The Klallam people lived in villages along the water sources, including the Elwha River for time immemorial. They would move to an area of the water based on the weather climates. Their territory was from the Hoko River to Hamma Hamma. Their natural territory is larger than any reservation currently is in Washington State.
In the early 1900s, the Olympic Power and Development Company (led by Thomas Aldwell) sought to harness the Elwha River for its power-generating capacity. In 1910, they began construction on the Elwha Dam--a project that would dramatically alter the Elwha watershed.
Construction of two dams on the Elwha River (Elwha Dam in 1913 and Glines Canyon Dam in 1927) blocked fish passage and prevented anadromous fish from accessing approximately 81 miles of main-stem and tributary habitat (NPS 1995). Historically, the Elwha River had 10 runs of native anadramous salmon and trout, including coho (Oncorhynchus kisutch), sockeye (O. nerka), pink (O. gorbuscha), chum (O.keta), steelhead (O. mykiss) and Chinook salmon (O. tshawytscha).
Construction on the 105-foot Elwha Dam was completed in 1914. The structure created the Lake Aldwell reservoir, which is 2.5 miles long and has a surface area of 267 acres.
Although state law at the time the dam was built required fish ladders, the project owner (Thomas Aldwell) circumvented the law by building an unsuccessful fish hatchery (Wunderlich and others. 1994).
Glines Canyon Dam
In 1925, Northwestern Power and Light Company began construction on a second hydroelectric dam on the Elwha River, several miles upriver of the Elwha Dam. The 210-foot, single-arch Glines Canyon Dam was completed in 1927, and a large reservoir was created behind it. Like the Elwha Dam, this dam was built without fish passage facilities.
Until September of 2011, salmon and steelhead only had access to the five miles of habitat below Elwha Dam and these diminished stocks are primarily maintained through hatchery production.
The two dams have significantly changed the watershed. The Elwha River watershed includes the 45-mile main river channel, over 100 miles of tributaries, and a 270-square-mile drainage area. The river originates in the Olympic Mountains and drops quickly through temperate forests before flowing into the Strait of Juan de Fuca (5 miles west of the city of Port Angeles, Washington).
The two dams essentially divided the Elwha River into three distinct sections:
Lower river: below the Elwha Dam at mile 4.9
Middle river: between the two dams
Upper river: above the Glines Canyon Dam at river mile 13.6