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Ceremony in Port Angeles marks arrival of electricity from Elwha River hydroelectric project on February 12, 1914.

HistoryLink.org Essay 7590 : Printer-Friendly Format

On February 12, 1914, Governor Ernest Lister (1870-1919) and other dignitaries from around the state attend a banquet and grand ball in Port Angeles to celebrate the beginning of electric power service from the Elwha River dam. The hydroelectric project is the brainchild of Port Angeles real estate developer Thomas T. Aldwell (1868-1954), who spent 20 years acquiring the necessary land and arranging for financing and building the dam. The Elwha electricity will power much of the Olympic Peninsula and the Puget Sound Navy Yard at Bremerton. It will propel development of a thriving pulp mill industry at Port Angeles, the centerpiece of Clallam County's economy for many years. The original dam and a second one upriver at Glines Canyon also block the Elwha's once huge salmon runs, which many years later will lead to a negotiated decision to take both dams down, with removal work beginning in 2011 and the Elwha Dam gone by March 2012.

Originally from Canada, Thomas Aldwell gave up a job as a bank clerk at age 22 to seek his fortune in the American west. He arrived in Port Angeles in 1890, when it was just beginning to boom. He worked at many different jobs, but always concentrated on acquiring land. Soon after his arrival, he was captivated by a homestead claim located on the Elwha River, about seven miles west of the young city. Aldwell paid top dollar for rights to the claim, located about five miles from the river's mouth above "a canyon through which the Elwha River thundered" (Aldwell, 68).

Aldwell was already aware of the hydroelectric potential of his canyon in 1894 when he met R. M. Brayne, an Oregon pulp mill owner looking for power sources on the Olympic Peninsula. The two formed a partnership to develop the site. Brayne provided money to acquire the land along the Elwha above the canyon that a dam would flood. Aldwell worked secretly over the next 12 years to buy the necessary property without revealing their plans, which would have driven the price up.

Building the Dam

In 1908, George A. Glines, a real estate investor from Winnipeg, replaced Brayne as Aldwell's partner. The first directors of the company they formed were, in Aldwell's words, "names that are part of Washington's history of industrial development" (Aldwell, 83), including Joshua Green (1869-1975), then head of the Puget Sound Navigation Company and later a prominent Seattle banker, R. D. Merrill, principal owner of Merrill and Ring, one of the major logging firms on the Peninsula, and Michael Earles (d. 1919), a major Peninsula timber baron and mill builder.

Dam construction began in 1910 and was nearly complete in October 1912 when the almost-finished dam burst as water backed up behind it, destroying two years of work and causing considerable damage (but no casualties) downstream. The dam had not been firmly anchored to the bedrock in the canyon bottom. It took another year of work to repair the damage and complete the project.

Electricity from the Elwha project first reached Port Angeles and Port Townsend in December 1913, while construction and testing of transmission lines and transformer stations was still under way. Power lines reached the Navy Yard in Bremerton in January 1914, and the Olympic Power Company inaugurated regular service by February.

The arrival of hydroelectric service was celebrated in Port Angeles on February 12, 1914, with a banquet and grand ball that attracted visitors from across the Peninsula and notables from around the state, headed by Governor Lister.

No Passage

Lost in the celebration of electric power from the Elwha was the effect of the dam on what had been the river's most important resource for centuries -- its massive, multiple runs of salmon and steelhead. Klallam Indians, who lived and fished all along the Elwha, depended heavily on the 10 separate yearly runs, some of which numbered in the hundreds of thousands of fish. Even after non-Indians settled the area, the Elwha was noted as one of the Peninsula's major salmon and steelhead fisheries. Although the state fish commissioner stressed the need to provide passage for the fish, the Elwha dam, like others of its era, was constructed without a fish ladder or other passage. A fish hatchery was constructed as a substitute but proved unsuccessful and was soon abandoned. Barely five miles from the Elwha's mouth, the dam blocked anadromous (ocean-going, like salmon) fish from more than 70 miles of the river and its tributaries, devastating all 10 runs and virtually eliminating some.

The Elwha electricity soon boosted Port Angeles development. The Olympic Peninsula's first pulp mills were constructed there over the next 15 years to process the abundant pulpwoods into newsprint and other paper products. California's Zellerbach family built one of the major mills, operating initially as Washington Pulp and Paper and later as a division of Crown Zellerbach. Washington Pulp and Paper purchased the Elwha hydroelectric plant from Aldwell, Glines, and their investors.

Removing the Dam 

In 1926 a second hydroelectric project was constructed on the Elwha at Glines Canyon, eight miles upstream from the first dam. Like its predecessor, it failed to provide for fish passage. Located on Forest Service land, the Glines Canyon dam received a 50-year federal license, which was acquired by Washington Pulp and Paper and then its successor, Crown Zellerbach. In 1940, two years after Olympic National Park was created, the area around the Glines Canyon dam and Lake Mills (formed by the dam) became part of the park, as did most of the upper Elwha and its tributaries. Crown Zellerbach continued to own and operate the facility.

Expiration of the original Glines Canyon dam license touched off a lengthy debate over the future of both dams. By the 1980s, environmental groups, including the Seattle Audubon Society, Friends of the Earth, Olympic Park Associates, and the Sierra Club were calling for the dams to be removed to restore the salmon runs and park ecosystems that they disrupted. With other sources of power available for the pulp mill, then operated by Daishowa America, Congress authorized removal in the 1992 Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act.

The federal government acquired the dams in 2000, but another decade of studies, negotiations, and searching for funds followed before a $54 million grant of stimulus funds from President Barack Obama's (b. 1961) American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allowed dam removal work to begin in 2011.  The generating plants at the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams were shut down for good in June 2011 and that September construction crews began removing both dams.  

The Elwha Dam was gone by the following March, but removing the larger Glines Canyon Dam took longer. Removal work was suspended for a year because debris and sediment, which had accumulated behind the dams in quantities considerably greater than originally estimated, were clogging the new water-treatment facilities built downstream to remove the sediment and allow the City of Port Angeles and industrial users to continue drawing their water supply from the Elwha. After the National Park Service funded installation of two heavy-duty gravel pumps at the treatment facilities, workers resumed blasting away the Glines Canyon Dam in October 2013, with removal scheduled to be completed in September 2014.

Sources:
Thomas T. Aldwell, Conquering the Last Frontier (Seattle: Superior Publishing, 1950);  G. M. Lauridsen and A. A. Smith, The Story of Port Angeles, Clallam County, Washington (Seattle: Lowman and Hanford, 1937), 204-07; "Elwha River Restoration," Olympic National Park website accessed February 7, 2012 (http://www.nps.gov/olym/naturescience/elwha-ecosystem-restoration.htm); Lynda V. Mapes, "Elwha: The Grand Experiment to Tear Down Two Dams and Restore an Olympic Wilderness to its Former Glory," The Seattle Times Special Reports website accessed February 7, 2012 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/flatpages/ specialreports/elwha/?spotlightname=elwha&spotlightquery=elwha+dam); Mapes, "Elwha Dam-removal Project Held Back as Silt Estimate Too Low," The Seattle Times, January 3, 2013, p. B-1; Dominic Gates, "Elwha Dam Teardown Resumes With a Bang," Ibid., October 6, 2013, p. B-1.
Note: This essay was updated on February 7, 2012, and on February 6, 2014.


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Elwha River Dam, 1914
Photo by Asahel Curtis, Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. No. A. Curtis 28529)


Elwha River Dam and electric power plant, 1914
Photo by Asahel Curtis, Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. No. A. Curtis 28530)


Elwha River, Clallam County, 1920s
Postcard


 
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