouse. Man, did we put the bucks into that. If you wanted to work 20 hours a day overtime ... was nothing. The steel crew and the crews out of Seattle worked their tails off to get that job completed.

The Cost of One Two-bathroom House

"He had his own house, the superintendent's house. And it's still there today in Diablo. And we put that thing lush. He'd used it from time to time, or guests. It was set aside for brass to come up. City councilmen would come up to discuss something and they would use that house as their place to stay. We put two bathrooms in it. There was no such thing as two bathrooms in a house up there. You know what that cost. Everybody else wanted two bathrooms in their house.

"As much as he was disliked, for us at the Skagit, he did some things that were, 'just do it.'

"[The electrical workers' strike in 1975 was] really not that hard. We were really out of the line crew division at that time. It was strictly power houses. The power house supervisors just set the power houses a a generating load and don't fool with it. Just let it go and we'll handle it in Seattle. They manned the power houses with the management and people that were not management. If they have to change something, it had to be handled by a supervisor that felt comfortable in changing the load. They let things more or less alone.

"We started going through superintendents pretty rapidly, or interim superintendents, Murray, and then Randy Hardy, we bounced around. Joe Recchi and Robert Bradley. Randy Hardy and I did quite a bit together. He was a people person. He used to get what we call guest house 2. That was set up for Walt Sickler [Director of Operations]. Walt came up a lot. He visited everything he was in charge of.

Raising Ross Dam

"[For the proposal to raise Ross Dam beginning in 1970] I did a tremendous amount of work up there. I must have spent 80 percent of my time for probably about a year-and-a-half on Ross Dam. We were doing tests, pouring concrete blocks over the face of the dam, all across the face of the dam, putting on these special blocks. Of course, that took a lot of scaffolding and a lot of crane work and hanging people over the side. And getting people used to the fear. When you take a person and put them in a basket and say, 'OK we're going over the face of the dam,' all of a sudden both hands are for them and there's not hands left to work.

"We were really scrutinized and watched by engineers from all over the world at times, when we would break those blocks loose. They had string gauges and electronic gauges and pressure gauges. We would actually jack those blocks and break them loose to show the strength of the concrete in the dam. At certain ages, 28 days, 3 weeks, 5 weeks, 10 weeks, 10 months, all of these were broken off at different times to see at what point did they level off. I spent a tremendous amount of time up there working with engineers, doing this work. It never came off. It just got very political between two countries.

"[They] were looking at a dam at Copper Creek [downstream from Newhalem] which would be an earth fill. Well earth fill sent a shock wave through the community because we'd had a couple earth dams fail throughout the world. Boy that really sent a shock wave through the community. They did a lot of research and did a lot of testing and looking for earthquake faults."

Old Number 6

[In 1954, City Light closed the railroad from Rockport to Diable, sold the rails and rolling stock, but kept the locomotive, "Old Number Six."] "The locomotive, a real sore subject. The Skagit Railway was going to run tours back and forth so they came and conned City Light out of the locomotive. They never did anything and they sold ingots and they tried to promote. It went uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill. MacDonald was my boss. I said, 'Mac, I'm going to go get the railroad and bring it back. It belongs on the Skagit. It built the Skagit. It belongs back on the Skagit.' He said ask around. So I ask around.

"Geez, the wave went to Washington, D.C. Where it came from, I don't know. It came back on Mac like a ton of bricks. He said, 'Newby, don't do anything. Just forget it.' [I said,] 'For six months. I'll give them six months.' Six months went by. I marked it on my calendar. I said, 'Mac, how we going on the railroad?' 'Why? What's the problem? I don't know anything.'

"I got a contractor. I had everything set up. I told him, 'I'm coming to get the train.' Well, he'd heard me say this before. But I was coming to get the train. Because a truck was already coming from Seattle, a crane was coming from Mount Vernon. I arrived there at 8:00 in the morning and we loaded that train. By noon we were headed to Newhalem, before they could get to Washington, D.C. and stop this. They got to Seattle and they got to everybody else, but I had the train in Newhalem. I stole it and brought it back and there it sits today."

Towers Falling Like Trees: Weather, 1990

[On November 24, 1990, floods washed out some transmission towers to Seattle.] "I was the one that found it. It was on the Sauk River, near Darrington. We immediately knew there was a problem. Of course Seattle was screaming their heads off, where's it at? How'n the hell do I know where it's at? But we'll see what we can do. I sent crews out, we had to walk. There are lots of places where the tower lines leave -- you have to walk to them. We had sort of a routine how we cover the power line. And its miserable. It's a lousy day. I said, 'Well, I'll go to Darrington.' And we got a helicopter pilot, they don't come any better. I tell you, the finest guy in the world. We'll start at Darrington, because that was my area. We'll cover that and we'll see what I can find. We jumped in the helicopter, oh, God! it was terrible.

"We couldn't see. The snow was hitting and we had to land. It was snow and rain. We went down once in the Sauk River and we took the doors off. We had to fly sideways, because the snow hit that bubble and you couldn't see. So we found the problem. A tower was just totally wiped out. The flood just cut in the bank and took the tower, the whole tower was in the river and there was lines broken and stuff scattered, the arms ripped right out of the cages. The arms are flat down. The cables were scattered. It looked like Grandma's sewing box.

"We couldn't communicate with Seattle. My boss at that time was Jerry Garman. He was a real power person. I get on the phone, through the radio from the helicopter to his house and his wife trying to talk to Seattle by phone and relay what I'm telling him by radio. Communications not working and I'm getting the picture that this is not going to be fixed. Tell me it's going to be fixed. No, this is not being fixed for days. He didn't want to hear this.

"We went back to Darrington and picked up his video camera. So we're going to video this. The whole sequence where it starts to influence the towers and where it starts to tear the towers apart to where it starts breaking the cables to where the tower arms are completely flat to the tower's gone in the river. So we videotaped this whole thing. So I said, 'How in the hell am I going to get this to Seattle?' I told Anthony, Anthony was this guy's name and he said, 'Well we'll fly to Seattle, I'll have them set it up and we'll land right in the street.' Oh, God! we can just be going down and flying with a helicopter in Seattle.

"We had a video camera monitoring our dams, for dam safety. I said, 'Fly me to Newhalem.' We had a hell of a time flying to Newhalem because of visibility. Right down the river. Right down the Sauk River, sail down the Sauk River, right up the Skagit. We got up here and we got a little more visibility. So we land right in the compound in Newhalem.

"By this time I can talk to my people. The communications specialist, Roy Sharp, he said, 'We'll unplug the dams. We'll just take the signal away from the dams, and we'll put this in and we'll send the signal down there and let them look at it.' We stuck this in the recorder and sent the signal down to Seattle and the Power Control Center which was watching this. Then they could see this mess. And it was a mess.

"It was 12 days later that we got power back and City Light took over the town of Darrington, literally. Moved in the crews, big crews, massive crews. Every place that they had a place to sleep they put people up. Food up to the ying-yang. Rain gear. Lousy weather. I sent some of my crews down to fix the road, because by this time they're driving in mud up to their rear-end. We brought in huge cranes from Seattle, I think Ness, to reconstruct, to pick the tower out, rebuild the tower. Oh man.

"What we did then is kick the load over onto the other line. Oh boy. It made that line hot. It was smoking. The line had steam coming off of it and when the line gets hot, it sags. On a hot day, the line will sag down 10 feet, set a fire and raise back up. And you wonder, what the -- what happened? It'll get down low enough that it will arc out to a tree. We had a line over at Darrington that sagged down low enough, that we had to put a watchman. It sagged down into an open area, but it sagged down so low you could have gone out there and got in trouble. We dumped the whole damn Skagit on that other line. We were really ramming it to it.

"Everything worked out, but that's just some of the things you do.

"We had a lineman get killed up here. During construction days, there were quite a few deaths. We killed a surveyor. He was on the dam and a cable broke. He was part of City Light. Most were contractors. All in all, probably very good. It wasn't that you didn't have a black mark or two there. We did everything we could to prevent."

How To Get a Building When You Want a Building

[Regarding construction sheds that were moved from Boundary Dam in northeast Washington to the Skagit] "Yeah, I was told it couldn't be done. By hook or crook, somehow, they got over here. The manager of the shops and warehouses in Seattle was Harold Tufts. A lot of his steel crew lived pretty near year round up at the Skagit working for me. We had those buildings over there that were just going by the wayside. 'Harold,' I said, 'you know you need some work for your field crew. Just send them over there and start tearing them down and we'll ship them over here and we'll reconstruct them.' 'By God,' he said, 'that's not a bad idea.'

"My mechanical supervisor at that time was Jim Parker. So Jim Parker went over and sort of measured and got the conception of what we had. We poured these slabs with all the footings for all the steel to set in. Engineering started hearing about this a little bit and it just sent them up the wire. Building something without them. Tom Rockey is the head of the engineering and he brought it up in a big staff meeting.

"The deputy superintendent then was MacDonald and he very quietly said to him, 'Do you have anything else to report?' That was it. Killed it right there.

"They had a building collapse over there [at Boundary Dam]. We knew how it had collapsed, because of the configuration of the steel beams. Boom, down they went, so we've got to get rid of them. To solve that problem all we did was take an eighth-inch steel ribbon and send a complete band over the building. So we built them and now they're called the Sickler Buildings. I know Walt was probably taking heat. It didn't take rocket science to lay this out. When we'd get money, we'd pour a floor.

"Walt Sickler made fun of it. We had a huge amount of money in our budget to drill the drain holes in Ross, the weep holes. Which I had physically done when I was coming up. They had me drill all the weep holes out of Ross. Between the rock and the dam itself, they don't want pressure to build, so there's always holes going clear through the dam, into the rock, maybe a hundred feet. Some of those holes are 300 feet deep. Maybe a 2¼, 2½ inch hole. They slowly start to close up with calcium. I drilled all them out. Oh hard work, oh my God it was murder. I'm deaf today from the damn drill was so noisy. I kept stealing money from that budget to do those weep holes. The next year, it was still in the budget. Sickler kept telling me, 'Newby, you're going to build the whole Skagit on that one project, with that one budget.' That's how you got money at times, if you had a big budget item that wasn't going to get used, you went ahead and used it, because the instant that you had a budget that didn't get used, somebody sees that sucker and they were going to use it and you didn't get it.'

"That's called the Sickler Building. We had a big dedication. He came up and his wife. Big banners inside.

"[Assistant Superintendent MacDonald] was a Seabee [U.S. Navy Construction Battalions] in the military. He said I should have been the head of the Seabees. He said, 'You are the scroungiest scrounger. Turn your back and you'll have Boundary over here on the Skagit.' That's sometimes how you got things done.

Working Together

"That's how you got things done with contractors. I built a street up in Newhalem. We needed a new street and it should have been engineered and the whole nine yards. We just did it. Did our own engineering. We didn't have the money to put in all these fancy curbs and the blacktop. There was a contractor working up there doing the road. He had some equipment break down. 'Bring it in the shop, I'll fix it for you.' For him to take it to Seattle to get it fixed must've killed him. We could fix it. Couple, three times we could fix it and it cost us six or eight hours of shop time. He said, 'What can I do for you?'

"'Oh, thank you. I have this curb over here.' 'No problem.' The paver. He was up there paving and we only worked on that truck a couple hours. When you're paving you've got to pave like pouring concrete. He paved my street for me. So it didn't cost the system anything. And that's how you got a lot of things done.

"And the state highway, any time I needed sand and gravel, the state would say, 'What do you need?' We worked together. You can't do that now. We would fix their truck that would come in, have coffee with us, weld for five minutes, fix a flat tire for them, no big deal to us at City Light. You never find it at the end of the day. You needed some sand, they just bring you over sand. It worked that way, but it doesn't work that way today.

"It was a great time. I loved it. I'm still City Light. I'm still saying 'we.'"

Sources:
Bill Newby Interview by David Wilma, January 8, 2001 and January 22, 2001, Marblemount, Washington, Audiotapes (3) in possession of History Ink, Seattle, Washington.


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This essay made possible by:
Seattle City Light


Bill Newby, 2001
Photo by David Wilma


Seattle City Light service area and major power distribution facilities, 1974
Courtesy Seattle City Light


Seattle City Light dams along the Skagit River, 1986
Map by Chris Goodman


City Light's Gorge Dam intake on the Skagit River, with railroad on right, 1926
Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives (Image No. 2191)


Gorge Powerhouse, 1925
Courtesy Seattle City Light


Ross Dam (1949), 540 feet high and powerhouse (1952)
Courtesy Seattle City Light


Diablo Dam, 389 feet high, completed 1929
Courtesy Seattle City Light


Gorge High Dam, 1961
Courtesy Seattle City Light


Tourists on top of Diablo Dam, ca. 1939
Courtesy Seattle City Light


Old Number Six, 2001
Photo by David Wilma


 
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