Electron Dam, what is it?

As the railroad expanded into the timberlands of Western Washington to ease transport of the logs to mills downstream, many geological discoveries were made in Pierce County. One was the large deposit of clay near Eatonville that resulted in the construction of the place called Clay City, the other was the construction of the Electron Dam. The Electron Dam, built between 1898 and 1904 was one of the very first dams in Washington State.

Beginning a quarter of a mile from the confluence of the Mowich River and the Puyallup River which is approximately 6 miles from the glacier on Mount Rainier, is the location of the Headworks. The Headworks is the actual dam structure that diverts water for the power plant 10 miles away in Electron.

This diversion dam moves the silty glacial water into a flume. The Electron flume was initially constructed completely of timbers logged from the hills around Camp One Road. This eight foot by eight foot wooden flume was supported on its journey to the Forebay supported on timbers that attached it to the hills along its path. Those supporting timbers have been replaced with steel supports over the past 25 years. Between the Forebay (Reservoir) and the diversion dam, there is also a settling pond for silt from the river.

On top of the flume is a narrow gauge railroad track that supports small railroad vehicles called Speeders. Those Speeders travel at about 5 miles per hour. So the trip from the diversion dam to reservoir and maintenance shop above the powerhouse in Electron takes about 2 hours.

The Speeder trip from the shop to the Headworks is not for the faint of heart. The flume is located on the sides of cliffs in some places. There have been washouts noted during storms and workers have been lost, their bodies never recovered from the slide. Maintaining the flume has always been a task for the brave and safety minded.

Each mile on the way to the Headworks is marked by a log cabin. Over the years people involved in the construction and logging in the foothills of the Puyallup could rest there and make a meal. There were even old wooden telephones located in the buildings at one time. The cabins are numbered with the miles from the dam. The buildings are now in an unhealthy state of disrepair. In one, we spotted a pack rat and his stash of material gathered from human litter in the forest. They have some hand built furnishings, now mostly broken along with some scattered utensils and broken dishes.

Water reaching the Forebay or Reservoir from the diversion dam also has various species of fish. The presence and handling of these captured aquatic species are a major point of contention between the owners of the dam, the local Tribal Authorities, government agencies and environmental activists. There have been many conversations, many lawsuits and formal agreements over the years. The agreement between Puget Sound Energy (PSE) and the Puyallup Tribe was supposed to be honored in the sale agreement between PSE and Electron Hydro LLC on November 14m 2014. It is currently playing out unfavorably for Electron Hydro as they are working on the diversion dam. They have been accused of mishandling the habitat issues and placing unapproved materials in the river.

The Forebay or Reservoir water enters large pipes called Penstocks with stand pipes at the top. These pipes drop 667 feet in elevation from the Forebay into the Powerhouse. The water comes out in a spray no wider than a Bic pen to turn the generator blades. The water then drops back out of the Powerhouse back into the Puyallup River, ten miles from its initial uptake.

The Electron facility was built by the Columbia Improvement Company, formed by Stone & Webster Engineering Corporation of Boston in 1898.   It was managed by Sidney Mitchell, who had originally come to the Northwest as the exclusive agent of Edison’s Electric Light Company to sell the idea of electric light. The engineer making the surveys and studies for Stone & Webster’s new dam was S.L. “Sam” Shuffleton. Electron was the first major hydroelectric project in Pierce County and the largest in the state at the time it was constructed. Up to 1500 employees worked on the project.

At the time the Electron Dam was built, there was only one other dam in the State of Washington, on the Falls at the Spokane River. The power from Electron allowed Tacoma to change their trolley system from horses to electric trains. The project, along with the system of railroad tracks, helped the town of Kapowsin grow to over 1000 residents with 7 operating sawmills. A bus, pulled by horses, brought children up 264th Street from Electron to secondary school at Kapowsin. There was a small elementary school at Electron for many years.

Electron was not without its challenges. Aside from many slides that wiped out the flume from time to time, on November 23, 1936 at 10:28 p.m., a large mudslide destroyed the Powerhouse. Drainage pipes were added to the hillside when the Powerhouse was reconstructed. All but one generator was wiped out. Two generators were back in operation by 1937 and full restoration took until 1941 because WWII delayed the acquisition of needed equipment.

To get workers quickly from the small town of Electron beside the Powerhouse up to the maintenance shop, Reservoir and flume, there was a cable car. Workers would park at the base of the hill and each day take the cable car uphill to work and back at the end of the day. In 1974, there was an accident after a cable holding the car broke and workers had to jump from the runaway cable car as it sped uncontrolled down the hill. It crashed at the bottom, carrying one last passenger who did not jump. Sadly, that worker was killed, his name, Clarence A. Bransteitter. The injured workers were scattered all along the hillside. A call went out for emergency assistance. Dr. James Billingsly was notified at St. Joseph’s Hospital of the casualties. He contacted Highlife Helicopters, Inc. for assistance. Luckily, it was May and the daylight lasted until almost 10:30 p.m. giving them time to extract the injured workers from the hillside. Dr. Billingsly credits this accident with the creation of the medical evacuation helicopters used to this day in the Cascade mountains.

April 12, 1904 the Electron Dam and Powerhouse started creating electricity. Major improvements in the region resulted from this facility and the electricity it generated. In 2004, as the Graham Community Plan was being created, PSE was asked if they were going to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Electron Dam and bring back many of the people who worked there over the years. At first reluctant, PSE went ahead with the celebration and almost 100 people attended. Although the older member of the staff, Emmott Chase (96) was too ill to participate that day, but many of the attended drove over to his home and visited. Emmott grew up in Electron as his father was the Supervisor at the facility when it opened. He later worked there until his retirement.

Although most of the town that was Electron is gone, and PSE sold the dam to Electron Hydro, LLC, it is still in operation serving about 20,000 customers with electricity. You can reach the location of the former town of Electron off Orville Road South of Orting near the North end of Kapowsin Lake. There is a sign on the gravel road that says Electron, but the only accessible part is a park from which you can barely view the Powerhouse over some heavily growing blackberry bushes. There is a posted sign with a bit of Electron history at the park.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. cazz1226@aol.com says:

    Thank you for this interesting history of Electron and its dam.

  2. Nola says:

    Very well presented. Thank you!
    In the early ’70s I was able to stay a week at the caretakers home and had a wonderful your of area and the wilderness around it. It is a lovely area.

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