Newhalem Creek Hydroelectric Project

Historic Newhalem Intake Diversion - Seattle Municipal Archives 17518

The Newhalem Creek Hydroelectric Project is a small, run-of-the-river hydroelectric facility in the Cascade Mountains of northern Washington state. The dam is on Newhalem Creek, one mile above the confluence with the Skagit River, and just above a 100-foot waterfall. When operational, the dam hydroelectric project generates 2.125 megawatts of power. Constructed in 1921 by the City of Seattle’s Lighting Department (as Seattle City Light was called at the time), it was the first hydroelectric facility in the Skagit River area.

The purpose of the project was to provide power for the construction of Gorge Dam and the adjacent company town of Newhalem. Today, the hydroelectric project remains the oldest one operating in the Skagit area and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2010 as part of an historic district.

Newhalem Creek Hydroelectric Project Story Map

Travel through time and learn more about the historic Newhalem Creek Hydroelectric Project.

Since 2010, the Newhalem Creek Hydroelectric Project has not been consistently in service and is currently not operational due to leaks in the power tunnel, maintenance needs at the headworks and powerhouse, and recurring landslides affecting dam access. As a result of these issues and the cost of relicensing, City Light filed a Surrender of License Application with Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on Jan. 28, 2022 to decommission the facility.

The FERC proceeding to decommission is underway, with nine coordinating parties including resource agencies, Tribes, and non-governmental organizations. Seattle City Light has proposed to remove the dam and other headwork components, seal the power tunnel, and retain the powerhouse and penstock for their important historic value. FERC is also evaluating an alternative plan to remove the powerhouse and penstock and return the land back to nature. An Order to Decommission, according to the selected plan, will ultimately be issued by FERC.

As more information becomes available on the next steps of the decommissioning process, it will be made available here.

City Light filed a Surrender of License Application with FERC on Jan. 28, 2022 to decommission the Newhalem Creek Hydroelectric Project. City Light’s decommissioning proposal included removing the diversion dam and associated headworks structures, tailrace fish barrier, and overhead transmission lines. The rock shaft and power tunnel would be sealed, and the access road would be decommissioned. The powerhouse and penstock would remain to be interpreted as historic resources.

The proposed action would restore the natural stream dynamics of Newhalem Creek, as well as wildlife habitat, aesthetics, and the pre-project cultural setting at the dam and tailrace. The proposed action protects the most visible and accessible historic properties, which are the penstock and powerhouse, and maintains or increases interpretive opportunities within the existing recreational corridor.

Documents related to the Surrender of License proceeding filed by FERC and Seattle City Light are provided below:


The Newhalem Creek Hydroelectric Project is located in the ancestral homelands of Tribes, Bands, and First Nations, including most notably the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe, and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. Newhalem was an important village location and these Tribes, Bands, and First Nations have been caretakers of the lands around Newhalem Creek since time immemorial.


Superintendent James Delmage Ross - Seattle Municipal Archive 112348

Superintendent James Delmage “J.D.“ Ross, known as the “Father of Seattle City Light,” obtains permission on behalf of the City of Seattle from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to apply for a permit to develop a hydroelectric project on the Skagit River. The previous permit holder, having held it since 1912, let it expire without developing the site.


B-23 Survey of Newhalem Creek 1918

In the summer of 1918, the City Engineer’s Office sends a hydrographer and assistant to the Skagit to determine the location of a temporary generating powerhouse for the construction camp and lumber mill. Newhalem Creek was ultimately selected.


Newhalem Construction - Seattle Municipal Archive 123946

Construction of the Newhalem Creek Hydroelectric Project begins.


Skagit River Railroad Train - Seattle Municipal Archive 78367

To facilitate construction of the Newhalem Creek and Skagit River Hydroelectric Projects, City Light constructs its own railroad from Rockport, 23 miles upriver, to City Camp (later called Newhalem).

Seattle City Light obtains the hydroelectric permit for the Newhalem Creek Hydroelectric Project (NCHP) on Dec. 22, 1917 from the USDA, U.S. Forest Service, since it is on land within the Washington National Forest.

The Federal Power Commission (FPC) is created by the Federal Water Power Act of June 10, 1920. It begins issuing hydroelectric licenses in 1921.


Original Newhalem Powerhouse - Seattle Municipal Archive 117492

Construction is complete and the Newhalem Creek Hydroelectric Project begins producing power.


B-96 Washington National Forest Map

The Washington National Forest is renamed the Mt. Baker National Forest.

The first general public tours of the Skagit are offered, consisting of one day excursions.


The public tours expand to two days and include the soon to become memorable chicken dinner. These tours sought to promote public support for the development of Seattle City Light’s hydroelectric project.


The first survey for a route for the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20) is conducted by highway engineer Ike Munson.


Washington A Guide to the Evergreen State 1937

The Newhalem Creek powerhouse is a destination for tourists. Following the well-known chicken dinner in Newhalem, tourists are led by guides over the Skagit River suspension bridge next to Gorge Inn, and along the Trail of Cedars to the powerhouse.


The Skagit Truck Trail allows the first vehicles into the Newhalem area.


The public tours are halted due to World War II.


Intake structure and diversion dam on Newhalem Creek - Seattle Municipal Archive 17518

The project is semi-automated, allowing it to operate largely unmanned, except for manual start-up and shutdown.


The public tours resume.


Skagit River Railroad after tracks were removed - Seattle Municipal Archive 27705

Seattle City Light’s Skagit River Railroad serving the Skagit River and Newhalem Creek Hydroelectric Projects is removed.


A fire in July of 1966 destroys the original wood framed powerhouse. However, the original turbines and generator are saved by a burst water pipe, spraying water over them.

Newhalem Powerhose After Fire in 1966


"Old Newhalem Plant Burns" - The Concrete Herald

"Fire Destroys Newhalem Power Plant" - The Seattle Times


U.S. Forest Service land ownership is transferred to another federal agency, the National Park Service, for the creation of the North Cascades National Park. In the enabling legislation, Congress designates the area encompassing the Newhalem Creek and Skagit River Hydroelectric Projects as the Ross Lake National Recreation Area and includes a clause that reserves the Federal Power Commission’s jurisdiction over the hydroelectric projects.


"Cascade Park Bill Becomes Law" - The Concrete Herald


Newhalem Dam Reconstruction Activity - Seattle Municipal Archive 177151

The powerhouse is rebuilt using the original turbines and generator. The headworks (dam and gatehouse) and vehicular bridge over Newhalem Creek, providing access to the powerhouse, are also rebuilt, all having sustained damage from recent flooding.

Seattle City Light applies to the Federal Power Commission for a new hydroelectric license for the Newhalem Creek Hydroelectric Project.


Newhalem Powerhouse Exterior Side View After Reconstruction - Seattle Municipal Archive 190719

Powerhouse is back online after the 1966 fire with various project upgrades. The powerhouse is now fully automated, the first of the Skagit River Project’s generation facilities to undergo the process. Remote control of the newly operational powerhouse equipment is established at the Gorge Powerhouse.


The North Cascades Highway officially opens on Sept. 2, 1972.


The Federal Power Commission issues Seattle City Light a hydroelectric license - Project No. 2705 for the Newhalem Creek Hydroelectric Project.


The Federal Power Commission is renamed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).


Newhalem Flood Damage 1981

Significant seasonal flooding damages the project headworks.


The headworks are rebuilt after seasonal flood damage.


As part of the 1988 Washington Park Wilderness Act certain lands with the North Cascades National Park Complex are designated the Stephen Mather Wilderness Area. Congress reaffirms FERC’s jurisdiction over the existing hydroelectric projects in the North Cascades National Park Complex.


Seattle City Light applies for a Newhalem Creek Hydroelectric Project license renewal with FERC.


FERC issues a renewal of the Newhalem Creek Hydroelectric Project’s license #2705. Conditions of the new license include minimum flow requirements, annual gravel passage over the dam, a tailrace fish barrier, and a linking trail between the powerhouse and the Newhalem Creek Campground.


Newhalem Tailrace Fish Barrier

The tailrace fish barrier is completed per a condition of the 1997 FERC license.


The automatic gate controlling water intake at the dam stops functioning properly. The Newhalem Creek Hydroelectric Project ceases power production.


Newhalem 2015 Fire Damage to Vegetation

The Goodell Creek Fire burns approximately 6,700 acres, sweeping through much of the old growth forest in the area and damaging the penstock and its timber saddles. The powerhouse is saved by continuous water sprayed from firetrucks.


Newhalem Penstock Saddles

Deteriorating and fire-damaged timber penstock saddles are replaced with concrete saddles.


City Light conducts an engineering analysis and concludes that the cost of relicensing the Project with necessary repairs and upgrades far exceeds the estimated future value of the Project.


On April 28, 2021, City Light files a Notice of Intent with FERC to surrender the Project license and decommission the facility.

City Light

Dawn Lindell, General Manager and CEO
Address: 700 5th Ave, Seattle, WA, 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 34023, Seattle, WA, 98124-4023
Phone: (206) 684-3000

Seattle City Light was created by the citizens of Seattle in 1902 to provide affordable, reliable, and environmentally responsible electric power to the City of Seattle and neighboring suburbs.