A Trip to the Elwha: Part 3, History of the Elwha River Dams

© Jon Sharpe, 2013

(Continued from Part 2 of this series, "A River Restored.")

Port Angeles was a frontier town in 1890 when Thomas Aldwell arrived. Before then, the Klallam people had lived richly in the Elwha watershed for centuries. Their Tse-whit-zen burial site has been carbon dated to 1500 BCE.

Aldwell was a developer who saw the potential for industry in Port Angeles, which was surrounded by forests, everflowing rivers, and a deep harbor. Aldwell decided that Port Angeles needed a paper mill. And a paper mill needed electricity. Aldwell staked a claim on the Elwha River. He began talking up plans to build a dam, signing power purchasers at a steel mill in Port Townsend, the Bremerton Navy Yard, Fort Worden and Fort Flagler. Then he signed up Chicago investors. The resources were vast and excitment was high over the promise of industrial development on the Olympic Peninsula. The river was just waiting to be put to productive use. Aldwell was a local hero.

Construction began on the Elwha Dam, 5 miles from the mouth of the river, in 1910. The dam began to produce electricity in 1914. The reservoir that collected behind the dam and flooded the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe's sacred creation site was named Lake Aldwell.

Although fish ladders had been required on dams in Washington since Washington was a territory, the Elwha Dam never had a fish ladder. The State fish commissioner offered to allow the dam without a fish ladder in exchange for a hatchery; the dam would even serve as an obstruction where fish could be captured for the hatchery. In exchange for being allowed to build the dam, Aldwell agreed to build the hatchery and donate the land to the state. But the hatchery soon failed, the state turned its back on the fish, and Aldwell never turned over the land. In 1919, Aldwell sold the dam to Zellerbach Paper Company and Zellerbach built the Washington Pulp and Paper Company. The paper mill underwent many changes of ownership; today it is owned and operated by Nippon Paper Industries of Japan.

Nippon Paper Industries USA is located on Ediz Hook in Port Angeles. It was the first paper mill in Port Angeles and was powered with electricity from the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams.
The second dam, Glines Canyon Dam, was built 8.6 upriver from the Elwha Dam. This dam was completed in 1927 by Northwestern Power and Light Company, the successor to Aldwell's Olympic Power and Development Company. It was built to power the expanded Zellerbach paper mill. Zellerbach bought the dam in 1937. The reservoir behind Glines Canyon Dam was named Lake Mills.

The Elwha dams were built during the heyday of dam building in Washington. Industrialists were busy developing nature for profit, and the state and public supported their efforts. Ecological impacts and the native people and culture were overlooked. Unbelievably, the Zellerbach mill was built atop Tse-whit-zen, the ancient Klallam village and burial ground at the foot of Ediz Hook. At the height of development, there were 3 paper mills and over a dozen large industrial facilities in Port Angeles. The only industry that remains today is the Nippon mill.

The Zellerbach - now Nippon - paper mill owned both dams from 1937 to 2000, when they were sold to the US Dept of the Interior. Since 1949, the only customer for the electricity the dams produced has been the mill. Until the dams were shut down in 2011, the Elwha River dams had supplied 40% of the mill's electricity. The rest came from the Bonneville Power Administration grid.

Next in Part 4 of this series: The Challenge of the Sediment

Mapes, Lynda. Elwha A River Reborn. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2013.
Museum at the Carnegie, Clallam County Historical Society.

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