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Visit the American Alps – Skagit Tours in Your Backyard

Scott Thomsen, Seattle City Light | Apr 30, 2012, 10:59 a.m.

Just 90 miles north and east of Seattle, glacier-capped alpine mountains provide habitat for wildlife, public recreation and the water source for three of the dams that help power Seattle.

Opportunities abound for taking in the beauty, adventure, learning, and fun of the North Cascades, starting with a Skagit Tour from Your Seattle City Light (see sidebar for tour information).

During the tour, you’ll learn how Seattle City Light’s second superintendent, J.D. Ross, had the vision nearly 100 years ago to build hydroelectric dams on the Skagit to power the City of Seattle. Construction started on Gorge Dam in 1917. Ross dedicated it into service in 1924, followed by Diablo in 1936 and Ross in 1952.

Today, those three dams account for about 18 percent of the electricity used by Seattle City Light’s customers.

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Seattle City Light superintendent J.D. Ross

“J.D. Ross was a master salesman who started the Skagit Tours to build support for the Skagit Hydroelectric Project,” City Light Superintendent Jorge Carrasco said. “We continue that tradition today. Ross’s foresight to build the dams created a legacy of clean renewable power that continues to help City Light deliver reliable, environmentally-sensitive electricity at some of the lowest rates in the nation.”

Building those dams in the wilds of the North Cascades at the turn of the 20th Century was a huge challenge fraught with risk. Just to get supplies and workers to the area, a railroad was first built along the granite bluffs. The work was so difficult the job bankrupted the contractor just before completion and City Light crews had to finish up.

With a supply line in place, it still took determined workers to overcome harsh winters, deep river gravel and steep mountainsides to build the Skagit dams. Up to 500 people worked on the Skagit project in the early days. They blasted the mountainsides to reach bedrock, drilled a tunnel for the powerhouse and installed a Westinghouse hydroelectric generating unit to provide the first 2,500 kilowatts of renewable energy from the project.

That steep gorge provided a natural barrier keeping salmon runs below the three dams. Because of the terrain and the flow control at the dams, the Skagit River can boast the highest return of wild salmon of any tributary in Puget Sound.

Newhalem and Diablo are two of the last remaining company towns in the United States. Created to support the construction of the three Skagit dams, they continue to house City Light employees who operate the dams. The Newhalem Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In town, you’ll be able to see Old No. 6, the steam engine that carried workers and materials to the Skagit during construction, and get a bite of delicious Skagit Fudge at the General Store.

At the end of the day, one of the must-see spots in Newhalem is Ladder Creek Falls, where a restored light show creates the “paradise of color in the wilderness” first envisioned by Ross in the 1920s.

About 30 energy efficient LED light fixtures are programmed to provide a kaleidoscope of changing colors in the falls each night. Each program runs for 15 minutes and then re-starts. The lights come on daily after dusk and stay on until midnight.

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