Dam, That’s Nice
By Ian Ferguson
James Delmage (J.D.) Ross was one of those legendary men of genius born in the late 19th century whose ideas would prove world-changing. He successfully engineered the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, which included the tallest dam in the world at the time, but an even larger contribution was his belief that power utilities should be owned by municipalities so they could deliver cheap, reliable power for the public good.
The city of Seattle still owns and operates the utility, called Seattle City Light, and it provides 20 percent of Seattle’s electricity from three dams on the edge of North Cascades National Park. Tours of the three dams afford visitors a unique glimpse into an historical power plant in a beautiful setting. I went on a rainy day last June.
The tours begin in the company town of Newhalem on Highway 20. From there my group was guided to the uppermost dam at the foot of Ross Lake where North Cascades Institute (NCI) provided lunch. We toured various powerhouses and dams along the way and even took a guided boat ride on Diablo Lake. The fascinating history behind the dams, the majesty of the rugged terrain in which they were built and collaboration with the North Cascades National Park and NCI make the tours offered by Seattle City Light a worthwhile way to spend a day in the mountains.
The tours have something for everyone. Mechanically minded people will enjoy learning about the feats of engineering required to build the dams in the steep Skagit River gorges. Naturalists and gardeners can delight in the botanical gardens along the tour and discussion of the old-growth forest ecosystem surrounding Diablo Lake. History buffs will love hearing true stories from the past, including Ross’ whimsical approach to marketing (he imported exotic plants and animals to entice Seattleites to come check it out, and even had released monkeys an island on Diablo Lake). Food lovers will appreciate the gourmet meal provided at NCI, and environmentalists will enjoy learning about the institute’s mission of stewardship.
To me, the most impressive fact of the whole tour is that the dams, although they are approaching a century old, still provide clean, reliable power to hundreds of thousands of residents. The project is one of the most environmentally sustainable hydroelectric utilities in the country, because it was built high enough in the Skagit watershed that it doesn’t interrupt any migratory salmon runs.
Had it been a clear day when I visited, the snow-capped peaks surrounding the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project would have undoubtedly taken center stage, but even in the clouds the spectacle of massive human works among such imposing geography created an aura of mystique.
To see a summer schedule of tours and more information, go to skagittours.com. x