Condit Dam History – Part 8

About 15 years ago, the pioneering White Salmon River whitewater outfitter Phil Zoller hypothesized that the White Salmon may have once harbored a population of what he called “June hogs”.  June hog was the term used by early European inhabitants of the Columbia basin for an almost mythological run of summer or spring Chinook salmon that once migrated far up the Columbia past Kettle Falls and on to British Columbia.  These fish grew to almost 100 pounds and over 4 feet in length.  Phil based his belief on the large river cobbles that characterize the White Salmon’s bed, and reasoned that only a large 50+ pound fish would be capable of churning the heavy rock into a spawning bed.  The 85 pound “June hog” pictured above was caught at Astoria in 1925 (photo courtesy Compare this to fish possibly caught in White Salmon River below.

Fifteen years ago was also the time that tribal, state and federal fish managers began discussing what fish might be suitable for recolonizing the White Salmon after dam removal.  Although I was only peripherally involved these discussions through our local White Salmon River technical committee, we all continued to share Phil’s wonder as what fish may have been in the river before the dam, and whether June hogs may have been part of the mix.

Somewhat unexpectedly, in 2004 a gentleman in The Dalles, Oregon named Bill Kreps shared a collection of his family photographs showing construction of the dam.  It turned out that one of Bill’s relatives was actually the original superintendent at the dam, and had photographed aspects of his job, and also his fishing expeditions.  After scanning Bill’s collection, I examined them with fish biologists who were working on the issue, including Larry Marchant (manager of the USFWS Spring Creek Hatchery) and Brian Bair (fish biologist with USFS).  A few images from the Krep’s collection are included below.  The first shows a huge “June hog” next to a young boy, probably near the superintendent’s house.  The second shows men who were likely connected to Condit, shown with steelhead males.

Today, White Salmon fish managers are pretty certain that the river above Condit Dam once held populations of steelhead, fall Chinook, spring Chinook, coho and Pacific lamprey.  Although the Kreps photos show tantalizing evidence of what fish may have found a home in the White Salmon, we can’t be 100% certain that the fish pictured were actually caught in the river.  Perhaps the answer will never be known, but if anyone reading this article has any additional information (identity of the people pictured, scenes, other photos related to fishing on the river, etc.), posting that information to this site would be appreciated (or email me at

Condit Dam History – Part 7

My interest in photographically documenting the removal of Condit Dam began about 8 years ago, during a year-long project sponsored by US Fish & Wildlife Service and PacifiCorp.  The goal for the year was simply the expansion of public knowledge surrounding the decommissioning.  During that time, Gail Miller and Arianne Poindexter of PacifiCorp provided me with an amazing collection of photos from the company’s archives, which documented most phases of the original construction.  Here were images of the Greek immigrants who built the dam, their housing in great tent camps, the original equipment, and many other aspects of construction.  The photos were likely a tool used by Northwestern Electric Company to monitor implementation of the project by their contractor Stone & Webster of Boston,  Massachusetts.   It’s also likely that they were photographing the work for posterity sake, knowing that their work was shaping the future of the Northwest.

In my work, it soon became obvious that the builders were documenting dam construction using an early “time-lapse” photo technique.  For all its modern complexities, time-lapse is simply the process of taking a sequence of pictures over time from the same vantage point.

Using topographic maps, I was able to roughly determine where their main photo point must have been.  It seemed that their main station had been on the very steep basalt slope above and west of the dam.  Armed with the original photos,  I set-off hiking one morning, starting at the original rock quarry and rock crusher site, and proceeded down the route of the old rock chute to the dam.  After scrambling down and across 100%+ gradient slopes, I found a bare, east facing rock knob, that seemed to provide the original vantage used by Northwestern Electric almost a century before.

The work being done today by Andy and me is centered on documenting the removal of Condit Dam, charting the rapid changes in the reservoir sediments, and capturing a record of vegetation recovery in the recently uncovered “Condit Canyon”.  This is largely being accomplished via photography from the historic west dam photo point (current “Station 1”).

The video below represents a first attempt at compiling a time-lapse sequence of pictures taken at Station 1 over the past 99 years. The first historical image gives a good overview of the canyon’s appearance in  August 1912, and even a glimpse of the exact location of the upstream coffer dam.  The series continues through the date the reservoir filled and water first spilled over the top on March 21, 1913.  It concludes with recent images taken in late October 2011, when the dam was breached.

Removal of Condit Dam is scheduled for completion in fall 2012… some 100 years plus a few months after the very first work began…

Condit Dam Removal Update #4

November 2011 View of #2 (upstream) coffer dam.

There’s been reference to “coffer dams” (or cofferdams) on this site, but what does the term mean?   A coffer dam is defined as a watertight enclosure from which water is pumped to expose the bottom of a body of water to permit construction of piers, dams, etc.

One of the many fascinations of the Condit Dam breaching was re-emergence of the original coffer dam used to re-route the river during construction 99 years ago (see Condit Dam History Part 5).  All of the wood submerged by the reservoir  seems to have been well preserved, including tree stumps, coffer dams, flumes and crib walls.   

This outcome has some real significance in terms of river restoration.  On the negative side, Coffer Dam #2 is now preventing the exit of some sediment from the upstream river canyon.  If left in place, the dam would also limit upstream passage of fish.  To alleviate the blockage, the coffer dam, and adjacent crib wall that originally directed water into the bell mouth of Tunnel #1, will be removed this winter.  The structures will soon transition into history. 

On the positive side, however, the preservation of tree stumps below the reservoir shores has provided the river restorationist with an accurate record of the species, density and size of the trees that grew along the canyon 99 years ago.  They also define the pre-project ground topography, which will be important in devising regrading plans.  This data has special importance, since there is very little photographic, map or written description of the canyon before 1912.

The photo below provides a glimpse of the untouched canyon above the dam.  As expected, the steep, dry, shallow-soil hillsides immediately above the river supported species such as Oregon white oak, dry adapted shrubs like mockorange and hazel, and scattered conifers.  Where hill slopes were less steep and supported deeper soils, the primary trees were probably a mixture of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. 

(click on image(s) for larger view)

August 1912 View of #2 (upstream) coffer dam.

Condit Dam History – Part 6

The total workforce employed by Stone and Webster of Boston Massachusetts (Northwestern Electric Company’s contractor) averaged 900 men during the 11 months required to build the Condit dam and powerhouse. Most of the men were recent Greek immigrants, having been contracted through an employment firm in Portland, OR.

After diverting the river’s flow, the next major step in dam construction involved preparing the river channel for pouring of the dam foundation. This highly illustrative photo shows important components of this work, including survey of river channel, using high pressure water jets to wash sediment from the bedrock channel, and hoisting of resulting debris from the canyon for disposal. Meticulous cleaning of the dam’s foundation was absolutely critical to preventing water leakage below and through the dam, which could cause subsequent erosion and dam failure.

Up to 12 feet of alluvium (i.e., river rock) had to be removed from the original river bed before reaching stable bedrock. By all accounts, an excellent job was accomplished by Stone and Webster. The integrity of the dam’s concrete and foundation are still excellent today

Above is a downstream view of the dam site.  The photo below shows an upstream view… both taken 99 years ago.  Remember that you can click on any of the images in this blog for a larger view.

Condit Dam History – Part 5

This May 28, 1912 scene shows the White Salmon River banks shortly before being merged by Condit Dam, and first phase of dam building at the Cameron Bridge site.  If the current dam was transposed onto this photo, the reservoir drain tunnel would be in the center of this image, and its course would follow upstream along the bottom of the river channel.  And too, the canyon that re-emerges from the concrete next summer will look similar to what is shown.   

On the left, workers are in the process of boring one of three tunnel segments needed to divert the river’s flow around the dam site during construction. This tunnel opening is still visible today.  Without diversion and the utilization of mining technology to construct the tunnels, building Condit would have been impossible.  In many respects, this work phase (constructing a diversion tunnel to provide a dry environment for building the dam), is analogous in reverse to happenings today (boring a tunnel to drain the reservoir and allowing deconstruction in a dry environment).  Almost 100 years later, construction has intersected deconstruction (see the last post).

Two months later (August 3, 1912), this photo shows the Cameron Bridge dam site from upstream, and the canyon topography we expect to see after the dam is breached in late October 2011.  Illustrated here is construction of the rock-filled crib dam used to divert the river into the three diversion tunnels and connecting wood flumes, which are visible on the west bank.  Once diversion was completed and the river re-routed, actual dam construction began. 

(Note that time-lapse Station 2, being monitored and reported on during this project, is located just upstream of this view, along what’s currently the west shoreline of the reservoir at Cypher’s cabin.  This crib dam should be visible after the October flush, along with the Jaws river canyon).

Condit Dam History – Part 4

As mentioned in the last post, Northwestern Electric Company’s preferred location for a dam on the White Salmon was at The Narrows.  Foundation (geotechnical) surveys under the direction of the company’s chief engineer Frank Walsh began in September 1911, to determine whether solid bedrock existed for the dam’s foundation. 

This photo shows the considerable “test hole” dug into the east bank, on property once owned by Charles Frick.  Early excavation was done via “hydraulic sluicing”, or the use of high pressure water jets to erode away the soil mantle.  Later, the company switched to tunneling.  The steam donkey pictured (essentially a large steam powered winch) was used to muck rock from the tunnel.  Suitable bedrock was never intercepted, and by early April 1912 the company’s evaluations shifted upstream to The Jaws and eventually Cameron Bridge.

Condit Dam History – Part 3

The Northwestern Electric Company initiated work on what was to become Condit Dam in 1910.  The first step was the hiring of  B.C. Condit as project supervisor, and the dam design and construction firm Stone and Webster of Boston.  After detailed hydrologic investigations by Condit,  Northwestern Electric’s chief engineer Frank Walsh selected three dam site alternatives.  The Narrows (pictured left, and located just upstream of the current surge tank) was the best site for building a tall dam with maximum hydraulic head.  It remains today one of the most scenic reaches of the White Salmon.  Alternate sites were “Cameron Bridge”, where the dam was eventually located, and “Jaws”, a deep canyon just upstream of the current dam near the confluence of Little Buck Creek.  To gain rights to the Narrows, Northwestern Electric acquired 5 acres owned by German homesteader Charles Frick, who then returned to his homeland.

It will be fascinating to see the re-emergence of the Jaws canyon from Northwestern Lake in late October of this year.  The name itself captures your attention, and also the fact that one of the only two traumatic fatalities during construction happened here.  As reported in The Enterprise in spring 1912, a Greek laborer named Peter Drusete fell from a small bridge atop Jaws, smashed his head on the rocks below, and fell unconscious into the White Salmon.  His body floated downstream, never to be recovered.

Condit Dam History – Part 2

Before hydropower, irrigation diversions and commercial rafting, the main commercial use of the White Salmon (and surrounding rivers of the Columbia River Gorge) was for transporting logs harvested along the river corridor.  Several “splash dams” were constructed, as far north as the Trout Lake valley.  When collapsed, these dams would create surges of water large enough to carry logs downriver to mill off-load sites.  Logging and farming were mainstays of the pioneer White Salmon valley economy, as they are to a large degree today.

The scene shifted in 1910 with publication of a US Geological Survey professional paper, which reported on the department’s field assessment of the hydroelectric generating potential of the White Salmon, Little White Salmon, Klickitat and Lewis river basins.  That study by John C. Stevens (Water Supply Paper 253) concluded that the basins with the highest production potentials were the Klickitat, followed by the White Salmon and Lewis.    Concurrently, Herbert and Mortimer Fleishhacker of San Francisco were seeking ways to power their Crown Willamette Paper Mill in Camas, WA.  Harnessing the White Salmon via another of their financial interests, the Northwestern Electric Company, became a possible mode.

Condit Dam History – Part 1

When looking back over the human history that surrounds the White Salmon River and Condit Dam, it is easy to forget that the lower river had been used for thousands of years by Klickitat people (and their predecessors) for harvesting salmon, steelhead and perhaps Pacific lamprey.  Some historians have estimated the native American population at Nakipanic (the village site at Husum Falls, now Husum) was several hundred.  Given that, there were more people living in the Husum town center before 1855 (date of the Yakima Treaty) than there are today.  This concentration of people lends strong support to the presence of a large and vibrant community before homesteading… perhaps more vibrant than today’s.  While construction of Condit Dam in 1913 spelled the certain end of the fishery above river mile 3.2 (i.e., Condit Dam), it’s likely that the 1855 treaty that resulted in translocation of people north to the Yakama reservation, spelled the real end of the fishery and an early way of life on the White Salmon.  The photo at left (taken from Williams “Guardians of the Columbia”, 1912), shows Jacob Hunt, who was born and lived his life in Nakipanic.