Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Remembering North Cascades National Park

An exchange of comments with another blogger got me to thinking about my first National Park Service job: HAER historian on a mitigative documentation project in North Cascades National Park. HAER, aka the Historic American Engineering Record, is one the National Park Service's Heritage Documentation Programs and focuses on the industrial built environment, e.g., foundries, hydroelectric projects, and roads.

I first heard of HAER while I was an undergraduate at Michigan Tech. Our department head at the time, Larry Lankton, was a former HAER historian, as was my advisor, Terry Reynolds. Both had worked on amazing projects with HAER -- Larry was part of a team that documented the Anniston Army Depot, the Pine Bluff Arsenal, and the Old Croton Aqueduct; Terry did several hydroelectric projects, including Sault Ste. Marie -- and both encouraged students to apply for summer jobs with the program. So I did.

When Eric DeLony called to ask if I was interested in working on a hydroelectric power plant mitigative documentation project in the state of Washington, he referred to the fact I was a "Terry Reynolds student." It occurred to me later Eric assumed this status suggested I actually knew something about hydroelectricity, electrical engineering, history of engineering, and other technical matters. Not exactly. I knew hydroelectric generation required water, and I knew that engineers were usually involved in designing power generation systems. And I knew enough about electricity to refrain from sticking bobby pins into outlets to check to see if the power was on.

By the end of the summer, I knew more. My head was stuffed with terms that I can still rattle off -- wicket gates, penstocks, taintor gates, effective head, relief valve -- and I'd be able to describe what the spiral case for a Francis turbine looks like from the inside (rather frightening, actually, and definitely not a place for the claustrophobic).

However, in the spring when Eric asked if I wanted to spend the summer living and working in Seattle the phrase "working in Seattle" was about all that mattered. Seattle! As in "the bluest skies I've ever seen were in Seattle. . ." Seattle -- home of Elliott Bay Bookstore, Pike Place Market, and Cow Chip Cookies. I decided to not volunteer just how completely and totally ignorant I actually was about dams, dam design, dam engineering, power generation, federal energy policy, the state of Washington, J. D. Ross, you name it. If I had any qualms about my ability to understand hydroelectric development and Seattle City Light well enough to write a history of a power station, I wasn't going to share those doubts with my soon-to-be boss.

End result: I got to spend 12 weeks living in a really strange apartment (one roommate was a psychotic fresh out of a halfway house who was convinced the U.N. was trying to poison her, the other was a shopaholic hoarder)(and Ranger Bob wonders why living in an NPS dorm never fazed me) in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. I split my workdays between an office in the Pioneer Square area, field work at the Skagit Hydroelectric development (owned and operated by Seattle City Light), and archival research at the University of Washington and Seattle City Light. Final product: "Skagit Power Development: Skagit River and Newhalem Creek Hydroelectric Developments."

Pictured above -- taintor gates on Diablo as seen from the upstream side. Fans of movie trivia may recognize those light posts -- the roadway on top of the dam played a bridge in the movie "The Deer Hunter."

Pictured below, the town of Diablo and the Diablo Powerhouse, a really nifty example of moderne architecture. (The interior of the powerhouse is the first photo above.) Diablo was a company town, complete with elementary school, but to the best of my knowledge no one lives there year-round anymore. The mitigative documentation project also included assisting another historian in preparing a National Register historic district nomination. The Skagit Hydroelectric development has been listed on the Register since 1996.
My first impression of North Cascades was that part of Washington contains some of the most spectacular scenery in North America. My opinion hasn't changed. I had an opportunity to hike a number of the trails in the park, almost all of which can be challenging due to steep grades, but every one of them was more than worth the effort.
The park itself is interesting because it's split into two units with the Skagit River and Ross Lake National Recreation Area between the two. The recreation area has campgrounds that it's possible to use with a modern RV; the two units of the park are 95% designated wilderness. I've been back several times since serving my time as a dam historian, and, if all goes well, I'll be back again to hike a trail or two, maybe do some back country camping, and for sure to do the City Light tour. One of my favorite fantasies is to be a V.I.P. at North Cascades. One of these years it might actually happen.

Driving toward Diablo on state highway 20. The "lake" is the Skagit River upstream of Gorge Dam. This view never got old.


  1. Awesome- thanks for the neat glimpse at a fascinating topic.

  2. The Kaplan turbine is a propeller-type water turbine that has adjustable blades. It was developed in 1913 by the Austrian professor Viktor Kaplan.

    The Kaplan turbine was an evolution of the Francis turbine. Its invention allowed efficient power production in low head applications that was not possible with Francis turbines.

    Kaplan turbines are now widely used throughout the world in high-flow, low-head power production.

    When I got out of the Navy I lived in Seattle for about five years, but I was young, ignorant, and resilient so it was pretty much okay.

    But I've always pretty much been a small town guy, or hick if you wish to call me that. Moved to and raised my kids in Colville, Washington if you know where that is. It's just north of Spokane.

    I once took my boat from Kettle Falls to The Grand Coulee dam, and back, took a few days doing it, just pooping along and enjoying the trip.

    Ever been to Lake Chelan? It's beautiful there.


My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.