The journey over the mountains to the west side is so pleasant in the summer. The long drive “around” and over Stevens Pass in the winter is just a fading memory — only to be resurrected when the snow flies and the North Cascades Highway barrier goes up. From here at the very end of road in Mazama, it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to the first stop in Newhalem.
Newhalem is the pit stop and first cell service on the drive. The text messages ding and all the questions you’ve wanted to look up on the internet can now be answered. Even though the destination of Seattle or Bellingham or any other point west is the prime target, it’s worth the time to browse around Newhalem and learn about its history.
During the industrialization era, some corporations chose to build a city around their factory, mine or mill. The workers populated the town, which was usually named after or about the company. Colstrip, Montana, was born a true company town so named for the coal that was mined there. The Northern Pacific Railway established the town and Montana Power Company took over the town and mine in the late 1950s.
Around the country, 2,000 industry-based communities popped up. A few remain such as Pullman, Illinois (railway cars), Kohler, Wisconsin (plumbing products), Hershey, Pennsylvania (what else — chocolate!), Steinway Village, New York (pianos), and Corning, New York (glass).
Newhalem is a company town owned by Seattle City Light. It is populated entirely by employees of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project. The name Newhalem has its roots in local indigenous language meaning “goat snare,” as Native Americans used to trap mountain goats in the area.
Imagine the lights of Seattle and surrounding areas receiving their power originating from the vision and foresight of J.D. Ross (Ross Lake namesake). Three dams — Diablo, Ross, and Gorge — are engineering marvels and have harnessed hydroelectric power on the upper Skagit River since 1918. According to Seattle City Light, “The utility embraces its responsibilities as a steward of the environment … (and) puts this commitment to work in many ways.” The Skagit River supports some of the strongest salmon runs in Puget Sound, in part due to the utility’s efforts, according to City Light.
Take a walking tour around Newhalem. You can’t miss the steam locomotive prominently displayed at the entrance. Old Number Six played an important role in the construction of the Skagit Project. It operated on the 23 miles of track from Rockport to Newhalem and later to Diablo, carrying construction materials, equipment and workers to the towns, dams, and powerhouses.
The General Store, where you stop for snacks, was built in 1920. Numerous bunkhouses were built to house tourists in the summer and workers in the winter.
The first permanent housing was dubbed Silk Stocking Row, a common term in construction camps for the most desirable housing. J.D Ross wanted to provide attractive houses to make for a more-contented work force. What a good fellow! The Gorge Inn was remodeled recently to return to its original purpose as a mess hall for the workers.
A one-mile loop on Trail of the Cedars takes you to the Newhalem Powerhouse, which is the oldest operating power plant in the Skagit system. A short walk to Ladder Creek Falls Garden offers gardens, pools, bridges, and stunning waterfall views.
Finally, visit the Temple of Power behind the Visitor Center, which was inspired by the Pantheon, a temple to Roman Gods. The hydroelectric power that is generated on the Skagit River rivals the power of the Roman Gods, as it lights up the world for hundreds of thousands of people. However, Apollo — known as the god of light (among other things such as archery, music, dance, truth, and healing) — was known as the “averter of evil.” Most likely Seattle City Light cannot make that claim. (Well, maybe it can — darkness is evil.)