We often celebrate structures as they go up. Once in awhile we celebrate a structure that comes down.
The Elwha River forms high up in the Olympic National Park of Washington State, about 8,000 feet above sea level and fed by glaciers. It’s not really that long–about 60 to 70 miles, but it runs deep and fast and icy cold before rushing into the waters of the Salish Sea.
Protected by national park boundaries and the remote path it takes, it is clear and clean. The river was once a prime spawning area of five species of salmon–coho, chinook, chum, sockeye and pink. Steelhead trout, sturgeon and smelt also traveled up it to spawn.
Before Europeans settled here, the river fed every aspect of the Lower Elwha Klallam people’s lives for thousands of years–their food, trade, arts, healing, and worship. They hunted in the rich watershed. Some of the elders described their fond memories of the river being “black” with salmon. They even believed that people were created at a sacred place upriver. At least 13 villages were located up and down its length and at its mouth.
European explorers flowed in during the late 1700’s and throughout the 1800’s, delivering smallpox, measles and influenza. The diseases decimated the Native populations and paved the way for settlers’ land claims.
And then Thomas Aldwell showed up on the Olympic Peninsula in 1890. In his autobiography he described his passion, “There is something about belonging to a place. You want to control more and more of it, directly or indirectly….land was something one could work with, change, and develop.”
His autobiography barely mentions the Natives of the area. He was much more impressed with the Elwha River which emptied into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, close to Port Angeles. He started secretly buying land up along the river with a business partner over the next 12 years. His dream?
“The property on the Elwha River always fascinated me, but it was not until I saw it as a source of electric power for Port Angeles and the whole Olympic Peninsula that it magnetized all my energies….Suddenly the Elwha was no longer a wild stream crashing down to the Strait, the Elwha was peace, power and civilization.”
He built the first dam on the Elwha River in 1910. Even then it was illegal to obstruct a fish run without constructing a passage, or ladder, so the fish could continue to use the river to spawn. Somehow, Aldwell managed to get around this requirement. When a second dam, the Glines Canyon Dam was constructed further upriver in 1927, no fish ladders were required since no fish were making it beyond the first dam. This second dam flooded the sacred area where the Lower Elwha Klallams believed people were created.
In 1986, the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe challenged the re-licensing of the two dams. Dam removal has become increasingly common. Aging structures and the cost of upgrading dams that are not all that productive have produced new thinking and policies. In 1992, after hard work by the tribe and environmental groups, an act of Congress provided for the removal of both dams. This will be the largest of any dam removal in the United States to date–and likely the largest in the world.
Next post: my trip to see the Elwha River….unleashed.
* * *
Several of you have asked if my sons remembered the cowhide incident. My oldest son said, yes, he remembered finding it on the beach, but was a little confused about why I was dragging it to the meat market. Sigh…so much for the lesson I thought I was teaching. Actually, his perception as a young child may have been more accurate than mine was–the cowhide indeed may not have come from the market.
On the other hand, he says blood definitely was running across the road in front of the market. He and my younger son, as they waited for the school bus in the morning, often watched the crew hosing out the slaughtering truck next to the road.