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Seattle City Light DEBRA SMITH, General Manager and CEO
Skagit River Hydroelectric Project
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Preserving Our Heritage

In addition to the fascinating history of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project itself, there is a rich heritage of human occupation in the upper Skagit Valley. Despite being located in a very rugged, mountainous region, there is documentation of humans occupying the area since the glaciers retreated 10,000-13,000 years ago. Many sites along the Skagit River were used by indigenous peoples as villages, camps during hunting and gathering, and salmon fishing sites. The river corridor was also a major travel route through the North Cascades for several tribes. The upper valley, now occupied largely by Ross Lake, provided important big game hunting areas and quarry sites for mining chert to make stone projectile points and tools. Archaeologists have found "Hozomeen chert" tools derived from the Skagit River watershed at sites throughout the Pacific Northwest. In more recent times, the upper valley hosted trappers, miners, and homesteaders during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Among them, the town of Diablo was the site of a small ranch and roadhouse owned by the Davis family.

J.D. Ross

Train in Newhalem

James Delmage Ross, one of the first superintendents of City Light, recognized the potential of the Skagit River for hydroelectric development early in the 20th century. Construction of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project began in 1919 and ended in 1960, spanning a period of over 40 years. Access and construction, particularly in the early years, was difficult. City Light had to build rail lines, bring in boats, establish construction camps, and run logging and rock drilling operations to build the Gorge and Diablo facilities. Until the 1940s all equipment, materials, and workers arrived in Newhalem by train. Building Ross Dam required the use of the incline lift in Diablo, barges on Diablo Lake, and a highline cable system to move equipment, supplies, and workers to and from the site. Even today, Ross Dam and Powerhouse are accessible only by a hiking trail or boat.

Incline Lift Carrying Workers

Ross Dam Contruction

Preservation of the rich history associated with the Skagit River Valley and the hydroelectric project is required by the FERC Project license. City Light is responsible for protecting historic properties in the Project area which include archaeological sites, historic buildings, structures, objects, and landscapes.

Protecting Archaeology and Traditional Cultural Properties

To better understand and protect prehistoric and historic archaeological sites in the Skagit River Project area City Light works in partnership with the National Park Service (NPS) and the tribes, and through consultation with the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation and FERC. City Light funds the NPS and professional archaeologists to conduct surveys, evaluate site eligibility for protection under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and implement site protection or data recovery measures in areas affected by Skagit Project operations.

As part of the FERC license requirement, City Light also provided funding to each of the affected tribes to conduct its own study of Traditional Cultural Properties (TCPs) in the area. All operation and maintenance undertakings are evaluated to determine potential effects to archaeological resources and TCPs and to identify appropriate mitigation measures through consultation with the tribes. City Light and NPS also work as partners to prevent damage to archaeological sites or removal of artifacts.

Due to the presence of a number of significant archeological sites in the Ross Lake area, that segment of the project has been designated as an Archaeological District. The sites are managed according to the Archaeological Resources Mitigation and Management Plan for the Upper Skagit River Valley Archaeological District that was developed through consultation with the tribes. Each year, City Light staff and the NPS archaeologist meet with each tribe to coordinate management activities and tribal member access to traditional ancestral and spiritual activity areas. All recovered artifacts are curated at a NPS facility in Marblemount built with City Light funding provided by the Skagit Project license.

Artifacts from an archaeological site in the National Park Service's curation facility.

Produced by National Park Service archeologist, Dr. R. Mierendorf, this document provides a thorough assessment of the archaeology and human history in the upper Skagit River Valley.

An archaeology excavation site in the Ross Lake drawdown area, 2008.

Preserving Historic Buildings, Structures, and Objects

There are over 85 buildings, structures, and objects associated with the Skagit River Project that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Included are all three dams and powerhouses, many of the houses in the towns of Newhalem and Diablo, a steam locomotive, a few historic tugs, a garden, and J. D. and Alice Ross's crypt. The review and approval process for work on the historic resources is outlined in the Skagit Project's Historic Resources Mitigation and Management Plan (HRMMP), a requirement of the Project license. Maintenance and repair work is primarily done by Skagit crews following the HRMMP and additional individual Historic Structures Maintenance Guidelines. The purpose of these documents is to ensure that the unique characteristics of the historic resources associated with the Skagit Project are maintained for future generations.

Newhalem circa 1935
(Source: Seattle Municipal Archives # 139929)

Winston Bros. Camp at Reflector Bar in 1928
(Source: Seattle Municipal Archives #45302)

In 2008, City Light began a long-term program to rehabilitate a number of the historic buildings in Newhalem and Diablo. As of Spring 2014, the rehabilitated buildings include:
  • Newhalem - Gorge Inn: Constructed in 1920, Gorge Inn is one of four buildings in Newhalem that dates from the earliest camp construction era. It was used as a cookhouse, first for City Light work crews building the Skagit Project dams and powerhouses and later for tourists attending the Skagit Tours. In the early 1970s when Project staffing was reduced due to increased powerhouse automation, tourist dining services were shifted to the Diablo Cookhouse. Gorge Inn finally closed in the late 1970s/early 1980s and remained so until 2011 when rehabilitation work began on the building. By this time, Gorge Inn was in very poor condition. It had a non-functioning kitchen, a piecemeal foundation, a leaky roof, windows that had not been painted or repaired in decades, sagging wood floors, and many unsympathetic interior remodels.

    Rehabilitating Gorge Inn involved lifting the entire historic building to install a new continuous concrete foundation; adding a new commercial kitchen wing, new roof, insulation and bathrooms; while also repairing the wood floor, restoring all of the original wood pocket windows and reusing the historic light globes. Today, the Gorge Inn is once again being used as a cookhouse for City Light employees and visitors.

  • Diablo - Ross Lodge: Recipient of a 2014 Historic Preservation Award, Ross Lodge is an example of the 1930's Rustic style architecture in the Project, as well as the one of two extant buildings dating to the first planned period of development (the 1930's) in the Diablo residential area that came to be known as Hollywood. Originally Ross Lodge consisted of the main building which had the common kitchen, dining and lounge facilities along with a caretaker's apartment. Attached to the main building was a long dormitory wing with 12 bedrooms and 6 shared bathrooms. The design is attributed to architects Linn A. Forrest, U.S. Forest Service and George Stewart, City Light.

    Completed in 1938 and originally referred to as "Bachelors Quarters" or "Bachelors Apartments", the building was most likely renamed "Ross Lodge" in honor of J.D. Ross after his death in 1939. In the 1940's it was converted to apartments for families due to increased demand for housing. Upon completion of Ross Dam and the workforce shifting to operations and maintenance and later reduced due to automation, the need for worker housing diminished. In the 1980's the dormitory wing was demolished, and the remaining portion of Ross Lodge was boarded up and left vacant.

    This building, like Gorge Inn, had been empty and unused for many years. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010, the rehabilitation project undertaken between 2012-2013 repaired the cracked foundation, restored the historic wood windows and interior wood finishes, installed a new roof, utility connections, updated the kitchen and added an ADA bathroom while also repairing the historic fireplace and chimney. A new coat of paint and landscaping completed the work.

  • Diablo - Hollywood Houses: In 1950, City Light saw the need for additional housing in Diablo while preparing for the completion and operation of Ross Dam. These homes were constructed in 1952 and reflect the stripped down style of mid-century design. These minimal traditional style homes are found in Diablo and still have many of the character defining features of the era including single pane aluminum framed windows, shingle siding with a wide exposure, simple flush panel entry doors, and shallow saucer-like ceiling light shades. In 2010 City Light began replacing the original furnaces and windows, making insulating, painting, and other repairs. The houses are now being retrofitted in phases. Many have already received new insulation, heat pumps, and custom fitted dual pane windows to match the original opening and pane configuration. These houses were also painted inside and out, and interior mid-century fixtures salvaged and reused, with the new ones matching the originals.

Links and Resources

Hozomeen, a story about chert, identity and landscape

North Cascades Institute: Cultural History - Across Terrain and Time in the Skagit River Valley

Advisory Council on Historic Preservation

Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation

National Park Service North Cascades National Park Complex

"Building the Skagit", Paul C. Pitzer, 2001, City of Seattle City Light

"Valley of the Spirits", June Collins, 1974, Univ. of Washington Press

"Indians of Skagit County", Chief Martin Sampson, 1976, Skagit County Historical Society

Image Gallery:

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Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation

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