PORT ANGELES — The new Elwha River Exhibit at the Elwha Klallam Heritage Center was 100 years in the making, said Frances Charles, Lower Elwha Klallam tribe chairwoman, on Thursday during a grand opening ceremony.
About 30 people attended the grand opening of the exhibit, located at 401 E. First St.
The exhibit, open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, is free to the public, although donations are welcome, said Suzie Bennett, Elwha Klallam Heritage Center manager.
While viewing artifacts and learning about the heritage of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, attendees were serenaded by traditional songs by the Elwha Drum Group.
The exhibit explores the history of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams, which were removed beginning in 2012 to restore the river to its wild state in accordance with the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act. It includes art, photographs, videos, time lines and interactive stations.
The Elwha Dam, built in 1913, and the Glines Canyon Dam, which was completed in 1926, both were built without fish ladders and blocked the river’s legendary salmon runs for a century.
The work of many tribal elders helped lead to the removal of the dams, Charles said, and the exhibit celebrates their dedication.
“To me, we are following in their footsteps,” she said.
“They were the ones that started this path for us and we are fortunate enough to be the ones that are standing here before you today acknowledging the hard work that has been accomplished.”
The exhibit “is made to show what happened on the Elwha restoration — actually from before the dams went in, to when they were taken out,” said Robert Elofson, Elwha River Restoration project director, during the ceremony.
For millennia, the Elwha River ran wild — connecting mountains and seas in a thriving ecosystem. The river proved to be an ideal habitat for anadromous fish, with 11 varieties of salmon and trout spawning in its waters.
For thousands of years, fish thrived in the river and provided food for the Lower Elwha Klallam, who lived along its banks.
In the early 1900s, the Olympic Power and Development Co., led by Thomas Aldwell, sought to harness the Elwha River for its power-generating capacity, according to www.elwha.org.
In 1910, the company began construction of the Elwha Dam — a project that would dramatically alter the Elwha watershed.
In 1912, as the reservoir filled behind the nearly completed Elwha Dam, the lower sections of the dam gave way and a torrent of water headed downstream, covering areas of the Lower Elwha Reservation in 5 feet of water, Elofson said.
Aldwell was able to get funding for reconstructing the dam. When completed in 1913, it was 108 feet tall. The reservoir that filled the valley behind it was known as Lake Aldwell.
Another river barrier, the 210-foot-high Glines Canyon Dam, opened in 1926. It created Lake Mills. The dam was built privately to generate electricity for industries on the Olympic Peninsula, including lumber and paper mills in Port Angeles, Elofson said.
The dams blocked fish passage and prevented anadromous fish from accessing about 81 miles of habitat. Until September of 2011, salmon and steelhead had access only to the 5 miles of habitat below the Elwha Dam, with these diminished stocks primarily maintained through hatchery production, according to www.elwha.org.
“My grandfather was 19 when the dams were built, and I know he got to fish the last of the great runs in the Elwha,” Elofson said.
“I am just hoping I live long enough to start fishing some of those big runs again.”
That might now be possible, he said.
“We’ve had over 4,000 chinook come back over the last three years, and we hadn’t had runs like that since 1992,” Elofson said.
“Every species of salmon used to go and wait below the dams and try to get by the dams, so we know they want to go upstream.”
Bennett encourages the public to visit the new exhibit.
“There is so much information,” she said.
And the exhibit is family-friendly, she continued.
“One thing that we really tried to include in creating this exhibit was interactive stations for kids,” Bennett said.
Features Editor Chris McDaniel can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56650, or at email@example.com.