Nooksack Falls Hydroelectric Plant, Glacier Washington
The Nooksack Falls powerhouse, containing a relatively small generating capacity of 1,500 kilowatts, is, nevertheless, one of the oldest operating hydroelectric facilities in the state of Washington. Completed in 1906 and designed to serve the electrical needs of Whatcom County, it provides power for the nearby small town of Glacier and its sparsely populated environs. Despite some modifications through the years, most notably the replacement of the original Francis turbine with a Pelton impulse wheel in 1910, and the replacement of the penstocks and relocation of the diversion dam in 1931, the plant and machinery remained largely unchanged until a fire in 1997 destroyed the generator. It was replaced in 2003 and the plant resumed operation.
In the Eastern states, the typical hydroelectric plant at the turn of the century was low head, that is, the water dropped only a short distance from the forebay to the turbines, and high volume (meaning a large quantity of water was available.) Electricity generated by Eastern hydroelectric plants was typically transmitted over relatively short distances. The hydroelectric technology developed for conditions in the East, however, was often inadequate when applied to the West. In a region characterized by high elevations, low quantities of water, and long transmission distances, engineers had to modify existing technology, and sometimes invent new technologies, to meet the Western challenge. Their success in finding solutions to such problems is embodied in the Nooksack plant, a typical high-head hydroelectric facility of the early 1900s.
As Louis C. Hunter observed in his seminal study of water power in the United States, the application of the principles of the hydraulic turbine were greatly advanced in France and the United States beginning in the 1820s through the 1840s. While the French engineers stressed mathematics and the mechanical sciences in their experiments with the hydraulic turbine, their American counterparts approached the same subject in a more empirical fashion, consistently with an eye towards its practical use. Not surprisingly, in the United States much of the work in developing turbine design and materials for fabricating this new kind of water wheel was centered in New England, specifically in the textile mills along the Merrimack River, where innovations in turbine technology found immediate application in the powering of textile machinery. The foremost hydraulic engineer in the United States, James B. Francis, working in one of the nation's industrial centers, Lowell, Massachusetts, is generally credited with perfecting the inward flow turbine, an innovative wheel that, by the late nineteenth century, was widely used in the burgeoning hydroelectric power industry.
The second significant development in the realm of water wheel design in the nineteenth century was the perfection of the "impulse" wheel. Commonly called the Pelton wheel, its design and application was a by-product of mining activities in the American West during the 1860s and 1870s. Mining, especially the underground mining of hard-rock ore, required huge quantities of power both to operate the mine and to crush and extract the minerals from the rock.
While many of the mining companies in the East employed steam power, those in the West found that, owing to the scarcity of fuel, steam power was most often prohibitively expensive. One possible solution was the use of water power, but again the geologic and hydraulic conditions of the West were radically different from those of the East. The Western terrain was rugged and mountainous, typically with sudden changes in elevation. But what Western streams lacked in volume of flow they made up in velocity and rate of drop. Indeed, Louis C. Hunter has pointed out that whereas the water wheel streams of New England characteristically had drops of five to ten feet per mile, in the West streams often dropped from 100 to 250 feet per mile. In the East heads of forty to fifty feet were uncommon, while heads in the West were usually measured in hundreds of feet. The damage a debris-carrying stream dropping hundreds of feet in a mile could inflict on a turbine water wheel could be severe, and it soon became apparent that the Eastern-bred turbine was too delicate for the rigors of the West. Turbines commonly used in the East acquired such a bad reputation in the West that one engineer declared in 1884 that, as far as he knew, of the 800 water wheels then in operation in California, there was not a single conventional-type turbine at work.
What Westerners were using instead was the Pelton wheel, a special type of turbine not nearly as efficient as the more widespread low-head a turbine (by 1900 some turbines were approaching a maximum efficiency of ninety per cent while the efficiency of most Pelton wheels was about forty per cent), but a wheel whose versatility more than compensated for its lack of efficiency. The Pelton wheel was of simple, open construction and consisted of a series of "buckets" bolted around the perimeter of a wheel. These buckets were easily accessible, and should one of them become damaged, it was a simple matter to unbolt it for either repair or replacement. In addition, the Pelton wheel did not require the complex gearing that usually characterized low-head turbine installations. The Pelton-type wheel (and the nozzles used to direct water at the buckets) underwent as many transformations in design as had the turbine, and the efficiency of the best Pelton wheels was approaching that of the older well-established turbines by the late nineteenth century.
By the 1880s, practical demonstrations of the viability of hydroelectric power were being made, but steam power continued to be the dominant technology for producing electricity. The earliest electric power stations used direct current (DC) equipment, and one of the great debates among electrical engineers during the 1880s centered on whether direct current or alternating current (AC) was most efficient. Though DC power was the older and more developed technology, AC advocates pointed out one of the serious drawbacks of DC power: it could only be efficiently transmitted the relatively short distance of about ten miles or less. By the late 1880s, Westinghouse was producing single-phase alternating current equipment, and in 1889 the Willamette Falls Electric Company in Portland, Oregon, became the first power company in the U.S. to install the new AC equipment. But while single-phase was adequate for lighting purposes, it was often inadequate for powering motors. When Nikola Tesla demonstrated that two or more AC currents generated in phase with one another could produce a magnetic field that could easily power electric motors, the stage was set for the long distance transmission of versatile polyphase AC power. Three-phase transmission would eventually emerge as the industry standard, because two-phase systems required four wires while three phase systems required only three. Over a long distance, the savings in copper wire was considerable.
Just as the mountainous and semi-arid environment of the West had spurred the development and refinement of the Pelton wheel, so did the rugged terrain as well as the great distances between hydro sites and Western population centers mandate new approaches in the transmission of hydroelectric power. Only in the West (and parts of the American Southeast) were engineers faced with such formidable transmission distances, and the work done by electrical engineers, especially in California, revolutionized the hydroelectric industry. The lack of precedent for the high voltage long distance transmission of electricity often meant that practice exceeded theory; and in fact, as Thomas P. Hughes has pointed out, "the combination of large capacity and transmission distances of a hundred miles or more was a California phenomenon."
As California hydroelectric plants were being constructed, engineers drew on experience gained from providing hydraulic power for local mining activities. As was the case with mining hydraulics, water was gathered using elaborate diversion systems, and the plants often operated under very high heads. (The Fresno hydroelectric plant, for instance, which was built in 1896, operated under a head of 1410 feet, at the time the highest in the world by far.) Engineers in California were often working with transmission distances and voltages never before attempted. One example was the Colgate plant, a high-head facility completed in 1899 and designed to provide power for local mines and for Sacramento sixty miles away. In 1901 the Yuba Power Company, owners of the Colgate plant, decided to extend power transmissions to the San Francisco Bay area. The Yuba Power Company succeeded not only in building the world's longest transmission line, some 140 miles, but also in transmitting at 60,000 volts, double the voltage recommended by both General Electric and Westinghouse. By 1912 Western states had created the most extensive transmission system in the world and were routinely operating at 100,000 volts or more.
Early Hydroelectric Power in Washington State
The development of hydroelectric power in Washington paralleled its growth in California. Washington, like California, is a geologically rugged state. Two mountain ranges, the Cascades and the Olympics, dominate the topography. As in California, mining was the activity in Washington which provided much of the impetus for experimentation in the use of water wheels and in other practical applications of hydraulic engineering. When gold discoveries were made in the 1880s and 1890s in the upper Skagit River region of eastern Whatcom County, most large mining concerns built hydraulic plants to provide power for the mines, even though bringing in the necessary materials was often quite difficult. In 1906, for instance, the Ruby Creek Mining Company went so far as to built a small sawmill to provide the lumber needed to build the four-mile flume for its hydraulic plant. Everything for this plant had to be brought in by pack train, including the hydraulic plant's nozzle which was mounted on a block of cast iron. In neighboring Slate Creek, an even more elaborate project was constructed the same year at the Chancellor Mine. There a sawmill and a flume were built, as well as a powerhouse. A 240-horsepower generator was installed in the powerhouse, and once again everything had to be brought in by pack animals. The stamp mills that crushed the ore used much of the power in any mining operation, and it is estimated that in the vicinity of Barron on the upper Skagit there were at least six large stamp mills operating at the turn of the century.
Important mineral discoveries were also being made in eastern Whatcom County in the area of Nooksack Falls. The richest strike in what would eventually become the Mount Baker mining district was the Lone Jack claim of 1897. Before it closed in 1924 some $500,000 in gold would be taken out of the Lone Jack mine. The success of the Lone Jack claim produced a proliferation of mining claims in the Mount Baker mining district, and some 5,000 claims were made between 1890 and 1937. One of these claims resulted in the Great Excelsior mine, ten miles southwest of the Lone Jack mine and only one mile from the current Nooksack Falls powerhouse. A 20-stamp mill was built in 1902 to crush the ore, and a water-powered turbine provided the power. The water for the turbine was routed through a 2,200 foot flume and into a 500 foot penstock under a head of 300 feet. When the Excelsior mill was rebuilt in 1914, a powerline was extended from the Nooksack Falls powerhouse, and electrically powered machinery was used to grind the ore.
The Bellingham Bay Improvement Company
One of the mining claims made on the Nooksack was by the "Power House Group", an association of investors led by Pierre B. Cornwall with no real interest in the mineral wealth of their claim but a great interest in developing a hydroelectric facility in the area. This group, better known to local residents as the Bellingham Bay Improvement Company (BBIC), was comprised of wealthy California businessmen who were investing heavily in Bellingham properties because they believed that the coastal town would someday become an important urban center. With the aim of speeding along Bellingham's metamorphosis into a great metropolis, the BBIC was incorporated in 1889. The BBIC invested in such diverse enterprises as shipping, coal mining, railroad construction, real estate sales and utilities. Although the dreams of these investors were never realized (it was Seattle, 100 miles to the south, that became the Northwest's major economic and population center), the BBIC did contribute a great deal to the economic development of Bellingham.
The BBIC had the franchise for providing power for the city of Bellingham (and here as in other municipalities the earliest use of electricity was for street lighting and street railways), and maintained a small generator for that purpose. This generator was often inadequate for the job, however, and in 1903 the BBIC began developing a hydroelectric facility on the North Fork of the Nooksack River, below Nooksack Falls. In 1904, the BBICs electrical franchise with the city was up for renewal, and the City Council made it clear that it was not totally pleased with BBICs performance. The City, in fact, threatened to build a municipally-owned hydroelectric plant at Whatcom Falls, however, it subsequently backed away from this proposal after a survey disclosed that the BBIC was supplying Bellingham with electricity cheaper than could be had by a municipal operation. Despite some disagreement among members of the City Council, it responded to the survey by awarding the BBIC a three-year extension of its franchise.
In addition to the hostility of the City Council, the BBIC was also encountering some construction problems at Nooksack Falls. In 1903 the BBIC had been able to bore six tunnels at the Nooksack site for the flume and penstocks, but the generator and transformers for the plant were waiting at Whatcom some fifty miles away. (In 1903 voters from the cities of Whatcom and Fairhaven voted to consolidate their municipalities into a single city: Bellingham.) Moving heavy hydroelectric equipment through the mountains to the Nooksack site presented formidable problems. The heaviest equipment was shipped to the rail head at Glacier, then loaded on sleds and pulled by steam donkey to the site. The first piece of heavy equipment to be brought in and mounted in the powerhouse was a crane with a 40,000 pound capacity. Once the crane was installed, it was used to lift and install the rest of the powerhouse equipment. The lighter pieces of equipment were brought in by pack animals, and many local residents were able to make extra money by hiring out their animals. The difficulties encountered by the BBIC in maintaining its small generator and in trying to construct a hydroelectric facility at Nooksack prompted the Board of Directors to announce in 1905 that it was selling its utility holdings. In October of 1905 the BBIC announced that it had sold its entire power holdings to the Boston firm of Stone & Webster.
Stone & Webster
Charles Stone and Edwin Webster first met in 1884 while studying electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The two became close friends and in 1890, only two years after graduating, they formed their own business, the Massachusetts Electrical Engineering Company (in 1893 the company's name was changed to Stone & Webster.) Their company was one of the earliest electrical engineering consulting firms in the United States. One of Stone & Webster's first projects was the testing of all electrical materials for the Underwriter's Union, a job held by the firm until 1895 when the Underwriters established their own laboratories. Stone & Webster was awarded its first major contract in 1890: designing and constructing a hydroelectric plant for a New England paper company.
The Panic of 1893 brought financial difficulties for many electrical manufacturers when the securities they had accepted from utility companies as payment for their equipment proved inadequate to meet the demands of banks for repayment of the manufacturers' loans. J.P. Morgan played a leading role in rescuing the newly formed General Electric company by buying G.E.'s utility stocks and establishing a syndicate to manage these holdings. Stone & Webster was retained to appraise these properties. The Stone & Webster partners not only gained great insight into the development and management of utilities through this experience, but also invested profitably in the utilities they were appraising. Stone & Webster was able to gain control of one such utility, the Nashville Electric Light and Power Company, for a few thousand dollars and later sold it at a profit of $500,000.
During the next ten years Stone & Webster acquired financial interest in a large number of other utilities, while at the same time offering engineering, financial and managerial consulting services to independent utilities. Though Stone & Webster was not technically functioning as a holding company, since these various utilities maintained their own officers and board members, Stone & Webster's financial and managerial presence in these utilities meant that the firm always had considerable influence in policy decisions. Often, in fact, Stone & Webster would be paid for its services in utility stock. By 1912 the firm had divided itself into three specialized subsidiaries: Stone & Webster Engineering Company, Stone & Webster Management Association and Stone & Webster and Blodget, Inc., the financial wing of Stone & Webster. The result was that Stone & Webster not only became one of the nation's most important engineering firms, but acquired in the process financial interests in a large number of properties, especially railway and utility properties.
By 1908, Stone & Webster listed thirty-one railway and lighting properties as being under its management. These included five properties in Washington State: Puget Sound Electric Railway, Puget Sound International Railway and Power Company, Puget Sound Power Company, The Seattle Electric Company, and the Whatcom County Railway and Light Company. Stone & Webster was sensitive to the increasing public criticism of large holding companies, and was careful to emphasize the "complete independence" of these properties. Indeed, when J.D. Ross, superintendent of Seattle City Light, issued a report that was hostile to Stone & Webster's presence in Seattle, one of his prominent exhibits was a list taken from Moody's Manual of 1916 showing the 49 companies then under Stone & Webster management.
Washington state was attractive to those with an interest in developing hydroelectric power because of its great water power potential. The U.S. Geological Survey of 1928 found Washington to have the greatest hydroelectric power potential of any state. The survey, in fact, credited Washington with having some 18.9 percent of the total water power resources of the United States. Perhaps more important was the fact that the concentration of water power (meaning water power per square mile of land area) was twice as great in Washington as in its nearest competitor, the state of Oregon. Some understanding of the vast extent of Washington's water resources can be gained if one considers the fact that by 1981 Washington had already developed the largest hydroelectric capacity of any state in the union, yet still ranked third among all states in hydroelectric potential.
The availability of such natural resources, coupled with a widely held belief that the economic and developmental potential of the area was almost limitless, attracted such firms as Stone & Webster to Washington. Edwin S. Webster, for one, believed that outside capital was the "thing most needed" to develop the resources of Washington, and chided those localists who thought otherwise:
As we have seen, outside capital was already a presence in Bellingham in the form of the Bellingham Bay Improvement Company; but the BBIC was not the only outside firm with an interest in Bellingham utilities. The General Electric Company of New York purchased Bellingham's Fairhaven and New Whatcom street rail line in 1897, and when this utility metamorphosed into the Northern Railway and Improvement Company in 1898 the Electric Corporation of Boston purchased a large block of shares. Stone & Webster was also involved in Puget Sound area street railways, and in 1900 had taken control of, and merged, eight small rail lines in Seattle. Shortly thereafter Stone & Webster also took over the street railway systems of Tacoma and Everett.
In December 1902, Stone & Webster acquired the Fairhaven and New Whatcom. Over the next several months Northern Railway and Improvement sold Stone & Webster the rest of its Bellingham holdings. This included the Fairhaven Electric Light, Power and Motor Company, and the Whatcom-Fairhaven Gas Company. Stone & Webster organized these concerns under the umbrella name of the Whatcom County Railway and Light Company.
One of the most pressing problems facing Stone & Webster in Bellingham was a shortage of power. Power for the 149 electric light customers was provided by a steam engine running a single phase generator, while four steam engines driving direct-current generators produced the power for the rail system. All steam engines were fueled by wood. The inadequacies of this system were often painfully obvious-especially when power to the railway would drop to a point where cars along the line would simply come to a stop until normal power generation could be resumed.
To remedy this situation, Stone & Webster bought out the power and lighting properties of the Bellingham Bay Improvement Company in 1905. These included the York Street steam plant, and the partially completed Nooksack hydroelectric project. Stone & Webster Engineering Corporation took over the construction of the plant, and on 21 September 1906, Bellingham received its first power from the Nooksack plant via a 47 mile transmission line.
Stone & Webster was becoming heavily involved in electric utilities and hydroelectric projects elsewhere in western Washington. As has already been noted, Stone & Webster had assumed control of the street rail lines in Seattle, Tacoma and Everett. In Seattle, the Stone & Webster-owned Seattle Electric Company was building new steam plants, adding new rail tracks, and scouting the region for possible hydroelectric sites. After the state's first large hydroelectric facility was built at Snoqualmie Falls in 1898, the Seattle Electric Company contracted with the Snoqualmie Falls Power Company to buy half of the plant's output, about 3,000 horsepower. This was an era of fierce competition among power companies-precipitated largely by an incredible boom in population (Seattle's population nearly tripled between 1900 and 1910) and by a great increase in demand for electricity.
Competition was especially keen between the Seattle Electric Company and the Seattle-Tacoma Power Company (a company formed from a merger among the Snoqualmie Falls Power Company, the Tacoma Cataract Company and the Seattle Cataract Company in 1904.) The Seattle-Tacoma Power Company increased the output at its existing Snoqualmie plant in 1905, and constructed a second power plant there in 1910. In 1904, Stone & Webster completed its Electron plant on the Puyallup River under the corporate name Puget Sound Power Company. This hydroelectric facility utilized ten and one fourth miles of flume, operated under a head of about 870 feet, and was capable of generating 24,000 kilowatts (kw) transmitting at 55,000 volts. With the service area of the Seattle-Tacoma Power Company threatened by the Electron plant, the Seattle-Tacoma Power Company bought the rights to the projected White River hydroelectric development in 1906. The purchase price ($1,250,000) was ruinously high, and in 1908 the Seattle-Tacoma Power Company sold its White River rights, for under $600,000, to a subsidiary of the Seattle Electric Company. Stone & Webster Engineering began construction of the plant in 1909, and in 1911 the White River facility went on line generating 20,000 kw (later enlarged to 60,000 kw) under a head of 400 feet.
In 1912 Stone & Webster merged the Seattle-Tacoma Power Company and the Pacific Coast Power Company, and combined them with the Seattle Electric Company, the Puget Sound Power Company, and the Whatcom County Railway and Light Company, to form the Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power Company. Eventually renamed Puget Sound Power & Light, the new company now owned four hydroelectric plants (Snoqualmie, Electron, White River and Nooksack) and an integrated transmission system. Upon completion of the White River project in 1911, Stone & Webster controlled all but one of western Washington's premier hydroelectric plants.
Shortly after the Nooksack plant was placed on line L.H. Bean, writing for the Stone & Webster Public Service Journal, boasted that "the Whatcom [County Railway and Light] Company congratulates itself upon securing a power plant intelligently planned and economically constructed." The earliest years of the Nooksack plant, however, turned out to be some of the most difficult. The most serious problem stemmed from the sand and debris entering the hydraulic system from the swiftly flowing river. Sand was clogging the water passages "to such an extent that large quantities of the volume practically impasses the wheel, unused, or detrimentally." Sand was also wearing the gates to the turbine, producing a condition in which "the clearance between the gates and the wheel is rapidly being destroyed and may eventually result in the destruction of the turbine by reason of the gates dropping into wheel blades."
Most deleterious, however, was the effect of sand on the turbine itself. The Nooksack plant was operating with a 3,300 horsepower Victor Turbine of the Francis type manufactured by Platt Iron Works. As we have seen, Francis turbines had never enjoyed great success in the West, and this pattern was repeated at the Nooksack plant. Sand was destroying the turbine's bearings, and by 1908 the Stone & Webster Public Service Journal was reporting that "sand and grit of one kind and another have so worn these bearings as to make them practically useless." One side effect of this bearing wear was excessive end thrust on the turbine, and Samuel L. Shuffleton, Stone & Webster's chief engineer for the Puget Sound region, had tried to compensate for this phenomenon by installing a special thrust cylinder and piston on the generator pedestal and shaft. By late in 1909, however, Stone & Webster had decided that the turbine at Nooksack should be replaced by an impulse wheel. Though repairing the turbine would have been cheaper, Stone & Webster noted that "it is altogether likely that in three years from now the wheel would require replacement anyway." In 1910, the turbine was replaced by six Pelton impulse wheels, a job that took about ten days to complete.
The Nooksack plant experienced other problems in the early days, including the frequent failure of the commutator. There were problems with the armature at the Nooksack plant as well, and in the winter of 1908-09 the armature burned up, and it was necessary to install a new one. The new armature came in two sections, one weighing 22,000 pounds, the other 26,000 pounds, and had to be dragged the seven miles from Glacier by a crew of men and a steam donkey engine.
The Nooksack plant was also plagued with electrical problems, namely voltage variation and "when the plant was first started the voltage variation was so bad as to jam the Tirrill regulators in both directions, causing much trouble and poor service." In 1913 the original bank of transformers was replaced by a new bank of water-cooled transformers, and an auxiliary motor driven exciter was installed. In 1922 the generator was completely rewound.
The new Pelton wheels quickly developed problems of their own. The wheel buckets were constantly being chipped, cracked and broken by river debris. The Nooksack plant log book in 1912 is full of references to problems associated with the Pelton buckets: July 7-"putting on buckets," July 27-"shutting down broken buckets," August ll-"putting on buckets," August 20-"loose bucket." Aside from cracking and chipping, the Pelton buckets developed further problems as the pins holding the buckets to the spider began to wear out. In 1913 the six Pelton wheels were removed and replaced with new ones. In October 1924 the Pelton wheels were replaced once again. The six-Pelton-wheel configuration at Nooksack was finally abandoned in 1940 in favor of a four-wheel system. Skagit Steel and Iron removed the old wheels, and installed four new Pelton wheels of an improved design. At the same time larger nozzles were installed to replace the old ones. A test run in 1922 revealed that the six Pelton wheels had picked up an average load of 300 kw each. According to plant operator Doug Hamilton the four Pelton wheels currently in service average 400 kw each.
Some of the most extensive modifications to the Nooksack plant were completed in 1931. Throughout its history, the Nooksack plant had experienced problems with slides damaging the penstocks. In 1930, work began on building a new penstock and creating a new route for it. The old penstocks consisted of one 44-inch wood-stave penstock with iron bands and steel riveted elbows at curves, and a 47-inch steel penstock. These penstocks had passed through four tunnels between the forebay and the plant. In 1931 the two original penstocks were replaced by a single 60 inch welded steel penstock built above grade, and a new path was chosen for the penstock to avoid slide areas.
While work was progressing on the penstock, a new dam was being constructed a thousand feet upstream from the old one. Built with large Douglas fir logs and anchored by mass concrete, the new dam would raise the head from 176 feet to 206 feet. The addition of this dam meant that other major alterations would have to be made to the water conveyance system, including the building of a concrete flume, 450 feet in length, a settling basin, a wood-stave pipe, measuring six feet in diameter and extending 560 feet, a rock tunnel with a length of 1,025 feet, and a reinforced concrete forebay, 35 feet long. These additions quickly improved the operations of the Nooksack plant. By December 1931, the plant operator was noted that, "The most outstanding events in connection with the plant this year has been the remarkable and phenominal [sic] all around increased efficiency, not only from an operative point of view, a transmission system corrective, but also increased K.W. production. This is due solely to the new water power system."
Keeping a hydroelectric plant functioning is a constant struggle against the forces of nature. The troubles experienced at Nooksack with sand and debris damaging both the turbine and water wheels, and slides damaging the penstocks, have already been alluded to. One maintenance activity frequently performed at Nooksack is the removal of debris from the intake and forebay trashracks. The swift-flowing Nooksack River is capable of carrying quite heavy objects in its current, which can not only clog the intakes, but hit the trashrack bars with sufficient force to bend them. Consequently, not only must trashracks be cleaned frequently, but even trashrack bars must occasionally be replaced. The region around the Nooksack plant is also heavily forested, and trees occasionally fall across the transmission lines cutting off power.
The river itself has wild seasonal fluctuations. Former plant operator Don Blackman remembers that during the winter and spring months "the river used to get high-high as the devil." Bridges would occasionally wash out, and in 1962 heavy rains had swollen the river to such a point that the island south of the plant was washed away. During the summer the Nooksack River can be reduced to a trickle. Often the plant cannot pull a full load, and water pressure can be reduced to the point where the plant must be operated on only one valve.
The operators at Nooksack have brought a variety of skills to the job. David Harrison, for instance, who was an operator at Nooksack in the 1930s, had a degree in electrical engineering and later became chief operator at Grand Coulee hydroelectric facility. Don Blackman, however, notes that a technical education in electricity was not really necessary to performing the duties of a plant operator. Blackman himself had no practical training in electronics, and was trained at the Nooksack site by chief operator Pat Miller. Art Bennett, who began his stint as chief operator in the 1920s, was described by his son Alastair as a "self-styled engineer" who learned about electrical engineering through correspondence courses. Doug Hamilton believes that few operators had even this much technical background, and that most learned the skills of a hydro operator through "hands on" experience. Most useful to the Nooksack operator was mechanical skills to keep old machinery operating.
Relations between labor and management at Nooksack have, for the most part, been harmonious. This pattern did not change when workers voted to affiliate with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in 1934. Keeping the plant operating full time normally required three eight-hour shifts. But during the Depression the company sometimes cut back operations to the point where, at times, only one eight-hour shift was run and occasionally the plant was shut down altogether. During these down periods, Nooksack operators were reassigned rather than layed off.
For much of its history, the plant at Nooksack served not only as a commercial hydroelectric facility, but also as the center of a small community. Because of its remote location, the rugged landscape surrounding it, and the primitive transportation conditions which existed in the vicinity of the Nooksack plant, the only practical way to operate the plant in the early days was for workers to live on the premises with their families. After the plant came on line, the utility company employed one chief hydro-operator and two assistant operators, and the company built three frame cottages (ca. 1906) on the hill above the powerhouse to house these workers and their families. In addition, a school teacher was hired to educate children of the workers, and a hotel was built about 1905 to house company officials, construction workers, and others visiting the plant. A section of the two-story wood-frame hotel also served as a school room. Employment at Nooksack was at its peak between 1906 and the mid-1920s, with five operators, hotel manager, cook, assistant cook, and teacher all on the payroll.
Alastair Bennett began living at Nooksack at age two, when his father Art assumed the duties of chief operator in 1924. The younger Bennett remembers that the company considered the plant a showcase, and that it took great pains to maintain carefully the plant, housing, and grounds. When he began attending school at Nooksack, the only students sharing the hotel classroom with him were his older sister and Maxine Lang, daughter of operator Max Lang and wife Lila. Alastair Bennett speaks highly of this school, and notes that teachers were certified by the state, and that Whatcom County officials made periodic inspections of the Nooksack school. After his second grade, however, his mother pulled his sister and himself from the Nooksack school and enrolled them in school at Glacier. By 1930, the company had closed the Nooksack school, and never reopened it.
In 1948, operator Don Blackman and his wife Rose moved into the westernmost cottage at Nooksack and became the last people to live in the plant cottages. Though their home was generally well-maintained by the company, and Puget Power did not charge them rent, the Blackmans discovered several drawbacks to life at Nooksack. Rose Blackman especially can still vividly recall the feeling of isolation she experienced during the Blackmans' two year stay. The winters could be especially lonely, and the fact that the cottage relied on wood and coal for heat meant that a winter at Nooksack could be quite cold.
The cottages were demolished in the early 1970s to discourage squatters from taking up residence. Though Puget Power considered turning the hotel into a company ski lodge in the late 1930s, this idea never came to fruition, and the hotel was finally demolished in the mid-1960s. In addition to the powerhouse, early buildings still standing at the Nooksack site include the machine shop at the base of the hill, and the original concrete transformer house on the hill above the plant.
Today there is little evidence of the small community that once existed at Nooksack, because the plant no longer requires the manpower it once did. In 1978 the plant was partially automated with emergency equipment that can shut all four water valves in 12 seconds. An "annunciator" now activates the operator's pager if the plant develops a problem. A plant that once required five operators can now be managed by one alone. Major maintenance on the plant is done once a year, when the Nooksack plant is shut down for a month to weld the Pelton wheels, check the bearings, and do whatever else might be necessary to keep the plant functioning smoothly.