Chapter VIII


The early years of the 20th century saw lively development in the Pacific Northwest. Finding additional hydro-power sources was a priority. Beginning in 1906 the United States Geological Survey, in cooperation with the State of Washington, began a study of Columbia River tributaries that offered the greatest potential. In Southern Washington these streams were the Toutle, Lewis, Little White Salmon, White Salmon and Klickitat.

The study, published in 1910, concluded that the Klickitat River offered the most potential -- with the White Salmon River in second place. Both rivers were special because of their fast fall, swift currents and deeply carved box canyons.

Competition for water rights and dam sites on the Klickitat became so keen that a tangle of lawsuits foiled all the hydro development proposed for that river.

On Jan. 1, 1912, Northwestern Electric Company announced that they would move their project to the White Salmon River. What happened then is most amazing. By May of 1913 the first power was delivered to their primary market -- the Crown Paper Mills in Camas. Before that year was out many other customers were being served in Clark County and lines had been extended into Multnomah and Columbia counties in Oregon.

During that relatively short period the dam, 125 feet high, 80 feet thick at the base and 471 feet wide, had been built. A mile of 13 foot diameter wooden penstock pipe led to a surge tank down the canyon. From there several hundred feet of dual penstock, of lesser dimension, led to the powerhouse. Also completed within that time frame was 48 miles of transmission line to the Camas-Washougal area.

In the early phases of the project about 900 men were on the job. As the project neared completion, about 1600 workmen were involved.

PacifiCorp records reveal some interesting facts about construction of the dam. Since great volumes of cement, steel, machinery and other supplies had to be moved to damsite three and a half miles up the White Salmon, a road was built from Underwood to damsite on the west side of the canyon. A new bridge near the powerhouse site led to a similar road up the east side of the canyon.

A new fangled motor truck proved to be an advantage when the roads were in good condition. One truck could move as much material in a day as could twelve teams of horses. But when the rain and snow made the road too slick, horses were the movers. It is recorded that it took a 16-horse team to move some of the powerhouse equipment up from the freight terminal in Underwood.

Most of the needed supplies came by river steamer to the fine dock and warehouse built at Underwood. Also the still-new North Bank Line of the SP&S Railway proved useful.

An especially unique arrangement was worked out when a rock pit was located on the west bank 400 feet above the damsite. Sand, gravel and rock were chuted down to a lower ledge where the cement mixers were located. Surprisingly, 80 percent of the dam was poured by gravity flow from this site.

During this period all land for the facility and for the reservoir -- Northwestern Lake -- and its shoreline was purchased. Later riparian land between the powerhouse and the Columbia was acquired for possible future use. When completed, Northwestern Electric Company landholdings totaled several thousand acres.

Though waters above the damsite were not considered prime salmon spawning habitat, a fish ladder was installed when the dam was built. The first winter took it out when heavy ice floes crushed the structure. It was renewed and washed out again. An agreement was then reached with the State of Washington to terminate this effort.

A strange follow-up is on record. A 1925 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine had photos and a write-up about a fish elevator installed on the White Salmon River, with Condit Dam obviously in the background. Further records are obscure but PacifiCorp lore relates that the inventor, a University of Washington professor, couldn't get any salmon to enter the man-operated elevator so he hastily transported a few salmon from the Spring Creek Hatchery, put them in the elevator and released them in the lake above. Presto! The questionable invention was declared a success!

There were power developments -- and proposed developments -- in the White Salmon basin both before and after the building of Condit Dam.

In 1908 a small power plant was built at Husum Falls by Henry Thompson to serve the Husum-White Salmon area. The primitive plant, later taken over by Pacific Power and Light Company, is no longer there, but the concrete flume that brought swift waters to its turbines is still visible above Husum Falls. Today's kayakers and river rafters wonder what it might have been.

Condit Dam, built in 1912-13 was named for its chief engineer, C.B. Condit. In 1918 it was linked to the new Powerdale plant on Hood River. Then, in the 1930s, transmission lines built to the Yakima Valley further expanded the power grid.

In 1922 a small power plant was built on Trout Creek by John Pfister. Later coming under the ownership and management of L.E. McCuistion, it served a limited number of customers in the immediate area of Trout Lake and Guler.

In 1928 another and larger plant was built on the White Salmon River by Mr. Pfister, designed to serve a wider range of customers. But it was an ill-fated enterprise. It was destroyed by fire in September 1933 and the reconstruction destroyed by flood in December of that year. The original Trout Creek plant was modified to fill the gap. But widespread service in the valley and other remote sections awaited formation of the Public Utility District.

The Klickitat County Public Utility District No. 1 became a reality as the result of the general election of 1938. By 1941 it was organized to supply power to many sections of the White Salmon River drainage not previously served by existing suppliers.

As it grew in experience and financial strength, the PUD began to explore the possibilities offered them by the White Salmon River. From 1957 to 1982 a series of intensive studies was conducted by recognized engineering firms engaged by the PUD. All studies were made under licensure of the Federal Power Commission with appropriate reports going to that entity.

Having studied nine of these voluminous reports provided by the PUD, I can briefly summarize their exploratory program as follows:

All studies considered such factors as the environment, fisheries and wildlife as well as the specifics of power production. As a seasonal stream whose peak water supply in the spring of the year coincided with the lowest demand period, it was early determined that substantial reservoirs would be needed. The damming of Trout Lake with supplemental water supplied by canal from the Ninefoot area of the White Salmon River was a centerpiece of the project.

Some high dams with substantial reservoirs were originally contemplated. Geologic studies, including core drillings, showed that some of the proposed dam locations, such as at Ninefoot, were impractical. While the base Columbia and Yakima lava flows were sufficiently stable and impermeable, the more recent lava flows from local vents were too unstable and permeable to support the high dams. Hence, a series of lower diversion dams, each supplying a powerhouse downstream, was planned. It would have involved six such dams and powerhouses at various points between the Trout Lake Valley and Underwood. Much of the river would have been paralleled by canals or penstocks carrying the flood from diversion dam to powerhouse. This, combined with the necessary surge tanks and transmission lines, was definitely offensive to the environmental community.

Despite the extensive studies and the planned revisions that made this grand plan feasible, the economics of the power business during that period put the project on hold.


Our Rowdy River has been the subject of a bitter and ongoing controversy for the past decade. It was in the early 1990s that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (the FERC) announced that Condit Dam was subject to relicensing.

Public hearings held during the 90s were well attended and highly controversial. Environmental groups seeking dam removal have had strong opinions. Equally vigorous were the proponents of retaining the dam, Northwestern Lake and the ecosystem that has developed there.

It has been a decade of unprecedented, unrelenting letters to the editor. Too many of them have been laced with more emotion than with fact.

The long awaited FERC decisions are still on hold with yet another hearing for public input having been held as recently as March 13, 2002. In the interim the much-discussed Settlement Agreement of 1991 entered into by PacifiCorp and signatories from the tribes, several governmental agencies and many environmental groups is still in question.

It is understandable that the environmental groups are eager to see dam removal. As one of the first tributary dams subject to relicensing, it would set for them a favorable precedent as other cases arise. Their case has been carried to such an extreme as having the American Rivers group widely publicize the White Salmon as "the most endangered river in America."

Whatever one's position in this controversy, it is agreed that much of the rhetoric has been overdrawn. For example, the environmentalists' case almost invariably ends with the inference that if only that dam can be removed, salmon runs will -- as if by magic -- be resumed in the White Salmon River.

Recall, if you will, that Chapter I of this treatise dealt with the fact that this river was analyzed more than 100 years ago as being very limited for salmon spawning. While a substantial run used the lower river, stream conditions were generally unfavorable. The river's steep gradient, swift waters and scoured out box canyons were extreme limitations. That waterfall at Husum and the two higher ones above, are barriers to the upper river.

Hence, even before Condit Dam was conceived or built, the federal fish biologists recognized the limitations of this river for salmon culture and cleverly transferred the natural run from the lower river to the Spring Creek Federal Hatchery that observed its centennial year in 2001.

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