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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People have been living near the Elwha for thousands of years. For much of their history, the Klallam people (the Lower Elwha Klallam are one of three remaining populations of this larger group) wore cedar bark clothes, dabbed their faces with red ocher for spiritual protection and shook deafening deer hoof rattles during grand feasts. The salmon migrations were always at the heart of the culture. In an annual ceremony, the head and bones of the first salmon of the year were carefully arrayed on a cedar mat and set adrift on the Elwha, which would carry the body back out to sea. The people hoped this initial fish would then tell its fellows how honorably it had been treated, so they, too, would return to their birth river.

The Klallams’ first contact with Europeans came in July of 1790, when a Spanish vessel searching for the Northwest Passage encountered two canoes. The sailors traded bits of iron for fresh salmon berries, the Spanish commander wrote in his journal, and the Indians filled the visitors’ empty water casks “with delicious water taken from a beautiful stream,” the Elwha.

It wasn’t long before the usual ruin befell the Klallam tribes, as Lynda Mapes recalls in Breaking Ground, her powerful history of the Elwha people. Smallpox killed some 80 percent of Pacific Northwest Indians within 100 years of contact, and archaeologists recently found what are likely smallpox graves at Tse-whit-zen, a major Klallam village near the Elwha River’s mouth.

In 1855, beleaguered Klallam leaders signed the Treaty of Point No Point, relinquishing more than 400,000 acres of their lands, including the Elwha, for $300,000. The Klallam were assigned to live on a reservation about 100 miles away. Many, though, refused to leave. They squatted near the river’s mouth or tried homesteading along its banks, often eating salmon three meals a day – baked, smoked, in potato soup or with hash for breakfast – until the state of Washington banned them from fishing. The Klallam resorted to poaching, and some were jailed.

The tribe eventually received its own reservation lands, and in the 1970s a federal court ruled that Indians were entitled to half of the salmon catch in all their traditional waters.

But by then the Elwha fish were long gone.

As the Klallam culture was declining at the turn of the 20th century, a new community rose up and took its place: Port Angeles. Once a primitive outpost, it was transformed into a tidy industrial port in the wilderness, courtesy of a swashbuckling youth named Thomas Aldwell.

When Aldwell first saw the Elwha, its wildness charmed him. “That spring embodied all of life and beauty I thought I’d ever want,” Aldwell wrote in his self-congratulatory memoir, Conquering the Last Frontier. He bought land along the river and bushwhacked in to homestead. But his admiration for the carefree Elwha quickly became more calculated. “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,” he wrote. “Suddenly the Elwha was no longer a wild stream crashing down to the Strait, the Elwha was peace, power and civilization.”

He set about building the lower dam, which created Lake Aldwell, in 1910. Though the national park didn’t yet exist, environmental officials reminded him of his legal obligation to build a fish ladder for migrating salmon. Aldwell ignored letters from game wardens and bemoaned costs, finally electing to build a hatchery below the dams instead. The hatchery was an incompetent operation that ceased functioning after a few years.

About Abigail Tucker

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

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