Driving west on Highway 2 over Stevens Pass last spring, I kept catching glances of what appeared to be some sort of elongate, dark grey, overgrown, man-made structure paralleling the highway on the opposite site of the Tye River valley. Whatever it was, only isolated chunks of it were visible through the dense vegetation and the deep, late-season snowpack. It appeared to me to be made of concrete, although it was hard to be 100% sure given that my primary goal at the time was to prevent a van full of people from careening off the highway and plummeting into the gorge below. Ironically, little did I know that the very existence of the mysterious object I was seeing was the result of a passenger train carrying hundreds of people doing exactly that 113 years earlier.
Walking through a large concrete snowshed along the Iron Goat Trail, built at the site of the 1910 Wellington disaster to prevent future avalanches from sweeping trains and passengers off the rails.
It didn’t take long after getting home to my internet connection to figure out that what I was seeing was the old grade of the Great Northern Railway, the northernmost of the transcontinental railway routes in the U.S. The Great Northern reached Seattle in 1893 and the route it took across the Cascades can best be described as “gnarly”. A series of extremely steep switchbacks, and eventually a 2.60 mile long tunnel completed in 1900, funneled trains safely, if not easily, over Stevens Pass to Seattle. In the summer at least. The biggest danger of the route lay in the combination of heavy winter snows and steep rugged topography. The railway built a number of snowsheds, large concrete or timber structures which covered the rails in avalanche prone areas to protect the locomotives. Avalanches don’t always play nicely though, and in March of 1910, during a storm in which 11 feet of snow fell in one day, a 10′ thick slab of snow detached from Windy Mountain several hundred feet above the tracks and swept two trains off the tracks just outside the railroad town of Wellington, Washington. 96 people perished in what remains the deadliest avalanche in U.S. history, and one of the worst railroad disasters in the country’s history to boot.
Despite the somber backstory, the old railroad grade has been turned into what has to be one of the most fascinating hiking trails in Washington: the Iron Goat Trail. Taking its name from the mountain goat on the logo of the Great Northern Railway, the Iron Goat trail follows the portion of the railroad grade that was abandoned in 1929 after the 8-mile long Cascade Tunnel (still in use by the BNSF today) opened, which for the first time allowed trains to bypass the pass and its deadly avalanche chutes entirely.
Looking into the abandoned Windy Point Tunnel along the Iron Goat Trail
While this hike may not provide a wilderness experience (Highway 2 and the associated drone of motor vehicles is just a stone’s throw away across the valley), it does provide a heavy dose of history and just enough eeriness to keep you from ever wanting to spend the night. In between the Wellington disaster and the opening of the Cascade Tunnel, a span of just 19 years, the Great Northern Railway heavily fortified the section of rails near Stevens Pass in an attempt to prevent another disaster. I hiked the four mile section of the trail from Highway 2 to the Wellington Townsite and nearly the entire stretch was engineered in some way: tunnels, timber snowsheds, concrete snowsheds, you name it, the Great Northern Railway spared no expense in attempting to tame the mountains and make this a viable travel route over the Cascades. They even gave the town of Wellington a new name, “Tye”, because of all the bad publicity. Ultimately though, the mountains emerged victorious: the line was abandoned in favor of the tunnel less than 30 years after it was first constructed, leaving the man-made structures built in response to the Wellington disaster to slowly decay and become re-assimilated into the mountain.
This process is already well underway. After decades of enduring heavy winter snows, timber snowsheds are now unrecognizable piles of rotting wood. Concrete snowsheds are crumbling, exposing their innards in a scene that my hiking partners likened to the post-apocalyptic visuals of the Hunger Games.
Deep snow and avalanches ultimately get the better of anything man builds to lessen their impact
Many of the tunnels have partially collapsed, including the Old Cascade Tunnel, the longest in the world when it opened at the beginning of the 20th Century. In 2007, a portion of the roof collapsed, creating an unstable dam of debris which occasionally likes to rupture and send a deadly torrent of water rushing out the west end of the tunnel without warning. The Windy Point Tunnel, built to keep trains from derailing around a particularly sharp curve, is also slowly crumbling away while the entrances are slowly reclaimed by the forest:
Moss and debris slowly reclaims the old grade of the Great Northern railway at the entrance to the Windy Point Tunnel
Portions of the Windy Point Tunnel have been heavily damaged by rockfall. Thankfully, Gary and the fall foliage escaped unscathed.
After a somewhat strenuous 700 foot climb from the trailhead up to the Windy Point Tunnel, the hike follows the gentle grade of the old rail bed for several miles in either direction. Thanks to impressive work by local volunteer groups, the trail is well-maintained and a series of interpretive signs explain the history of the Great Northern Railroad and the chain of events that led to the Wellington disaster. Several spots on the trail have great views of the Tye River valley and the surrounding peaks in the Cascades making for a beautiful, intriguing, and incredibly diverse hike. But stay away during the winter for obvious reasons, and like I said, not really somewhere you’d want to spend the night…
Fun graffiti inside the concrete snowshed
For more info, trail maps, and directions, check out http://www.irongoat.org/
Spend enough time driving or hiking around western Colorado and you will inevitably be introduced to the rich mining history of the area. This is especially true in the San Juan Mountains where it’s hard to hike for more than a few miles without running into an assortment of old and dilapidated mining structures, ranging from head frames covering mine shafts that plunge hundreds or thousands of feet into the mountains, to bunkhouses that still contain the metal skeletons of the rickety old beds slept upon by early 20th Century miners. Most of these buildings have been abandoned; left to slowly decay and disintegrate under the weight of the dozens of feet of snow that accumulate in the mountains each winter. However a handful have been preserved or restored by local historical societies, such as the Mayflower Gold Mill just a few miles outside of Silverton, Colorado.
A mill is an integral part of any mining operation. While Hollywood seems to think that western gold rushes involved a handful of old grizzled, bearded men fishing fist-sized gold nuggets out of streams with their gold pans, the reality is that most of the rock mined in Colorado had concentrations of gold and silver that were best measured in parts per million, and concentrations of other metals like copper or zinc that were only somewhat higher. The purpose of a mill like the Mayflower was to take in this low-grade ore and spit out material concentrated in gold, silver, and a plethora of other valuable metals while leaving the rest of the rock, known as “gangue”, behind.
The crushing room inside the Mayflower Gold Mill.
The Mayflower Mill opened its doors in 1929 and was a technological marvel for its time. It was the last of the San Juan mills to close, in 1991, long after most of the mines in the area had ceased production. Ever since 1991, while the exterior of the mill has undergone stabilization at the hands of the San Juan County Historical Society, the interior of the mill has been left more or less untouched. The mill closed suddenly; one day it was open for business, the next it was shuttered for good as the prices of gold and silver plummeted and no one ever came in to clean up. Piles of partially crushed ore still lie on stationary conveyor belts, waiting patiently to continue their trip through the mill. Pairs of rubber gloves still lie on counters and railings, now covered with a thick layer of dust. Calendars with pictures of scantily clad women still hang from rusty thumb tacks in offices and control rooms. If all this wasn’t eerie enough, the power went out about five minutes after I entered the mill and from then on the only light source other than sunlight streaming through a handful of windows was the flashlight in my hand. Walking through you would never guess that it’s been closed for only 22 years; the place looks like its been abandoned for a good half-century and much of the equipment looks much older, yet somehow advanced for its age.
The tour through the mill is self-guided and costs $8 which at first seemed steep but ended up being well worth it. Not for the quality of the interpretive signs dispersed throughout the mill (despite the extremely friendly and helpful staff, the signs could use some serious work) but merely for the pleasure of exploring the mill itself, one of the most fascinating man-made structures I’ve ever been inside. My computer is telling me I have something like 48,000 photos on my hard drive at the moment. I’m willing to bet more than 95% of those were taken outside. Why? Well to be honest, I don’t generally find man-made buildings that fascinating so I’ve never been that much of an indoor photographer. Once in a while, I find myself somewhere like the Mayflower Mill that changes that, at least temporarily 😉
Piles of iron balls were bounced around in large drums to help mutilate the ore into pieces as small as a grain of sand!
While milling ore to produce gold and other metals may seem somewhat alchemistic, in essence the process consists of two phases: crushing the rock into very, very, VERY small pieces, and then using a variety of noxious chemicals to separate the metal from the rock based on their physical properties. Ore would arrive at the mill in large metal buckets that zipped downhill along an aerial tramway that connected the mill to the Mayflower Mine several miles and several thousand feet above the Mill in Arrastra Basin:
A view of the aerial tramway originating from the Mayflower Mine in Arrastra Gulch. The miners would often ride to work in the empty buckets headed back up to the mine. Hard to imagine a commute with a better view!
The crushing is then accomplished using a variety of progressively diabolical looking devices that to this day are covered in rock dust and surrounded by little piles of partially crushed ore that fell off of one of the many conveyor belts snaking through the mill. Normally there are buttons that you can press which turn on some of these devices for a short period of time but this was thwarted due to the aforementioned power outage. This was the device that I would have most liked to see in action:
A spiral classifier, used to separate different sized pieces of crushed ore.
Pieces of partially crushed ore scattered around the base of an enormous jaw crusher.
The separation occurred in a series of tanks and vats that, while not visually impressive, still seemed to reek of the boiling concoction of lead and cyanide they once contained. My gut feeling was that hanging around this part of the mill for a long time would probably be a bad idea. The final product was rich-enough in gold that access to the areas where the final stages of separation took place was restricted to only a handful of employees who were continuously monitored by a network of security cameras. Unbelievably, even after all this, the ore would still need to be sent to a smelter for further purification and processing before pure gold bullion, or other metals were obtained.
Here are a few more random pictures from inside the Mayflower, which truly is a photographer’s dream, ESPECIALLY when the power is out. I was so caught up in taking pictures inside that I completely forgot to get a picture of the mill from the OUTSIDE!
Every size drill bit imaginable!
Piles of old equipment in a dark corner of the mill. Actually, since the power was out when I visited, just about the whole place was dark…
A little workplace humor for good measure!
Remnants of early morning fog along the Elwah River
In 1910, the Elwah River on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State underwent some changes. Big changes. Power was needed to support the burgeoning timber industry in and around Port Angeles, WA. A dam would be built. A 108 foot high dam that would transform the river upstream of it from from a wild, roaring river teeming with five different species of native salmon, into a flat and placid reservoir, filled not with salmon but with sediment. With no fish ladders, these salmon would be denied access to their spawning grounds upriver by a massive concrete block known as the Elwah Dam. Within a few decades, any fish that managed to miraculously jump over the 108 foot high dam would have a second nasty surprise waiting for them just a few miles further upstream, the 210 foot high Glines Canyon Dam, built in 1927.
Sunset over the Elwah Valley from Highway 101, just west of Port Angeles, WA
Fast forward nearly a century, and big changes are occurring yet again. In just a few short months, these two barriers will have been completely and permanently removed and the Elwah River will once again flow, uninterrupted, from the permanent snowfields and glacier of the Olympic Mountains all the down to sea level and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Even now (June 2013), only a small remaining stub of Glines Canyon Dam is preventing the salmon from moving back up into their traditional spawning grounds, and nearly 24 million cubic yards of sediment trapped behind the dams from moving down to the river’s mouth. To give you a sense of just how much material that is, 24 million cubic yards would be enough to bury an American football field under so much sediment that not even seven Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other would reach the top of the pile. While numerous dams have been decommissioned and removed around the world over the past several decades, none have been as large as Elwah and Glines Canyon. Nor have any been as controversial, as indicated by the fact that Congress passed legislation to remove the dams in 1992, yet demolition did not begin until 2011.
The former site of the Elwah Dam, now occupied again by the free-flowing channel of the Elwah River
Groundwater containing dissolved iron was trapped beneath the reservoir for decades. With the reservoir gone, this water can escape and the iron rapidly oxidizes as it is exposed to oxygen in the air.
Controversy aside, it is not often that one gets the opportunity to walk along the bottom of a reservoir without fear of drowning. As removal of the two dams enters its final stages, there exists a fantastic opportunity to watch an entire ecosystem attempt to return to its natural state. I visited the Elwah River valley on a cloudy, yet pleasant by Olympic Peninsula standards, weekend in May to see the effects of dam removal first hand. My first stop was the former site of Lake Aldwell, the narrow, yet shallow reservoir, 4 km long and 30 meters deep, that once existed behind the Elwah Dam. Lake Aldwell was the lower of two reservoirs on the Elwah (the other being Lake Mills behind Glines Canyon Dam), just five miles upstream from where the river ends its 45-mile long journey from the mountains to the sea. It was also the first to be drained, in 2011, and consequently has already had an entire growing season to begin recovering from over a century of submersion. Assisted by planting efforts, so far, “recovery” consists of some small alders, grasses, and a handful of wildflowers that have taken root in the layers of extremely fine grained sediment that accumulated on the bottom of the reservoir from 1910 to 2011.
Prior to the construction of the dams, the Elwah River valley contained spectacular old growth forests, the proof of which can once again be seen today. It is is the stumps of these gargantuan trees that are perhaps the most impressive sight at Lake Aldwell. Giant cedar stumps, the result of early 20th century loggers who were understandably eager to harvest the enormous trees on land slated for inundation, have been exposed as the river rapidly washes away the layer-cake of sediment that piled up at the bottom of Lake Aldwell. The size of the stumps are humbling and they are shockingly well preserved; many of them still contain the deep, horizontal notches cut for logger’s springboards, some so fresh in their appearance that it’s hard to believe that they weren’t felled just a few years ago, a testament to the preservation power of the meters of silt and dozens of meters of water that covered them for a century.
Giant Cedar stumps on the floor of Lake Aldwell. The former level of the reservoir can be clearly seen on the far bank.
Century old stumps are joined by new vegetation just beginning to take root in the lakebed sediments.
A stump that has been only partially exhumed from the sediment, with the six-foot tall photographer for scale.
The most powerful location from which to contemplate the restoration of the river is undoubtedly the site of the former Lake Mills. Unlike Lake Aldwell which is located right along US Hwy 101, Lake Mills requires a little bit of effort to get to. Located within the confines of Olympic National Park, the head of the now drained reservoir is reached only by driving up a narrow, one lane dirt road that winds through the rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula several hundred feet above the course of the Elwah. Near the end of this road, a narrow footpath leads down to what was once the lake’s edge.
Being the uppermost of the two reservoirs, Lake Mills was where nearly a centuries worth of sediment accrued, scoured out of the Olympic Mountains just as it had been for thousands of years, by storm after storm after storm blowing in off the Pacific, dousing the mountains in rain, and sweeping the sediment into rivulets, tributary creeks and streams, and eventually the cold, swift, and turbulent Elwah. Once Glines Canyon Dam was built in 1927, the whole system just shut off. Vast quantities of silt, sand, and gravel sediment that would normally create a delta at the mouth of the river began creating a delta in Lake Mills instead.
Immediately upon breaking out of the trees, one is taken aback by the sense that something drastic has happened here. Over a thousand vertical feet of dense, dark green, damp forest immediately transitions to a landscape that looks like it belongs on Mercury or the Moon rather than the lush Olympic Peninsula. One is greeted by a staircase of spectacular gravel terraces leading down to the river’s edge, terraces cut by a river eager to make up for 100 years of lost time. The river’s path is changing on a near daily basis as it cuts down through the canyons of sediment. The only sound that accompanies the roar of the river is the constant and somewhat unsettling sound of miniature rockfalls breaking loose and sending pebbles, cobbles, and sometimes boulders scurrying down slope, the sounds of a landscape still changing by the minute as the river tries to re-establish its old course through the valley.
Terraces carved out of delta sediments by the resurrected Elwah River as it runs through the valley formerly occupied by Lake Mills.
The erosive power of the Elwah can be seen just by observing its color as it runs through its former delta. When the river first exits the confining gorge of Rica Canyon and explodes out into the wide valley once occupied by Lake Mills, it shines with a brilliant aquamarine color, almost tropical in its hue, due to the presence of extremely fine grained sediment suspended in the river. The river does not retain this color for long though. For decades, any coarse sediment brought here by the river would be abruptly dropped at the entrance to Lake Mills, as the energy level of the river dropped precipitously entering the tranquil reservoir. Now, with the reservoir gone, all that sediment is there for the taking and the river quickly takes full advantage. Just a few hundred yards later, the river has turned the color of a late-afternoon summer thunderstorm, a deep and foreboding dark gray, as the Elwah picks up coarse sediment and begins moving it downstream where it naturally belongs.
While the dams may be gone, and the fish have already shown signs of returning, the story of the Elwah is, in reality, just beginning. All the effects, both positive and negative, of such a large scale experiment won’t be known for many decades. I encourage you to go see it for yourself; as I mentioned earlier, opportunities to experience a landscape changing at such a rapid rate are rare, much less one in as spectacular of a setting as the Elwah River.
More information about the Elwah River Restoration project can be found here. To get a better idea of the changes that have occurred so far, I strongly recommend checking out slideshows and time-lapse videos made from a series of webcams that have been monitoring the progress here.