Puget Sound Power & Light Company, White River Hydroelectric Project, Dieringer Washington

Date added: March 25, 2022 Categories: Washington Power Plant Hydroelectric Power
Generator room in powerhouse; turbine unit no. 2 is to the right, looking southeast (1989)

Prior to the arrival of whites, Native Americans inhabited the White River Valley. Although little is known of the region's long history of native-American life, archeological evidence points to a number of settlements, as well as to hunting and gathering activities in the surrounding forests, streams, and prairie lands. Much more information exists on the first white settlers, who established themselves in the vicinity of the White River as early as 1853. Few in number, these settlers filed land claims which ranged in size from 160 acres to 320 acres. Most of these early claims encompassed the valley's fertile prairie land where white settlers, such as Michael Connell and James E. Williamson, built cabins and engaged in subsistence farming. Soon after white settlers entered the region, however, hostilities between whites and Indians arose, culminating in the Indian War of 1855-56. After the combined forces of federal troops and territorial volunteers defeated the native-American warriors, Indian reservations were established and a few whites returned to the White River Valley.

From the mid-1850s to the 1880s, the White River Valley remained sparsely populated by whites. In contrast, the neighboring Puyallup Valley received larger numbers of homesteaders, led by Ira Meeker, who cultivated the land and established a lucrative hop-growing economy. The construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad to Tacoma in 1883 fueled this development and sparked a land boom in both the White and Puyallup River regions. Four years later the Northern Pacific completed its route through the Cascades via Stampede Pass and extended a branch line into the White River Valley. In addition, settlers had improved the Naches Pass wagon road, which eased travel through the upper White River Valley. By 1888, the towns of Buckley and Enumclaw boasted the largest population centers in the upper reaches of the valley and logging quickly rivaled farming as the region's most important economic activity.

The earliest engineering surveys of the White River Valley were conducted in the 1860s by surveying parties of the Northern Pacific Railroad. General James Tilton, appointed chief engineer of the Northern Pacific Railroad's Western Division in 1867, began the work of locating potential routes for a line through the Cascades. Tilton and other railroad surveyors explored the White, Green, and Cedar River watersheds, ascertaining elevations through the mountain passes. Although these survey parties gathered only rudimentary hydraulic data on the rivers, their maps included valuable topographic information on the watersheds.

The first comprehensive hydraulic study of the White River was probably undertaken in the early 1890s by Tacoma civil engineer E. H. McHenry, who later served as chief engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway. McHenry filed for water rights on the White River and proposed a hydro-power development to the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, which had completed Oregon City's Willamette Falls hydroelectric project in 1891, one of the first single-phase alternating-current transmission systems in the United States. Lacking financial support, however, McHenry failed to interest Westinghouse and little more was accomplished in furtherance of his scheme until 1895 when the White River Power Company was incorporated in Tacoma.

The chief engineer of the fledgling White River Power Company, A. McLean Hawks, undertook a new study of the watershed while his partner, Tacoma attorney Charles E. Warner, filed for water rights. Formerly chief engineer of Tacoma Light & Water Company, Hawks conceived a plan for diverting water from the White River at Buckley, then conveying it via a ten-mile-long canal to a lake on the Enumclaw Plateau, where penstocks would conduct it some 480 feet down to the powerhouse situated at the base of the plateau. In 1895, Hawks worked up this scheme with the aim of attracting East Coast capital and he forwarded his plans to the renowned hydraulic engineer Rudolph Herring of New York City. In the meantime, Charles Warner was awarded the right to appropriate 2,000 cubic feet of water per second from the river for power development. Warner and Hawks' bid to interest investors in their scheme, however, fared no better than McHenry's. The economic depression of the 1890s hit western Washington particularly hard and few were willing to invest in such enterprises. As another of Seattle's depression-era hydro-power promoters observed, the willingness of East Coast capitalists to bankroll Northwestern entrepreneurs was "a long way between promise and performance."

The inability of Hawks and his partner to find the necessary capital to undertake their hydro scheme brought the project to a halt. Apart from conducting periodic stream-gauging projects and posting water-right notices, the company accomplished little to harness the water power of the White River. For over five years Hawks' design languished until 1901, when Charles H. Baker assumed control of the White River Power Company. Just two years earlier, in 1899, Charles Baker had completed the Snoqualmie Falls plant, the largest hydroelectric facility in the Northwest. With the financial backing of his father, wealthy Chicagoan William T. Baker, Charles Baker now sought to expand his electrical power holdings by developing the White River project. Unlike the Snoqualmie plant, however, the White River hydro facility, as proposed by Hawks, offered a reserve water supply in a reservoir on the Enumclaw Plateau. Thus, when the stream flow dropped in the Snoqualmie River, Baker could offset the resulting loss in this plant's electrical power generation by raising production at the White River plant. Increasingly, Baker, as well as his rivals, recognized the strategic importance of the White River project.

Struggle on the White River

Baker's chief rival for the White River project emerged in 1899 in the form of the Stone & Webster Company, led by electrical engineers Charles Stone and Edwin Webster. The two men had founded the firm ten years earlier, shortly after they graduated from the electrical engineering program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Initially involved in the design of electrical machinery for powerhouses and the testing of electrical equipment, Stone and Webster expanded their business to include the financial and technical evaluation of distressed electric properties. They forged an alliance with General Electric, which had substantial investments in many of the financially unstable electric companies. With the encouragement of financial titan J. P. Morgan, the man largely responsible for organizing General Electric, Stone and Webster began acquiring poorly performing electrical properties. They often reorganized the financial and technical management of these companies, designed improvements to their physical plants, and oversaw all construction work.

One such poorly performing electrical concern was Seattle's Union Electric Company. The largest electric utility in the city. Union Electric emerged in 1892 out of a consolidation of the Home Electric and Seattle General Electric companies. Dr. Edward C. Kilbourne, a Seattle dentist who speculated in real estate, street railways, and electrical properties, led Union Electric which operated two steam plants in Seattle's downtown. Kilbourne, however, proved to be a poor manager, spending a great deal of time on outside business investments. Union Electric also lacked technical expertise and its electrical generating equipment, though only a few years old, was rapidly becoming obsolete. With the company threatening to default on its bonds in 1897, the Pacific Northwest's General Electric agent Sidney Z. Mitchell recommended a reorganization of Union Electric. At Mitchell's urging, a group of Seattle businessmen, including William G. Grambs, manager of the Seattle Steam Heat & Power Company and a rival of Kilbourne, sought to form a new, larger electrical concern that would assume control of Union Electric's property. As a result of Mitchell's initiative, a syndicate composed of East Coast investors hired the firm of Stone & Webster to study Seattle's electric companies and street railways with the aim of forming one large concern. Charles Stone visited Seattle in the fall of 1898 and the following year the syndicate hired Stone & Webster to undertake the consolidation venture.

Under the Stone & Webster plan, the Seattle Electric Company was organized on January 19, 1900, for the purpose of taking over electrical properties. Agents of the banking syndicate proceeded to acquire either the plants or securities of the city's many small electric concerns and turned them over to the Seattle Electric Company. An agreement was made between the syndicate and the Seattle Electric Company, such that as properties were acquired and put into good operating condition, they were absorbed by the company, which would then issue its own securities in payment. In this way, sixteen electric railway, light, and power companies operating in Seattle, including the Union Electric Company, were consolidated under Stone & Webster management by 1903. Although Stone & Webster served as general manager of the Seattle Electric Company, the firm never actually owned more than a small percentage of this company.

In addition to developing the plan that led to the formation of the Seattle Electric Company, Stone & Webster underscored the need for greater electric power generation through the development of hydropower in nearby Cascade Mountain streams. The initial attempt to achieve this end saw Stone & Webster, in concert with Mitchell and Grambs, launch the Washington Power Transmission Company in early 1899. Their plan to develop a hydroelectric plant near Cedar Falls, however, was blocked by Seattle city officials who were completing a municipal waterworks in the Cedar River watershed. Aiding the municipal ownership advocates in their battle with Washington Power Transmission Company was a newly emergent and principal foe of Stone & Webster's interests in the Northwest, Charles H. Baker.

Nearing completion of his Snoqualmie Falls plant at the same time the Washington Power Transmission Company was pushing its Cedar Falls development. Baker recognized this rival firm, joined with the Mitchell-Grambs interests in Seattle, could effectively bar his Snoqualmie enterprise from doing business in Washington's largest city. Although his attempt to aid the municipal campaign against the Stone & Webster forces nearly backfired when a plaintive in a suit against the city to oust all private landholders in the watershed was revealed to be a close friend of Baker, the municipal ownership advocates defeated the Washington Power & Transmission Company in the summer of 1899.

Much to Baker's chagrin, however. Stone & Webster's failure to develop a hydroelectric plant on the Cedar River was only a temporary setback for the Boston-based firm. In 1902, Stone & Webster formed the Columbia Improvement Company to construct a hydro plant, called Electron, on the Puyallup River in Pierce County. In the meantime, with Baker pushing forward his plan to build the White River project. Stone & Webster and Sidney Mitchell developed a two-part strategy for outmaneuvering the Baker interests: complete the Electron plant and block Baker's efforts on the White River.

The year 1904 saw Stone & Webster complete its first hydroelectric facility in the Northwest, the Electron plant. Looking to challenge the Baker forces in the Cascades, Stone & Webster replaced the recently departed Sidney Mitchell with Samuel Shuffleton to take charge of its construction projects in Washington state. A self-taught engineer with only a primary school education, Shuffleton, nonetheless, possessed virtually all of the qualities that Stone and Webster demanded of their engineers. He toiled tirelessly, possessed an exceptional memory for detail, and was completely dedicated to the company. As one of his fellow engineers later recalled, Shuffleton "was second to none when it came to handling difficult construction, no matter how large or complicated." He also enjoyed working with his hands and often cut a striking figure in the field, wearing grease-stained suits and a formal black derby. Though never well known outside of Stone & Webster circles, Shuffleton was one of the company's most successful engineers.

For Charles Stone and Edwin Webster, Shuffleton proved the crucial figure in their challenge to the Baker interests. As early as 1901, with financial backing from Stone and Webster, Shuffleton had begun acquiring land along the White River below the section on which Baker proposed to construct an intake for his hydroelectric works. In 1902, Shuffleton established the Tacoma Industrial Company, capitalized at a modest $150,000, for the purpose of developing a water power project on the White River. Shortly after this company was founded, Shuffleton conveyed to Tacoma Industrial all of the White River property to which he held title. Shuffleton then filed for water rights on the river and posted notices of the company's intentions near the Baker property.

About the same time Shuffleton was filing his claim for water rights, Charles Baker was readying his plan for his White River project. He consolidated the Snoqualmie Falls Power Company, Seattle Cataract Company, and the Tacoma Cataract Company into the Snoqualmie Falls and White River Power Company. Capitalized at $3 million dollars, this new concern issued 20,000 shares of stock with all but five shares held by Charles Baker's father, William. The younger Baker assumed the role of company president and chief engineer. Borrowing heavily from Hawks' original White River hydroelectric design (though Baker never publicly acknowledged the work of Hawks), Baker publicized his project in one of the nation's leading engineering trade journals. The project called for an intake on the river near Buckley and an eight-mile-long canal, discharging water into Lake Tapps. (Baker proposed to rename this body of water Lake Dorothy, after his young daughter.) At the western end of the lake, a tunnel was to convey water into steel penstocks, which descended 450 feet to the base of the plateau and into the turbines, housed in a brick and steel-frame powerhouse. Water was to be discharged from the powerhouse into the nearby Stuck River. Baker claimed that the powerhouse was being designed for 10,000 horsepower but his future plans called for an additional 40,000 horsepower. It was a plan Baker would never realize.

In December 1903 Baker decided to move against Shuffleton and his Tacoma Industrial Company, filing suit against the intruding firm in the Pierce County Superior Court. Baker claimed prior appropriation of water and sought to condemn the holdings of Shuffleton and others in the watershed. Shuffleton met this action with his own condemnation proceeding. He claimed his power development below Buckley would simply draw water from the White River, convey it a short distance to the powerhouse, and return it into the same stream. This legal action continued through 1903 when, in October, Charles Baker received news from Chicago that his father had died in his sleep.

For Charles Baker, the several months after his father's death proved disastrous. In late October a fire struck his Snogualmie Falls plant, putting it out of commission for a number of weeks. This was followed by a dispute between Charles Baker and his brother, Howard H. Baker, who was appointed administrator of their father's estate. At the instigation of Donworth and Howe, attorneys for Stone & Webster's Northwest interests, Howard Baker was asked to sell the Snogualmie Falls and White River Power Company to his brother's competitors. Though Charles Baker vehemently opposed this action there was little he could do since he did not hold title to the property and controlled only a minority of shares in the Snoqualmie Falls and White River Power Company. Charles Baker also faced an insurrection led by company officer N. H. Latimer, who joined Howard Baker in calling for an alliance with the Stone & Webster interests. Although as President, Baker vigorously tried to maintain the independence of his company, in the end he lost. In October 1904, one year after the death of his father, Charles Baker was replaced as president by Latimer. He ceased his engineering work in the Northwest, moving his family to New York where he was one of the organizers of the Muscle Shoals Hydroelectric Power Company. Baker later served as vice president of the American Cyanamid Company. He retired to Florida where he died in 1924.

With the removal of Baker, the victorious Stone & Webster began planning an expansion to its newly acquired Snoqualmie Falls plant while the firm looked to undertake the long-sought White River project. Under new management the Snoqualmie Falls and White River Power Company was reorganized as the Seattle-Tacoma Power Company. Though condemnation proceedings and a legal battle between a lumber company and the Stone & Webster interests delayed construction of the White River hydro works, the Pacific Coast Power Company, a Stone & Webster subsidiary, began work on the project in 1910.

Construction History

Almost a half-dozen years lapsed after the Stone & Webster interests defeated Baker before construction commenced on the White River. While Stone & Webster's design was similar to the one of Hawks-Baker, it differed slightly in the location of the diversion dam and canal system, the position of embankments around Lake Tapps, and the site of the powerhouse and tailrace. Taking advantage of the topography, a part of the flow of the White River was diverted from its course near the town of Buckley and led across the low-lying plateau, through a seven-mile system of flumes, canals and settling basins, and into the large natural basin on the Enumclaw plateau, which contained four lakes named Tapps, Kirtley, Church, and Crawford. Through the construction of earthen embankments, the level of water within the basin was raised 35 feet, creating a large reservoir. At the western end of the reservoir, an outlet canal was built leading to the tunnel intake. Water was then delivered through the tunnel into the forebay and into steel penstocks, which conveyed water into the powerhouse's turbines. Water was then returned to the river through a 2,000-foot-long tailrace.

Construction of the project was a major undertaking for the time, and the most up-to-date equipment and state-of-the-art construction techniques were used. Construction equipment for the job included fourteen locomotives, 130 ballast and dump cars, six steam shovels, twenty logging and hoisting engines, pile drivers, road rollers, Bagley scrapers, slip scrapers, well drilling machines and motors of up to 150 horsepower. Construction began early in 1910 with a crew of 100 men and by September of that year, the workforce numbered over 1,500 men. The Pacific Coast Power Company housed its workers in seventeen camps between Buckley and Dieringer. The project involved the construction of nineteen embankments and an extensive waterway system of settling basins, flumes, canals and tunnels, requiring the excavation of over 1.6 million yards of earth. The construction of the headworks included a 352-foot-wide, rock-filled, timber crib dam, a concrete intake structure, and a timber flume. A three-story concrete powerhouse was constructed to house the turbine-generator units. Numerous additional small buildings were built for project operation purposes. Lumber for the project was supplied through the auxiliary construction of a sawmill. This was built near the outlet end of Lake Tapps in heavy-timbered country and could handle over 70,000 board feet per day.

The auxiliary construction of 17.5 miles of railroad greatly facilitated the development of the project. Railroad spurs were built from the Northern Pacific's main line at Dieringer and its branch line through Buckley. A standard-gauge railway was built on the plateau above the powerhouse and this ran around the northern edge of Lake Tapps to Buckley. The Pacific Coast Power Company also constructed an incline railway from the powerhouse to the top of the plateau. The incline railway was equipped with an electric hoist capable of pulling standard locomotives and loaded freight cars. This meant that freight cars containing supplies and equipment could be shifted directly from the Northern Pacific's main line into work areas on the plateau.

The railroad on the plateau and along the hydraulic canal was also useful in the construction of embankments. Steam shovels worked in cuts excavated for the canal system. Railroad tracks were laid into the cuts and dump cars were filled directly by steam shovels. These cars were hauled out of the cuts by means of locomotives and driven to the top of trestles which either spanned the natural outlet ravines of the Lake Tapps basin or bordered the northern margin of the settling basins. The excavated material was dumped over the trestle work and later compacted with steam rollers, kneaded with Bagley scrapers and puddled. The trestle work was gradually buried beneath the embankments.

Through the construction of earthen embankments, the water level of four small lakes was raised 35 feet, creating a single large reservoir. Although the project was built with future expansion in mind, the initial development included two turbine-generator units which had a combined capacity of 25,000 KVA. At the time of installation, the horizontal Francis-type turbines utilized in the project were reported to be the largest of their kind in the world. The entire project was completed in just twenty months, and power was delivered commercially for the first time on November 1, 1911.

As a result of the 1912 merger which created the Puget Sound Traction, Power & Light Company, the largest investor-owned utility in the state, western Washington's three major hydroelectric projects—the Snoqualmie Falls, Electron and White River—were organized under one company and operated as part of larger single-generating system. The White River Project served as the controlling plant of the system, accumulating water in its storage reservoir during off-peak periods and running at full capacity during peak periods. Storage could also be used to operate the plant continuously at full capacity for a considerable period of time, when the other plants broke down or during periods of low flow. Describing this system in 1915, Henry Gray reported:

There is probably no hydroelectric system in the world which can compare in economy of construction and operation, and in general desirability, to the three plants in question. They have repeatedly demonstrated their worth and this will increase in the future. They utilize the best power sites on the western slope of the Cascade Mountains, and this is not to be wondered at, for as these sites were the first selected, they should in all reason be the best.

Although the project has undergone continual maintenance and some structures have been modified, added, or removed, it retains the salient features of the 1911 system. The major physical structures remain intact and the project now operates essentially as it did when it was originally constructed.