Switchback trail, Lower Elwha, February 2010
The Elwha River Valley has been undergoing some changes. The lower bridge has been demolished and rebuilt, and the lower and upper dams are scheduled for removal. In the planning stages since 2000 or so, now they’re getting fastracked with the extra $54 million or so of stimulus money for the $308 million (estimated) project. The reasons for the de-reclamation are myriad, but mainly this: the salmon runs that once numbered roughly 400,000 adult returns in 70 miles of available habitat at the turn of the last century now number less than 3,000 adult returns in under 5 miles of available habitat.
The dam was built under the direction of Thomas Aldwell, who had previously bought up most of the land around the river. With the help of Canadian financier George Glines began construction of the Elwha Dam in 1910. Aldwell build the dam on the cheap, not building fish passages and also deciding not secure it to the bedrock. On Halloween 1912 the foundation of the dam failed. The dam had been bedded on a deep gravel deposit and water pressure overwhelmed the the foundation, the resulting torrent destroying property and displacing yet again an often-imposed-upon settlement of the Elwha (Klallam) tribe. Various methods of repair were attempted but it was finally decided to fill the hole with debris and seal the fill with a poultice made of fir boughs and limbings weighted in place with dirt and rock. Later a layer of gunnite was poured on top of the fill. What resulted, and what still exists today, is a jimmyrigged assembly of trees, rocks, dirt and concrete held in place by gravity and the original concrete structure which bridges the blowout.
Although state law required fish ladders at the time the dam was built, Aldwell sidestepped the regulation by building a hatchery instead. The hatchery was short-lived, closing in 1922 after only a few years. (Another hatchery did open up much later, but under the auspices of the WDFW. ) The dam is keeping salmon from a combined 70 miles of mainstem and tributary habitat. At its peak, the Elwha once supported spawning runs of Chinook, Coho, Chum, Pink, and Sockeye Salmon as well as Steelhead, Cutthroat, and Bull Trout. Sockeye, Chinook, Chum, and Pink Salmon are all currently thought to be extinct or close to extinction on this run.
Despite the spectacularly disastrous and compunctionless supervision of Aldwell, the lake behind the lower dam was named for him anyway, most likely by himself personally. But this too will soon pass.