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…

Deconstruction Begins


I hiked out to check on the timelapse cameras yesterday and snapped a few photos of crews chipping away at the dam.  Significant progress has already been made–in this photo you can see that the flow line from the dam to the powerhouse has been removed, the building that housed the flow controls is gone and a significant chunk of the concrete structure of the dam has been removed.  Stay tuned for updates as deconstruction continues!

Condit Dam Breach: Before and After Images

In skimming through my images one day, I stumbled upon an interesting image I shot months ago from the top of Condit Dam.  The lightbulb went on, and I realized that I had this gem of a before&after sequence:

Enjoy these other shots taken over the course of the last 6 months.  Happy holidays everyone!


(This post scheduled in advance–I’m sitting on a sailboat in Baja right now.  Back mid January!)

Big Changes on the White Salmon

It’s been quite a dynamic 6 weeks on the White Salmon since the October 26th breach of Condit Dam.  Incredible amounts of sediment have moved out of the former reservoir as the river gradually find its way down to the bedrock and into its original channel.  Some of the current sights were predicted–like the emergence of the old cofferdam–others are a total surprise–like the speed at which the uppermost part of the reservoir has eroded.

If you haven’t watched the breach video yet, definitely check it out.  Even if you have seen it, watch it again!

Recently, I headed out to the White Salmon with Rod Engle, a biologist for the US Fish & Wildlife Service, to film a news clip for National Geographic.  That video will premiere online shortly, but I thought I’d share some of what we saw that day in the meantime.

The most surprising update is the amount of sediment downcutting that is happening around the Northwestern Lake Road Bridge.  In Rod’s words, erosion expected to take about a year has happened in only 6 weeks.  Check out these two before and after images by local resident and photographer, Michael Peterson:

Looking upstream from the NW Lake Rd Bridge
Looking downstream from the NW Lake Rd Bridge

You might remember that earlier this fall, the Fish & Wildlife folks rounded up hundreds of wild Tule Chinook Salmon below the dam and transported them upstream to spawn.  The goal was both to prevent them from creating redds (salmon nests) below the dam that would certainly be wiped out during the breach, and to jump start the species recovery process.  Their experiment was proven a success when tons of redds appeared in the upper White Salmon (which helps fuel the debate as to whether using hatcheries in these situations is really necessary–kudos to USFWS and the Yakima Tribe for opting not to go that route on the White Salmon…)

There’s just one problem though…the rapid downcutting exposed some of the redds.  Luckily though, 85% of the documented redds are upstream, out of the path of the downcutting.  It was strange digging around in a threatened salmon redd, but pretty cool to dissect one and really see how it works.


Not much action is happening down at the dam.  The Merit folks have been working on sediment monitoring and figuring out how much active removal will need to happen.  It sounds like the next priorities are to make the whitewater boaters’ takeout usable again and remove the cofferdam.  Incidentally, the takeout is closed both because of sediment and because the foundation of the original bridge was exposed by the downcutting–making the river pretty sketchy.  So, unless you have a friend with riverfront property somewhere upstream of the bridge, there’s really no way to raft or kayak the Lower White Salmon.

What’s happening next with the timelapse project?  Well, the cameras are on autopilot right now–snapping away as things gradually change.  They’ll be running for the next few years as the dam disappears and the landscape settles and revegetates.  Expect another update shortly when my next Condit news clip is released on National Geographic, but otherwise, I’m heading to Baja for some vacation!

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.

Photos and Video from Condit Breach Day

Well folks, October 26th, 2011 is certainly a day that will go down in history. After the Blaster in Charge yelled “fire in the hole!” and ignited the charges, the White Salmon was explosively set free for the first time in 100 years.  The lake took less than 2 hours to drain, carrying an incredible amount of sediment and debris downstream to the Columbia.  Now, a more gradual process begins–the erosion of millions of cubic yards of trapped silt, the return of threatened salmon and ultimately the complete removal of Condit Dam.

Enjoy these photos and video from breach day and stay tuned for more updates as the sediment erodes and the White Salmon re-carves its course. And check out this National Geographic News story, where the breach video first appeared.

Big thanks to American Whitewater, American Rivers, Pro Photo Supply and Clif Bar for making this coverage possible!