Upper Skagit River Hydroelectric Project

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 3/03/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5347
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Three Seattle City Light dams on the Upper Skagit River in the Cascade Mountains today (2000) produce 25 percent of the electrical power consumed in Seattle. (The dams are located in southeast Whatcom County along a 7 to 8 mile section of Skagit River. Starting downriver and proceeding eastward toward Canada they are in order Gorge, Diablo, Ross. Ross Lake formed by Ross Dam extends into British Columbia, which is 20 miles from the dam.) Planning for hydroelectric dams began as early as 1905 and construction, but not controversy, finally concluded in 1961. The project had to overcome competition, politics, international diplomacy, the weather, and the mountains themselves.

Earliest Years

The Skagit River flows from British Columbia through the Cascades to a broad delta on Puget Sound. Rivers of ice cut deep canyons ideal for hydroelectric power. Native Americans occupied the wildlife-rich river mouth and lower valley for centuries before the first Europeans visited Puget Sound, but they seem to have used the remote upper valley only to cross the Cascades to the eastern side by way of Hart Pass. Winter snows and frequent floods made the canyons untenable even for game year round.

The first non-native penetration of the valley came in 1877 on rumors of gold. Miners soon learned that finding the gold was the least of their problems. Prospectors had to climb a 40-foot Jacob's Ladder up one cliff and to construct some trails out of wood. In winter, snow and ice made these crude paths impassable and the river regularly flooded mine sites. Difficulties in getting men and equipment in and getting ore out negated any potential profits. A few hardy settlers managed to establish simple homesteads in the narrow valleys. In the early 1900s, a second gold rush saw some extraction and processing operations, but these never proved profitable. Neither miners nor farmers could make much of a living along the Skagit.

The mining companies were the first to tap the Skagit's power to generate electricity, but only for their own use. The first man to see the Skagit as a profitable source for electric power was Charles Freeman of Bellingham. He and some backers from Denver formed the Skagit Power Company in 1905 and they planned some dams. Mining companies also got into the electric utility act with their own schemes. None of these ventures could locate financing because Stone and Webster, the Boston-based electrical power giant, had been quietly discouraging potential investors. Stone and Webster finally purchased Skagit Power and obtained the necessary county and Forest Service permits for construction. The obstacles posed by weather and geography remained and nothing was built.

J.D. Ross and Seattle City Light

Seattle City Light Superintendent James Delmage Ross (1872-1939) had seen the potential for the Skagit as early as 1912. In 1916, the Stone and Webster construction permits expired. The aggressive head of City Light wrote to the Department of Agriculture and stated that the City of Seattle was ready to build and that granting rights to a municipally owned utility was in the public interest. The Department of Agriculture extended Stone and Webster's permit, nevertheless. When in 1917 the Stone and Webster permit expired a second time, Ross personally approached the Secretary of Agriculture with City Light's application. He pointed out that Stone and Webster had staked out more dam sites that it would ever need and that hydroelectric power was desperately needed for the nation's effort in World War I. On December 22, 1917, City Light got a permit from the Department of Agriculture for a dam at Diablo Canyon, a six mile tunnel, and a powerhouse.

The costs of a project of this scale and the obstacles posed by the Skagit River forced City Light to consider a smaller temporary solution at Gorge Creek. When the Forest Service learned of the smaller-scale plans, they objected. Ross sent them the designs for the Diablo Canyon dam with the smaller project tucked inside.

Test borings and surveys revealed the magnitude of the difficulties to be overcome in building along the Skagit, and costs mounted. A railroad was built from Rockport to Gorge Creek, a distance of 25 miles, because Ross, concerned about encroachment into the valley by private power companies, was reluctant to build a road. The construction camp at the mouth of Newhalem Creek grew to a town of 1,000 residents with a school and a church, but it did not have a name. When the city council visited the settlement in the summer of 1921, some college students employed on the project greeted them with a wood plank inscribed, "Welcome to Newhalem."

The name stuck. A small dam was completed on Newhalem Creek and connected by a tunnel to a powerhouse. A small Westinghouse generator was installed and in August 1921, produced power for the construction project, but not for Seattle.

When the railroad reached the Gorge Dam site, work began on a tunnel between the dam and the powerhouse. In the winter of 1921, floods, mud slides, and snow slides delayed construction. In the spring, another gold strike, labor troubles, a forest fire, and a shortage of electricity pushed the schedule back further. Superintendent Ross had estimated in 1919 that the first power would reach Seattle in 18 months, but in 1921 he admitted that it would be two more years before the Gorge Dam produced electricity.

A concrete dam would have been too expensive, so chief engineer Carl Uhden (the city council didn't trust Ross and insisted on an outside expert to run the project) decided on a lower temporary wood structure, to be replaced by a concrete one at a later date. On September 14, 1924, the first electrical power generated from the Skagit River reached Seattle, 100 miles away. On September 17, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) pressed a gold key in the White House and formally started the generators at Gorge Creek. The cost had been $13 million, no bargain, but the fate of the Skagit was sealed. The only questions that remained were how many dams and where to put them.

More Power

From 1924 until the 1940s, the principal obstacle to the Skagit project was not meteorological or geological, but political. Superintendent Ross demonstrated that he was at least as good at managing and dealing with politicians as he was at vision and engineering. In 1927, work began on a dam at Diablo Canyon, five railroad miles up from Gorge Creek. Some members of the city council thought they knew better and proposed a different site. Ross's judgment finally prevailed and when completed in 1930, the Diablo Dam was the tallest in the world at 389 feet. It generated no electricity until 1936, after the dismissal of Ross by the mayor, the recall of the mayor, the reinstatement of Ross, and a great deal of political and financial maneuvering.

Boom Years

In the 1920s, City Light began planning for a dam at the Rip Raps below Ruby Creek. In 1937, construction on a variable arch dam began there with federal funding. The dam was planned in three stages: The first stage was finished in 1940. Superintendent Ross had died the previous year and the dam and lake were named after him. The second and third stages were completed in a single effort that ended in 1953 when the dam reached its final height of 540 feet. By early the following year, all three generators in the powerhouse were producing electricity for Seattle. Ross Lake backed up into British Columbia and City Light agreed to pay $250,000 plus $5,000 a year to flood Canadian land.

City Light wanted to build a fourth dam on the Skagit, but the site at Copper Creek could not be used. City Light elected to replace the wooden weir at Gorge Creek with a concrete combination gravity-arch dam. The new lake flooded the railroad, prompting City Light to pull up the tracks to build the road that J.D. Ross had resisted. Construction required the innovative technique of freezing the Skagit while the riverbed was excavated.

On January 6, 1961, the 300-foot high Gorge Creek High Dam was dedicated. Costs of the entire Skagit River project totaled some $250 million over 50 years.

Come and See

From the 1920s to 1941, the Skagit Project became a popular tourist attraction. City Light accommodated visitors with special facilities, tourist trains and boats, and exotic plants, trees, and animals. By 1942, well over 100,000 people had viewed the Upper Skagit and seen City Light's dream of the future with electricity. World War II and more construction ended the program. Tours were resumed in the 1950s, but not on the scale of earlier years.


In the 1960s, City Light made plans to raise Ross Dam even higher to accommodate Seattle's growth. This would have flooded more of British Columbia and at first, the idea was accepted there. Then Canadians began to object and the controversy stretched into the 1970s and 1980s. On April 2, 1984, the U.S. Government and the Government of Canada signed the Skagit River Treaty, which had been negotiated by officials from Seattle and British Columbia. Under the agreement, City Light would drop plans to raise Ross Dam in exchange for the right to buy electric power from the province.

In 1968, North Cascades National Park was created in two parts, north and south of the City Light development. The area around the lakes became the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. In 1973, the North Cascades Highway was opened allowing auto travel up the Skagit and across the Cascades to Eastern Washington.

But the Skagit was not entirely tamed. In wintertime, snow closes the highway.


Paul C. Pitzer, Building the Skagit: A Century of Upper Skagit Valley History, 1870-1970 (Portland: The Galley Press, 1988); Walt Crowley, Routes: A Brief History of Public Transportation in Metropolitan Seattle (Seattle: Metro, 1993), 13; Rose Anderson, "Ross Dam Treaty Signed: Seattle Gets Power, B.C. Gets Beauty," The Seattle Times, April 3, 1984, p. A-14.

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