Ceremony marks start of demolition of Elwha River hydroelectric dams on September 17, 2011.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 2/10/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11011

On September 17, 2011, Governor Chris Gregoire (b. 1947), many more state and federal officials, Lower Elwha Klallam tribal leaders, conservationists, and other dignitaries attend a ceremony on an Elwha River bluff to celebrate the beginning of dam removal on the river. The takedown of the 108-foot-high Elwha Dam and 210-foot-tall Glines Canyon Dam is the largest dam removal in the history of North America. The hydroelectric dams helped power the industrial development of Port Angeles but, built without fish passage, blocked salmon and other anadromous (ocean-going) fish from most of the Elwha River watershed, which since 1940 has been part of Olympic National Park. It has taken more than three decades since the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, soon joined by environmental groups, first called for removing the dams to win approval and then funding for the massive river-restoration project. Actually demolishing the dams is quicker: Elwha Dam will disappear within six months and removal of Glines Canyon Dam will be completed in September 2014. As demolition proceeds the river ecosystem, aided by a major habitat-restoration effort, will begin recovering rapidly, with increasing numbers of salmon appearing above each former dam as soon as it is gone.

An Earlier Ceremony

The celebration of dam removal mirrored an earlier ceremony: On February 12, 1914, Governor Ernest Lister (1870-1919) and other dignitaries from around the state attended a banquet and grand ball to celebrate the beginning of electric power service from the same Elwha River dam whose demolition their successors would applaud a little less than a century later. The power from the Elwha Dam, built by Port Angeles developer Thomas T. Aldwell (1868-1954) in a canyon five miles above the river's mouth, spurred the industrial development of Port Angeles, where the Olympic Peninsula's first pulp mills were soon constructed.

The Zellerbach family built one of the major mills, operated initially as Washington Pulp and Paper and later for many years as Crown Zellerbach. In 1919 Washington Pulp and Paper purchased the Elwha hydroelectric plant from Aldwell and his partners. Beginning in 1926 a second hydroelectric project was constructed on the Elwha at Glines Canyon, about eight miles upstream from the first dam. As required by a new federal law, Glines Canyon Dam received a 50-year license.

While the Elwha dams provided Port Angeles industries with power, they devastated the river's massive runs of salmon and steelhead, which had fed the region's inhabitants for millennia. Despite regulations requiring fish passage, the Elwha Dam, like others of its era, was constructed without a fish ladder, and blocked anadromous fish from more than 70 miles of the river. A fish hatchery was constructed as a substitute but proved unsuccessful and was abandoned.

In 1940, two years after Olympic National Park was created, the area around Glines Canyon Dam and Lake Mills, the reservoir formed by the dam, became part of the park. The Elwha Dam and its reservoir, Lake Aldwell, remained outside, but more than 80 percent of the 321-square-mile Elwha watershed was protected within the park. This, and the involvement of park officials, would play a significant role in the ultimate decision to remove the dams.

Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe

It was, however, the people most directly impacted by the dams' changes to the river and the region -- the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe -- who first proposed the seemingly outlandish idea of taking out the dams. Not only did the dams devastate the fish runs on which they had depended for generations, but also mills powered by the dams were built right on top of the tribe's ancestral village of Tse-whit-zen at the base of Ediz Hook, the long sand spit that forms Port Angeles's harbor. Tribal members attempted to continue living on the exposed spit through the 1930s, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs acquired land for the tribe near the mouth of the Elwha River.

A generation later, in 1968, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe was formally recognized by the federal government, and that land became the tribe's reservation. Like other Northwest tribes in the 1960s and 1970s, the Lower Elwha Klallam worked to reclaim fishing rights guaranteed in treaties from the 1800s, which had been largely ignored for a century. On the Elwha River, treaty rights meant little as fish numbers continued to drop because of the dams' impact. A fish hatchery built by the tribe, along with a rearing channel constructed by the state, halted the decline enough for the tribe to resume a tribal fishery in the 1970s, but with the dams in place, there was little chance to restore healthy fish runs.

It was not just fish restoration but also, even more importantly, safety that led the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe to propose, in November 1979, that the Elwha dams be removed. With its reservation sitting at the river mouth five miles below the massive reservoir held back by the Elwha Dam, the tribe was at risk if an earthquake damaged the dam. In January 1986 the tribe made its request for removal formal, moving to intervene in the dam-licensing proceedings then pending before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Later that year, four environmental groups -- Seattle Audubon Society, Friends of the Earth, Olympic Park Associates, and the Sierra Club -- also asked to do so and the tribe, the environmental groups, and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) were all permitted to intervene.

Getting to Removal

The involvement of the tribe, environmental groups, and NMFS reflected huge changes in society, not only since the dams were built a half-century before, but even since 1968, when Crown Zellerbach applied for a license for the Elwha Dam, and 1973, when it began the relicensing process for the Glines Canyon Dam. Not only were Indian tribes asserting, and beginning to achieve, long-ignored rights, but also the rise of the environmental movement had wrought major changes in how both the public and policy makers viewed projects that affected the environment. These changes in attitude produced laws and regulations requiring consideration of environmental impacts -- and public input -- in decisions like the dam relicensing. Evolving views on the environment also influenced how the National Park Service managed parks. By the 1980s Olympic National Park officials were looking at ways to restore habitat and species that had existed in the Elwha watershed before the dams were built.

Park officials were not then proposing dam removal, and indeed the idea of taking down the dams was hugely unpopular in Port Angeles and the surrounding area. City residents and officials feared that losing inexpensive power from the dams would lead to closure of the pulp mill, the city's largest employer and, since the 1940s when the city connected to the Bonneville Power Administration grid, the sole user of Elwha hydropower. There were also concerns that dam removal would disrupt the city's water supply, which it drew from the Elwha.

Late in 1986, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and the National Marine Fisheries Service, along with the Park Service and state and federal fish and wildlife agencies, jointly asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to require studies of all means of river restoration, including possible dam removal. FERC initially declined, but in 1989, Democratic U.S. Representative Al Swift (1935-2018), whose Second District then included the Olympic Peninsula, threw his weight behind calls for a study to include dam removal, although like most of his constituents he then continued to oppose removal.

Swift's position and that of park officials would soon change. Not only did scientific studies show that dam removal provided the best chance of restoring salmon runs, but the National Park Service, congressional leaders, and others came to recognize that a "unique combination of players and circumstances" could make removing the Elwha dams feasible (Sadin and Vogel, 192). With the vast majority of the Elwha watershed inside the park, restored fish runs would be ensured ongoing protection. In addition there was the Lower Elwha Klallam reservation at the mouth of the river and the tribe's treaty right to a fishery on the river. Olympic National Park officials saw, in the words of park superintendent Maureen Finnerty "the opportunity to restore a significant ecosystem in a major national park and that had never been done" (Sadin and Vogel, 193).

By the early 1990s, government agencies and many of the state's members of Congress had joined with environmental and recreational-fishing groups and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe to support removing the dams. Not only was this powerful coalition now pushing for removal, but even the companies that owned the dams and mill were willing to consider the option. Crown Zellerbach had sold the pulp mill and the two dams to the James River Corporation in 1985, and James River took over the dam-relicensing process. Three years later Daishowa America bought the pulp mill and began modernizing it, but James River, by now enmeshed in the contested relicensing, retained ownership of the dams. For both companies, the primary goal was keeping the mill operating, and they were willing to consider giving up the dams as long as the mill's needs were provided for.

Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act

In April 1992, Washington Democratic Senator Brock Adams (1927-2004), who with his staff had worked tirelessly for dam removal since shortly after his 1986 election, introduced a bill providing federal funding for restoring the Elwha River and authorizing (but not requiring) removal of the dams as part of the restoration. Speaking in Port Angeles at the 2011 events marking dam removal, former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley (b. 1943) of New Jersey said of his late colleague, "For months in the late 1980s and early 1990s, every time I saw Brock on the floor, in a hallway, or at a hearing, he bent my ear about the Elwha. His spirit is here; he is a major reason this day has come" ("Former Senator Bill Bradley's Remarks ..."). The ear-bending worked: Bradley co-sponsored the bill in the Senate. Al Smith introduced the Elwha bill in the House of Representatives.

Not long after Adams introduced the bill, members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, including tribal chair Carla Elofson and elder Beatrice "Bea" Charles (1919-2009) traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify in favor of the legislation. Along with her aunt Adeline Smith (1918-2013), Bea Charles had been a leading advocate of dam removal for years, and her powerful testimony about the dam's impact on her people helped build support.

Private negotiations between congressional staff and the parties affected by the dams and their potential removal -- the tribe, the City of Port Angeles, the companies, environmental groups, and government agencies -- shaped the final legislation. A provision calling for the Bonneville Power Administration to provide power to the Daishowa mill at a cost similar to what it would be if the dams remained led the company to deem the bill a fair solution. Few if any Port Angeles leaders actively supported removal, but the bill's supporters attempted to address city concerns over water supply and over a provision in early drafts that would have transferred some federal property on Ediz Hook to the tribe, working out a compromise between city and tribe on that issue.

The Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act was finalized in September 1992. It had strong support in both houses of Congress, but it took a last-minute confrontation between Al Swift and powerful Michigan Representative John Dingell, chair of the House Energy Committee, before Dingell would allow the bill to pass. Once it did, President George H. W. Bush (1924-2018) signed it into law on October 24, 1992.

Opposition and Support

Passage of the act was far from the end for the dams. If anything, its enactment spurred greater opposition to dam removal on the Olympic Peninsula. Although the law addressed both of city officials' primary concerns -- ensuring continued inexpensive power for the mill and a water supply for the city -- many area residents resented what they saw as outside interference, objected to the loss of the two lakes behind the dams, and doubted that removing the dams would restore salmon runs.

Opponents had a key ally in the state's Republican U.S. Senator Slade Gorton (b. 1928). When Republicans took control of both houses of Congress following the 1994 election, Gorton became chair of the Senate appropriations committee and was able to use his position to block funding for the Elwha project. Nevertheless, the Department of the Interior negotiated the purchase of the dams, which was completed in 2000. Later that year, Gorton lost his Senate seat, but it would be another decade before federal funding for the project was obtained.

Other members of the state's congressional delegation worked for years to keep the project alive. Representative Norm Dicks (b. 1940), who had supported the original legislation and after 1992 represented the affected area (redistricting shifted the Olympic Peninsula from the Second District to the Sixth), and Patty Murray (b. 1950), who was elected to succeed Adams in the Senate just weeks after the legislation passed, both fought for funding. Dicks also played a central role in hammering out a key agreement between the affected parties. In his 2011 speech, Bill Bradley noted that Dicks "guided the settlement through years of post-enactment negotiations," adding "Norm Dicks is the Elwha settlement's hero. He made the law work" ("Former Senator Bill Bradley's Remarks ...").

Fish Hatchery and Water Treatment

The agreement, signed in August 2004 by the National Park Service, City of Port Angeles, and Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, with Dicks in attendance, identified components of the project, including protecting water supply and restoring fish habitat, that each was responsible for. It envisioned federal funding for a new city water system to handle the huge quantity of sediment trapped behind the dams that would be released during takedown, which would be carried out gradually for that reason, and a fish hatchery, sewer system, and flood protection for the tribe's reservation.

When the agreement was signed, removal was expected to begin in 2008, but rising cost estimates pushed the projected demolition-start date all the way to 2012. However in April 2009 a grant of stimulus funds from President Barack Obama's (b. 1961) American Recovery and Reinvestment Act made it possible to move that date up to 2011. With stimulus money in hand, the National Park Service began awarding contracts for the various components of the project.

One of those components, a $16 million fish hatchery for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, proved surprisingly controversial. The tribe, which had been waiting decades for restoration of Elwha salmon runs, planned to use the hatchery to supplement the slow process of natural fish runs returning to the undammed river. However, some environmentalists -- although allied with the tribe in the effort to remove the dams -- condemned the hatchery, arguing that hatchery fish would make it harder for natural runs to re-establish themselves. A lawsuit against the hatchery was dismissed, but the tribe did stop stocking the river with nonnative steelhead -- the most-contested part of its original plan -- while continuing to rear native salmon.

By far the most expensive portion of the entire removal and restoration project was a series of water facilities, including an intake and a water-treatment plant. The treatment plant, which by itself initially cost $48 million, more than budgeted for either habitat restoration ($27 million) or actual dam removal ($35 million), was designed to clear out the high levels of sediment that would follow dam removal and supply useable water to the tribal hatchery, a new Port Angeles municipal water plant (also paid for by the federal government), and industrial users, including Nippon Paper Industries USA, which had succeeded to ownership of the pulp mill upon merging with Daishowa America in 2003.

Time to Celebrate

On June 1, 2011, the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams were disconnected from the power grid and their turbines were shut down for the last time. Soon thereafter, the reservoirs behind both dams began being lowered. Demolition finally began on September 15, 2011, when the hydraulic hammer of an excavator mounted on a barge began chipping away the top of Glines Canyon Dam.

Two days later, on Saturday, September 17, tribal members, state and federal officials, activists, and other dignitaries, many of whom had worked years to bring the event about, gathered on a river bluff just upstream of the Elwha Dam to celebrate the long-awaited start of dam removal. Many Lower Elwha Klallam, ranging from small children to 93-year-old Adeline Smith, a longtime voice for restoring the Elwha, were present for the occasion. Elder Ben Charles Sr. opened the ceremony with a prayer. Tribal chair Frances Charles was joined on stage by Governor Chris Gregoire, U.S. Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell (b. 1958), Representative Norm Dicks, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, and many more.

Even the salmon were present. Smith and others watched adult fall chinook salmon swimming in a pool just below the dam. Ever since the dam was built, returning salmon had gathered annually, in ever-declining numbers, at its concrete base, striving futilely to reach the upper river where their ancestors had spawned. But with removal finally a reality, the blockaded chinook could be seen in a different light, "as if," a reporter wrote, they too were "gathering for the celebration of the work undertaken to restore their home" (Mapes, "With an Excavator ...").


Interior Secretary Salazar formally initiated the dam demolition, directing the operator of an excavator, its bucket spray-painted gold for the occasion, to start taking the dam out. The gold bucket began smashing away at the dam, but those blows were just ceremonial. The real work of removing the Elwha Dam began two days later on Monday, September 19.

Demolition of the smaller Elwha Dam went smoothly and was completed ahead of schedule in March 2012. Dismantling the larger Glines Canyon Dam or, more specifically, dealing with the massive quantities of sediment stored behind it, was more complicated. Studies had significantly underestimated amount of sediment behind the dam (due in part to a 1917 mapping error) and the new water-treatment plant built specifically to deal with the sediment proved unable to handle even quantities it had been designed to take care of. Demolition work -- which could only take place in limited windows between fish runs -- was halted for a year.

After new, more powerful pumps were installed at the treatment plant, demolishing Glines Canyon Dam resumed on October 5, 2013. The final 30 feet of the dam was blasted out on August 26, 2014, and when the rubble had been cleared from the channel a month later, dam removal was complete.

River Restoration

Long before that, restoration -- both natural and human-aided -- was underway all along the river, particularly on those stretches that had been submerged beneath the now rapidly disappearing reservoirs. As the dams came down, hundreds of acres of newly uncovered land were planted with a wide variety of native grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees. Not all the plantings were successful, but within two or three years large swaths of former lake beds were thick with native vegetation, some already more than six feet tall.

The liberated river did much of the work itself, creating new gravel bars, pools, and log jams, and carrying sediment down to its mouth, where a broad deep sandy beach developed. And the salmon responded as soon as the dams were out of their way. In 2012, the first year in more than a century that they could spawn there, nearly 300 chinook redds (nests) were spotted in the riverbed above the former site of Elwha Dam. The following year, even with the remains of Glines Canyon Dam still blocking the river at mile 13, observers counted 4,200 returning chinook, the most in two decades. And within weeks of the final demolition blast at Glines Canyon in August 2014, the first chinook were seen above that site.

The return of the salmon runs affected the entire ecosystem because the adult fish, which die after spawning, bring nutrients from the ocean into the watershed. Insects and birds, and otters, bears, cougars, and other mammals, all quickly took advantage, feasting on salmon carcasses, and eggs, long absent from the Elwha watershed. Scientists expressed surprise at how quickly the recovery progressed. In the summer of 2014, a researcher studying dippers, one of the river's bird species, told a reporter:

"I am not saying the Elwha is fully recovered. But it is so mind blowing to me, the numbers of fish, and seeing the birds respond immediately to the salmon being there. It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up" (Mapes, "Elwha Runs Free").


Lynda V. Mapes, "With an Excavator and a Prayer, Elwha Dam Removal Begins," The Seattle Times, September 17, 2011 (http://seattletimes.com/); Mapes, "Biologists Track Fish Recovery in Tough Conditions on Elwha River," Ibid., July 27, 2014; Mapes, "Elwha River Hatchery to Hurt Recovery, Critics Say," Ibid., August 24, 2011; Warren Cornwall, "Stimulus Money Will Speed Elwha Dam Removal," Ibid., April 22, 2009; Jim Downing, "Elwha Dam Removal Gets Final Go-ahead," Ibid., August 06, 2004; Beth Kaiman, "Chinook Spotted in Upper Reaches of Elwha River," The Seattle Times The Today File, September 13, 2014 (http://blogs.seattletimes.com/today/); "Timeline: An Elwha River Chronology (1790-2011)," The Seattle Times Special Reports website accessed January 28, 2013 (http://seattletimes.com/flatpages/specialreports/elwha/elwhadamstimeline.html); Lynda V. Mapes, "Elwha: The Grand Experiment to Tear Down Two Dams and Return an Olympic Wilderness to Its Former Glory," The Seattle Times, September 18, 2011, pp. H1-H8; Mapes, "First Step in Giant Dams' Removal," Ibid., September 19, 2010, p. A-1; Mapes, "An Era of Power Ends on the Elwha," Ibid., June 2, 2011, p. A-1; Mapes, "Elwha Dams' Historic Removal Begins -- Glines Canyon Dam Demolition Starts," Ibid., September 16, 2011, p. B-1; Mapes, "Elwha Dam-removal Project Held Back as Silt Estimate Too Low," Ibid., January 3, 2013, p. B-1; Mapes, "Feds Drop Suit Against Elwha Hatchery; Tribe Drops Fish Plan," Ibid., February 18, 2013, p. B-1; Mapes, "Water-treatment-plant Woes Holding Up Elwha Dam Removal," Ibid., April 21, 2013, p. B-1; Dominic Gates, "Elwha Dam Teardown Resumes With a Bang," Ibid., October 6, 2013, p. B-1; Mapes, "Elwha Runs Free," Ibid., August 17, 2014, p. A-1; Paul Sadin and Dawn Vogel, An Interpretive History of the Elwha River Valley and the Legacy of Hydropower on Washington's Olympic Peninsula (Port Angeles: National Park Service, 2011), copy available at Olympic National Park website accessed September 3, 2014 (http://www.nps.gov/olym/naturescience/upload/Final-Draft_20110118.pdf); "Elwha River Restoration Blog," Olympic National Park website accessed February 2, 2015 (http://www.nps.gov/olym/naturescience/damremovalblog.htm); "Former Senator Bill Bradley's Remarks on the Demolition of Two Elwha River Dams," Indian Country Today website accessed September 3, 2014 (http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2011/09/27/former-senator-bill-bradleys-remarks-demolition-two-elwha-river-dams-55848); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Ceremony in Port Angeles marks arrival of electricity from Elwha River hydroelectric project on February 12, 1914" (by Kit Oldham), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 9, 2015).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You