On the Elwha, a New Life When the Dam Breaks

A huge dam-removal project will reveal sacred Native American lands that have been flooded for a century

Two antique dams on Washington state's Elwha River are set to be demolished. (Brian Smale)

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While still under construction in 1912, the dam burst, sending a wall of water barreling down on the Indian homesteaders along the river. Nobody died, but dead fish hung in the trees for days, and suddenly the river was not to be trusted.

The dam was patched with rock and mattresses of Douglas fir, and before long Port Angeles glittered with electric lights. A second, even bigger dam was built in 1927, eight miles upstream.

Today the logging town of Port Angeles is sleepy and isolated, pressed between the mountains and the sea, lonely foghorns in the little harbor as resonant as organ chords. The dams most recently provided only about half the power for a single paper mill. A store near the waterfront, Dazzled by Twilight, caters to the gloomy-looking teenage pilgrims of the popular Twilight vampire novels, which are set in the nearby town of Forks.


Forbidden to use their own language in public school, the Klallam people stopped speaking it. Shaker missionaries introduced a new religion to the tribe, and the First Salmon ceremony was abandoned. Eventually all save a handful of Klallam songs were lost. Forced by the fishing ban to find other work, people began leaving the Elwha watershed.

Children were shipped off to Indian schools in New Mexico and Oklahoma to learn menial professions and make their way in the wider world. Adeline Smith was among those sent away. Born in 1918, she grew up on a homestead along the Elwha but left for an Indian school in Oregon to learn to be a maid. Today she lives on the Elwha reservation in a trailer the color of daffodils. Smith has a fluff of gray hair and a smiling face with deeply pressed wrinkles. When I met her, she was wearing all white: spotless sandals and dress, pearl hoops in her ears. One of a handful of fluent Elwha speakers, she is revered as a symbol of the tribe’s endurance; other members are meek as children in her presence. But she frankly says she was grateful to leave Port Angeles to learn a trade, had a good life as a housekeeper and seamstress in Seattle, and never dreamed of returning home until family affairs brought her back in 1983. As a child, she remembers letting her parents’ words rush past her like water.

“We used to get so tired sometimes when they’d sit us down for the stories,” she said. “Over and over, they’d try to embed them. Now I feel bad that I didn’t really listen, listen as hard as I could.” Most of those stories are now lost.

The Elwha people have always opposed the dams, but removal only began seeming like a viable option in the 1970s, when questions about the structure’s safety and environmental impacts arose. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush signed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act. A series of studies showed the best way to restore the watershed was to remove the dams.

Smith still can’t quite believe she’ll live to see the dams come down, and, perhaps, the Klallam creation site come to light.

“I doubt that rock is there,” she said. “A lot of things have changed with the river. Whatever is down below, they dynamited it. All that erosion.”

About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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