On This Disputed River, Progress May Mean a Return to the Past

Winding through British Columbia and Washington, the Skagit has a history that reflects competing conceptions of advancement

View of the Skagit River, with the Diablo dam (completed in 1930) visible
View of the Skagit River, with the Diablo Dam (completed in 1930) visible Crady von Pawlak via Getty Images

In 1870, a small steamboat called the Linnie slipped into the South Fork Skagit River, the last stretch of a salmon-rich, 150-mile waterway that runs from southwestern British Columbia through northwestern Washington. Three families had chartered the steamer for $50 (around $1,200 today) with dreams of transforming the river delta into farmland. But after some five meandering miles, the vessel stopped. Before the group stood a logjam—a dense mass of tree trunks and woody debris crammed between the river banks—measuring up to 40 feet tall.

The logjam thwarted the families’ upstream progress but did not lessen their determination. They unloaded their belongings and began converting the soggy land around the logjam into farms, tapping into the region’s abundant resources, including timber and coal. Other families followed, forming a riverside community.

In the century and a half since these settlers’ arrival in what was then Washington Territory, competing efforts to control the Skagit River’s flow have underscored ever-changing and often contradictory meanings of progress. The river, says Jo Wolfe, director of the Skagit County Historical Museum, is “the lifeline of the county.” Tino Villaluz, wildlife program manager for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, describes the Skagit as the “bearer of life.”

Bird's-eye view of the junction of Ruby Creek with Skagit River, near the proposed site of a dam, 1919
Bird's-eye view of the junction of Ruby Creek with Skagit River, near the proposed site of a dam, in 1919 Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries

Breaking down the logjam

Indigenous peoples, including the Swinomish and Upper Skagit tribes, have led rich lives along the Skagit River since time immemorial. In 1855, members of these tribes traded their ancestral lands for continued rights to fish, hunt and gather in territories claimed by the United States. Scott Schuyler, a descendant of Pa-teh-us, a sub-chief who signed the agreement, says the Upper Skagit “lost control of the Skagit, our destiny,” through the Treaty of Point Elliott.

Beginning in the 1860s, white settlers like those aboard the Linnie trickled into and then flooded the region, intent on changing its landscape and promoting a new type of commerce. The settlers’ logic dictated that the logjam be removed. “The jam is the great bar to an extension of settlement and the progress of civilization to the head of the river,” the Washington Standard reported in 1876.

To the newcomers, the logjam seemed like an animate part of the landscape. When the river flooded and exerted extra pressure on the jumble of debris, settler Otto Klement heard the logs groan like “a monster in pain.” By the time Klement arrived in the area in 1873, the jam had settled in long enough for mud and sand to accumulate between the haphazardly stacked tree trunks in a great enough volume to nurse new trees to life. From a distance, this plant growth created the illusion of a forest, which Klement saw rising and falling with the river’s changing water levels.

Klement’s contemporaries marveled at the jam’s sheer mass. Technically, the obstruction consisted of two jams. The upstream part was larger because it caught all the freshest logs that washed down the river over the decades. It measured more than a mile long. The smaller, downstream jam was perhaps half a mile long. Even the small gap between the jams was strewn with obstacles. Above, the river stretched almost 1,000 feet wide; below, it narrowed to 500 feet. People walking along the river could follow the pileup of logs wedged between the shore and driven into the riverbed for roughly an hour.

A logjam on the Skagit River in 2008
A small logjam on the Skagit River in 2008 Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.5

As imposing as this logjam was, local Coast Salish peoples had carried canoes around it enough to create an obvious path by the time settlers like Klement arrived. Farms and towns developed slowly. Expensive, time-consuming efforts to drain the river or control the water’s flow with dikes created rich farmland but cut salmon off from their habitat in the floodplain.

By 1874, at least 75 farms were scattered across the Skagit River delta, and coal had been discovered well upstream. The thick forests in the river’s upper watershed, which had supplied the logs now jammed in the river, beckoned. Newspaper editors dreamed of grand futures, predicting the area would soon host 25,000 residents, or perhaps even match the 100,000 projected to one day live in the comparably sized Connecticut River Valley.

But none of this growth was possible while logs were locked in the lower river’s bends. Joe Wilson and Donald McDonald, two men tired of waiting for government action, mortgaged a pair of city lots in Seattle to fund the work of freeing the river. Locals pledged funds too but mostly paid in gratitude. Each of the men ended up $1,000 in debt (around $30,000 today).

Work began in February 1876. The “hardy loggers” hacked their way through logs measuring up to eight feet in diameter, showing “nerve and endurance” in their herculean labor, the Northern Star reported in 1878. “In the progress of the work, the jam loggers met with many narrow escapes from death by crushing or drowning and were subjected to constant losses of tools,” notes a 1906 history of Skagit County. In just one week, workers used up or lost tools worth $150 (around $4,500 today).

Scrabbling over the logjam at odd angles often resulted in accidents. Logger David E. Kimble recalled someone falling into a hole; Kimble rescued the hapless man before logs could crush him or the river could sweep him away. Nature both “assisted and sometimes hindered” the project, the 1906 history states. In 1877, a flood dislodged a five-acre chunk of the jam; on other occasions, “floods sometimes wedged the loosened logs still tighter and undid the work of many days.”

Proposed dam site on the Skagit River, photographed in 1914
Proposed dam site on the Skagit River, photographed in 1914 National Archives and Records Administration

Six months in, the workers had cleared a 250-foot-wide channel through the lower jam. Over the next two years, they cut a 120-foot channel through the upper jam. On May 23, 1878, the Wenat traveled through the channels and continued 14 miles upriver, becoming the first steamboat to move upstream beyond the logjam.

Removing the logjam was an example of progress that “changed the course” of Skagit County, which was established in 1883, says Wolfe. By 1888, 17 logging camps had sprouted up between the earlier settlement and what is today a 20-mile drive upstream. An open river meant steamers could regularly move along the Skagit River, taking coal, lumber and fish out of the region. Unblocking the lower river accelerated the area’s ecological and commercial transformation, heralding the arrival of the industrial age.

Why Seattle dammed the Skagit River

Between 1890 and 1910, Skagit County’s population increased by 234 percent, while King County’s (50 miles south of the former logjam and home to Seattle) grew by 345 percent. These burgeoning populations had complementary desires. Farmers in the Skagit River delta needed their farmland protected from floods; Seattleites needed electricity. Damming the Skagit River facilitated both by holding back floodwaters and producing hydroelectricity.

Progressive reformers persuaded populist Seattle voters to break from the monopolistic vise of Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power Company. In 1902, voters allowed the city to develop publicly owned power by a margin of nearly 7 to 1, and in 1910, the city government established Seattle City Light (SCL). Seeking power sources, SCL superintendent J.D. Ross eyed rivers with an engineer’s logic: To him, rivers equaled potential kilowatt hours and not much else. Ross concluded the optimal spot for a dam was where the Skagit River plunged through a gorge, 100 miles northeast of Seattle.

North Cascades near the Diablo dam site, 1927
North Cascades near the Diablo Dam site, 1927 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

What made the gorge an ideal dam site also made it sacred to the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe; these waters had long provided for the tribe’s well-being. The Skagit is the largest river running into Puget Sound and is an exceptional habitat for salmon. Cold water coursing through mountain canyons with forested banks are all necessary components for creating complex structural salmon habitats. But Ross and other Seattle leaders thought nothing of salmon. Neither did they consider or consult with tribal communities, who could not vote at the time and thus remained outside the political process (a point made explicit by the Upper Skagit general counsel at a 2023 Seattle City Council subcommittee meeting).

SCL ignored Indigenous claims but could not ignore the Skagit Power Company (SPC), which controlled the permits necessary to build dams across the river. The Massachusetts-based Stone & Webster company owned SPC and opposed public power. Its owners monopolized promising hydropower sites throughout the region, always staying one step ahead of SCL. But when no SPC steam shovels moved earth to build dams, Ross lobbied the U.S. secretary of agriculture, who revoked the company’s permit in 1917 and awarded a new one to SCL.

By 1940, SCL had completed three dams on the Skagit: Gorge (finished in 1924), Diablo (1930) and Ross (1940). Over the next 50 years, the dams were periodically raised or replaced to increase their water storage capacity. Today, the trio provides about 20 percent of Seattle’s power.

The damming of the Skagit River reflected a specific vision of industrial progress. To local leaders, progress looked like clean, public power from rivers run through powerhouses that converted potential energy into electricity that could be sent 100 miles through copper wires into city apartments.

View of the Skagit River, with the Diablo dam (completed in 1930) visible
Undated photo of the Diablo Dam National Archives and Records Administration

Salmon and the Skagit

No dam, though, included fish passage (a way for fish and other aquatic species to move around or through barriers in water systems, like dams or culverts). Even worse, a three-mile stretch of river below Gorge Dam was completely emptied of water. “When I was young, the first time I saw the dewatered Skagit, I would say that was a life-altering moment for me,” says Schuyler, who works as a policy representative for the Upper Skagit. “This is terribly wrong.” Removing the river’s water is “probably the most grievous offense that could ever be committed against us.”

When SCL built its dams, no legislation required the company to consult local communities. Today, however, federal licenses for dams must be renewed every 30 to 50 years, and they require public input. Currently, SCL is moving through the relicensing process; the politics and state of salmon science have dramatically altered the situation. Once again, blockages in the river have focused attention on ideas of progress and the type of future locals hope to build.

In Washington, the fight for fishing rights has galvanized Indigenous peoples like the Upper Skagit and the Swinomish. In 1974, after decades of activism, a federal district court declared that tribes that had signed the 19th-century treaties were entitled to the opportunity to harvest half of the river’s available salmon. Tribes became co-managers of fisheries with Washington State.

A pair of Chinook salmon
A pair of Chinook salmon Nick Longrich via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

The court decision acknowledged and bolstered tribal sovereignty. But asserting fishing rights is difficult with fewer fish—a trend exacerbated by the dams. Local tribes have generally been unsatisfied by the progress made regarding salmon since the last relicensing concluded in 1995.

The Skagit is the only river on Puget Sound with wild stocks remaining of all its native salmon. But these populations have faltered in recent decades. Since 1984, when the Pacific Salmon Commission started tracking salmon numbers, the Salish Sea Chinook population has dropped 60 percent. In 1999, the Puget Sound Chinook salmon was listed as a threatened species.

During the ongoing relicensing process, salmon occupy central attention. Initially, SCL committed to studying fish passage. Now, the public utility has pledged to include it.

The dams’ relicensing has prompted a kind of reckoning. Fish passage alone won’t be enough to sustain local salmon, and more is at stake than the species’ survival.

“The river feeds us … in more ways than just economic viability and days on the river,” says Villaluz. “It feeds us literally by providing nutrients and then spiritually at a level that few could understand from an outside world.” He adds that the Swinomish are “fighting for an existence, and that existence is salmon-centric.”

Ross Dam in 1956
Ross Dam in 1956 Seattle Municipal Archives via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0

The future Villaluz envisions includes an adequate management plan for the river system that allows for salmon abundance—the “key to our survival.” The work on relicensing (and related efforts) seeks to provide generational benefits for the ecosystem, salmon, the Swinomish, and the entire county and state.

Amy Trainer, who works for the Swinomish as an environmental policy director, says, “Salmon are magic creatures. Give them the habitat, and they will recover.” Recovering habitat from the estuaries to headwaters, above and below the dams, is critical to Chinook survival.

New measures for salmon recovery take time, and Schuyler suspects he may be too old to fish by the time the situation improves substantially. Still, he hopes his children and grandchildren will be able to catch salmon in the river. It would be a “disservice to our ancestors that sacrificed so much if we don’t make this work, if we let these salmon go by the wayside, if we let our culture degrade,” he says.

Today, the Skagit River courses through Washington and British Columbia, blocked here, opened there, changing always. The waterway continues to inspire dreams of progress. But what exactly “progress” means depends on whom one asks. To 19th-century settlers, removing the logjam was the key to creating a thriving community. To 20th-century industrialists, damming the river was a harbinger of modernization.

For Schuyler and the Upper Skagit tribe, progress translates to “a free-flowing Skagit.” Barring the removal of the river’s dams, Schuyler says, “we want the city to provide the best mitigation [it] can for our culture, for salmon.” Villaluz, for his part, says, “We don’t want to look at fish in museums. We want to hold, touch, feel and eat those salmon. … They are part of us.”

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.