Power from the mountains: A tour of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project

Published on Wed, Jul 17, 2013 by Ian Ferguson

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If you’ve never heard of power industrialist J.D. Ross, don’t feel bad – neither had I. This towering historical figure masterminded the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project and was friends with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, yet he doesn’t even 
have a Wikipedia page. After touring the three dams he built in the American Alps on the upper Skagit River, it’s obvious that he should.

Photographer Kat Thorney and I joined a cadre of regional journalists for an all-inclusive media day at the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project on June 20. 

The trip showcased the variety of tours offered by Seattle City Light, the power company that provides 20 percent of Seattle’s electricity from the three dams they operate in the North Cascades (also known as the American Alps).

Our tour began in Newhalem, a Seattle City Light company town. From there we were guided to the uppermost dam at the foot of Ross Lake with lunch provided by the North Cascades Institute (NCI). We also took a boat ride on Diablo Lake and toured various powerhouses and dams along the way. The fascinating history behind the dams, the majesty of the rugged terrain in which they were built and collaboration with the North Cascades National Park and NCI make the tours offered by Seattle City Light a worthwhile way to spend a day in the mountains – even if, like us, you go on a rainy day.

Michael Aronowitz, Christian Martin and Andrew Pringle were our guides for the day. Aronowitz is a senior environmental analyst for Seattle City Light; Martin is NCI’s communications manager and Pringle is a ranger for North Cascades National Park.

Newhalem is one of only a few remaining company towns in America. Most of Newhalem’s several dozen residents are 
employees of Seattle City Light. The Craftsman-era houses of the village are precisely laid out and well maintained, but over the years the number of staff needed to operate the dams has dwindled, so some of the houses sit empty. 

Just upstream from the village is the Gorge Powerhouse, one of three powerhouses along the Skagit River. The river enters a tunnel a mile upstream, which tapers to increase the force of water turning the turbines of the generators inside the neoclassic building.

The backside of the Gorge Powerhouse, completed in 1924, is tucked against a cliff. The shaded mountainside helps cool the building and its generators in an early application of geothermal cooling. Ross came up with the idea, and it’s likely he was behind another cool flash of brilliance that allowed the Gorge tunnel to be dug. 

Engineers needed to temporarily dam the river to dig the tunnel, but all efforts were thwarted because the river kept leaking under whatever was piled on top of it. The riverbed was pure sludge, and bedrock was too far down to seal the dam. To solve the problem, engineers pumped a super-cooled saltwater solution deep into the earth, which froze the leaking river and created an ice dam. That kept the dam frozen long enough to complete the project.

Ross was a genius of marketing as well as engineering. He wanted the project to attract tourism as a means of promotion, so
 he strived to make it as beautiful as possible. He became an amateur botanist, and beautiful gardens still grace the buildings at every turn. He brought in hundreds of exotic animals and installed an electric forest – an illuminated walkway through the trees along Ladder Creek Falls above the Gorge Powerhouse. The path was dappled with colorful lights at night, and popular music entertained tourists, who came to the project by the trainload to witness the wonders of hydroelectric power.

From the Gorge Powerhouse we were vanned up to the Diablo Powerhouse. We toured the loud and impressive generator room and walked along catwalks above the massive generators.

The topography of the North Cascades is extremely steep. The sheer walls of the gorge surrounded us throughout the tour, and the further east we went the narrower and steeper the gorge became. 

For the engineers who built the dams, the topography posed a significant challenge to transporting workers and materials to the upper dams. An unusual rail lift was their solution. Rail cars were uncoupled at the bottom, pulled onto a short track and raised sideways, one-by-one, up a steep slope, then pulled onto another rail and re-coupled at the top. The funicular lift used cables and a heavy counterweight to lift each car. It was still operating as late as 2004, but due to the rarity of the system, replacing worn parts became cost prohibitive. Today, it is no longer used because it was reclassified as an elevator by the Department of Labor and Industries and it doesn’t meet elevator industry standards.

After the Diablo Powerhouse tour, we drove over the top of Diablo Dam, which drops 389 feet to the riverbed below. When the dam was completed in 1930, it was the highest in the world.

At NCI, Martin told us about the institute before treating us to a world-class lunch buffet. NCI is all about environmental sustainability. It offers immersive educational experiences ranging from interpretive weekends for vacationers up to a master’s program in environmental education. 

In keeping with their green ways, the chefs at NCI use only the freshest, locally sourced, environmentally sustainable ingredients and prepare them in the headiest ways. There was a meatloaf on the table with no meat in it that rivaled the beefiest, tastiest meatloaves I’ve ever eaten.

Our stomachs full, we headed to the boathouse and boarded the Cascadia for a ride on Diablo Lake. Our ride took us to the east end of the lake, and from the top of Diablo Dam to the bottom of Ross Dam. 

All three of our guides took turns on the microphone, informing us about everything from the construction of the dams to the 
history of human settlement in the area to the geography, flora and fauna of the North Cascades. 

We passed an island and were told that in the heyday of Diablo Dam tourism, Ross bought a colony of monkeys to inhabit the small island so people could see them on the boat tours. The monkeys were gathered and brought into a house on the lakeshore each night. Along with the electric forest and the magnitude of the construction works going on, they added a fantastical element to the spectacle Ross had created.

As we neared the base of Ross Dam, we entered a narrow gorge with steep cliffs on either side. The winding gorge afforded occasional views to peaks, ridges, valleys, cascades and slides, sometimes reaching dizzying heights before disappearing into the clouds. Then we reached the bottom of Ross Dam, a 540-foot high facade of concrete holding back Ross Lake, which stretches 23 miles north and into Canada.

To me, the most impressive fact of the whole tour is that the dams, although they are approaching a century old, still provide clean, reliable power to millions of homes. 

The whole project is one of the most environmentally sustainable hydroelectric utilities in the country, because it was built high enough in the Skagit watershed that it doesn’t interrupt any migratory fish runs. 

Had it been a clear day, the snow-capped peaks surrounding the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project would have undoubtedly taken center stage, but even in the clouds the spectacle of massive human works among imposing geography created an aura of mystique, and made for a day well spent.