The Elwha Dams, Part I (historical series) — Aldwell stakes a claim to build ‘opportunity’

  • Sunday, September 11, 2011 2:35am
  • News

EDITOR’S NOTE: The work to remove the two Elwha River dams begins this week, with special events planned from Tuesday through Saturday to commemorate the beginning of the river restoration project.

Port Angeles writer and historian John Kendall has researched the history of the dams. Beginning today, the Peninsula Daily News begins a seven-part look-back on the dams, their role in North Olympic Peninsula development and their legacy as they come down.


For Peninsula Daily News

During 1890, a 22-year-old Canadian arrived in Port Angeles.

It was, as he later described in his autobiography, “a wild frontier town. If I was looking for undeveloped country, I’d certainly found it; saloons, of course, 16 of them . . . and about 1,300 people.

“No opportunities seemed to present themselves automatically. . . . If there were to be opportunities for me, I’d have to make them.”

So Thomas Theobald Aldwell created opportunity as he worked many jobs — cigar store, insurance broker, newspaper editor, county auditor, deputy customs collector — and acquired real estate, including $300 for a claim on a river bottom of the Elwha River.

In 1894, he and a partner agreed to “buy the three miles above the canyon [his earlier purchase] necessary for flooding when the power was developed.

“To acquire this took 12 years,” Aldwell wrote.

“I accomplished it without anyone’s knowing the reason for securing the land.”

In Aldwell’s telling, he and a partner envisioned a pulp mill, which would need electric power.

“We looked at the canyon,” he wrote. “Suddenly the Elwha was no longer a stream crashing down to the Strait [of Juan de Fuca]; the Elwha was peace and power and civilization.”

The resulting dam — and later the Glines Canyon Dam upriver — generated power to mills and other industries, which generated jobs for generations across the North Olympic Peninsula.

By the 1960s, shifting attitudes regarding use of national park land, the environment, fisheries and tribal rights along with new approaches to electrical generation and transmission eventually led to a new owner of the dams — the U.S. government, which bought them to tear them down.

Aldwell built his dam without federal money, and now federal money will raze that dam and the second one.

Aldwell died in 1954, well before any serious talk of his dam’s demise. Ever the entrepreneur and civic booster, such talk probably would have confused him.

After his arrival in Port Angeles, he climbed a bluff overlooking the harbor.

“In my mind’s eye,” he wrote, “I saw that harbor rimmed with vital industry with payrolls expanding. . . .

“The raw material was here; raw material that called for the minds and hands of builders who would think of this as a home to make for their children and their great-grandchildren. I felt I had met a challenge to help build a happy and prosperous community and I decided to accept it.”

He saw the potential but lacked the capital.

To persuade investors, he needed commitments to buy the power from his dam, so the Olympic Power and Development Co. was formed.

Its board of directors included R.D. Merrill, then principal owner of Merrill & Ring, and Michael Earles, a timber baron who later owned the “Big Mill” in Port Angeles.

He acquired commitments from the city of Port Angeles, Citizens Electric Co. of Port Townsend, Army Forts Worden and Flagler and the Bremerton Navy Yard.

During June 1910, Aldwell and partner George Glines — described by Aldwell as “a wealthy real estate operator from Winnipeg, Canada” — picked a firm in Chicago to make their pitch.

Glines made the proposal without Aldwell.

“That decision was almost fatal,” Aldwell wrote.

When Aldwell returned, he knew Glines’ pitch had struck out.

Aldwell asked to make his proposal.

Initially rebuffed, he wrote, “I wish you’d let me show you some of the pictures anyway. Eventually everyone is going to be interested in the Olympic Peninsula, and I want you to see what it’s like.”

The financier “consented reluctantly. . . . I had views of the canyon, the Elwha River, Lake Crescent and Lake Sutherland. Who could resist them?”

While he “looked at the pictures, I could see the magnificence of the country growing on him. . . . Almost before he knew it, [he] had pulled out his desk slide and was talking about loaning money.”

What had drawn visitors to the North Olympic Peninsula over the years — scenic photos — had clinched the area’s key investment.

The Olympic Power Co. was capitalized with $2 million. The financiers required that their engineering firm supervise construction.

From the start, to Aldwell the dam engineers were damned engineers, and his autobiography reflected his doubts:

“I’ve said many times since the dam was completed that never again would I be connected with any enterprise where I had responsibility without control.”

Delays meant customers were not getting power, so the bonds were not being paid off. If the dam was done in 1912, Aldwell wrote, it would have produced $54,000 income.

Aldwell’s correspondence to the financiers warning of the problems went unheeded.

On April 18, 1912 — almost two years since ground-breaking — Aldwell sent a report “regarding extra costs, incomplete machinery, lack of capable management and doubt as to the foundation of the dam.”

By July, pressure had worked. The financiers agreed to oust the engineers.

But pressure would build elsewhere.

The site of the dam was a deep, narrow-V-shaped canyon.

Engineers built a bridge above the future dam, then buckets of wet concrete were dropped between forms.

For whatever reason, “they never excavated to the very bottom” of the canyon’s V, said Orville Campbell, resident engineer for Crown Zellerbach Corp. from 1973 to 1988.

So fill was sitting under the bottom of the dam.

On Oct. 18, when the closed gates of the dam stopped water flowing down the river, pressure built up behind the dam. Then, on Oct. 31, the fill blew out.

To the Elwha Klallam tribe downstream, it was known as “the time there were salmon in the trees.”

To Aldwell, “Two years work destroyed in an afternoon!”

On Monday: The Elwha Dam is rebuilt and generates electricity, which Thomas Aldwell must sell.

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