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

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 12/29/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7590
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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, arranging 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 September 2011. Elwha Dam will be gone by March 2012 and Glines Canyon Dam by September 2014.

Thomas T. Aldwell

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.

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 Olympic Peninsula; and Michael Earles (d. 1919), a major peninsula timber baron and mill builder.

Building the Dam

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 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 start 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. Many celebrants from Puget Sound, and some from Port Townsend, traveled to Port Angeles by steamboat, then still the region's primary means of transportation, but in another sign of changing times, a Port Townsend newspaper reported that "a number of others made the trip by automobile" ("Many Visited Angeles").

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 Olympic Peninsula's major salmon and steelhead fisheries. Elwha fall chinook, or king salmon, some reaching more than 100 pounds in size, were legendary as the largest of all Pacific salmon.

Although the state fish commissioner stressed the need to provide passage for fish, the Elwha dam, like others of its era, was built 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 river's mouth, the Elwha 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.

Powering the Peninsula

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.

Within a few years, the Washington Pulp and Paper mill needed more power than the original hydroelectric plant could supply. In 1922, an annex built onto the Elwha Dam's power plant nearly doubled its capacity, but this was not enough. By 1924 Aldwell, still involved with the company running the hydroelectric project for Washington Pulp and Paper, and other officials were looking for a site for a second dam. They found it at Glines Canyon, a deep narrow ravine slightly more than eight river miles above the Elwha Dam, where the power company already owned much of the land, thanks to Aldwell's acquisitions years earlier. The canyon's nearly perpendicular 200-feet-high walls allowed construction of a much higher dam than the first one.

Since that first dam had been constructed, the federal government required all newly built dams to obtain a license from the Federal Power Commission. The commission issued a 50-year license for the Glines Canyon Dam in 1926, the year that construction began. Work was completed, and the dam began generating power, in 1927, allowing the pulp mill to expand operations. The following year Washington Pulp and Paper became part of Crown Zellerbach, the name under which the company, which soon succeeded to ownership of the power plants and license, would operate for the next half-century.

The pulp mills powered by the Elwha dams helped Port Angeles survive the Great Depression, during which two timber mills closed. As population and industry expanded during World War II, electricity from the Elwha was no longer sufficient to supply all the city's residents and mills. Clallam County Public Utility District No. 1 was formed in 1940; it took over the facilities that Puget Sound Power and Light had operated in the county, and then in 1949 began purchasing electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), which supplied much of the Northwest with power from its massive Columbia River hydroelectric project. By the end of the decade, all the power from the two Elwha dams was going to the Crown Zellerbach pulp mill (which also relied on BPA power for about half its needs).

Removing the Dam

Expiration of the original Glines Canyon Dam license touched off a lengthy debate over the future of both dams. By the 1980s, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and a number of environmental groups 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. In a mirror image of the prior ceremony, on September 17, 2011, Governor Chris Gregoire (b. 1947), many more state and federal officials, Lower Elwha Klallam tribal leaders, conservationists, and other dignitaries attended a ceremony to celebrate the start of demolishing the dams whose first electricity their predecessors had cheered less than a century earlier.

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 were clogging new water-treatment facilities built downstream to 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 Glines Canyon Dam in October 2013, and its removal was completed the next September.

Sources: "Many Visited Angeles: Sol Duc Carried a Large Number from Up-Sound," Port Townsend Weekly Leader, February 19, 1914; "Elwha Power Reaches City," Ibid., December 18, 1913; 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; "Chinook Salmon," Olympic National Park website accessed February 10, 2015 (http://www.nps.gov/olym/naturescience/chinook-salmon.htm); Paul Sadin and Dawn Vogel, An Interpretive History of the Elwha River Valley and the Legacy of Hydropower on Washington's Olympic Peninsula (Port Angeles: National Park Service, 2011), copy available at Olympic National Park website accessed September 3, 2014 (http://www.nps.gov/olym/naturescience/upload/Final-Draft_20110118.pdf); "Elwha River Restoration Blog," Olympic National Park website accessed February 2, 2015 (http://www.nps.gov/olym/naturescience/damremovalblog.htm); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Ceremony marks start of demolition of Elwha River hydroelectric dams on September 17, 2011" (by Kit Oldham), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 10, 2015) .
Note: This essay was updated on February 7, 2012, February 6, 2014, and February 10, 2015.

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