Frank Baker’s Sept. 22 article on the removal of the Elkutna Dam stirred up mixed emotions.
The father of this writer’s bride worked on that project three-quarters of a century ago. His duties included cleaning debris from the screens over the outlet that diverted water from the river into turbines generating power for Anchorage. The plant was located off the Palmer (now Glenn) Highway not far from the Eklutna Lake Road. The large abandoned concrete building stood empty for years, a party place for teens and a target for litter and graffiti. Employees back in the day lived in an adjacent settlement of log cabins. Traces of the log foundations of those homes can still be seen there today. The trip to Anchorage then required a full day of travel over a gravel road.
In 1940, there was only a primitive trail to Eklutna Lake. Shortly after that date, the Army improved the road to reach the face of Eklutna Glacier which at that time was near the present parking lot at the lake. Troops were trained there on glacier crossing techniques in the buildup and early days of World War II.
For Walter Erickson to get from the road to the dam entailed a dangerous round-trip climb. We need to remember that in those days there were no regulations ensuring the safety of workers. They were expected to be responsible for their diligence or face the consequences. The road was a hundred or more feet above the top of the dam. To descend the almost perpendicular incline required carrying tools down a ladder formed by reinforcing bar rungs welded onto the uprights. There was no cage such as those now required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Quite often the wind howls down that canyon. In the winter, ice formed on the metal rungs. It was a challenging job to get down, and then to get back up again to a warm and dry shelter once the debris was pulled clear.
Erickson was a Swede whose father joined the Gold Rush Stampede to Nome at the dawning of the Twentieth Century. Both father and son were tough men. Both also were inventive. They survived those times by grit and by wit.
The dam was built between 1927 and 1929 by Anchorage Light and Power, a private company, to generate electricity for the fewer than 3,000 people then residing in the city.
In 1947 the stern of a World War II tanker that broke up 800 miles southwest of Adak was towed up Cook Inlet and docked near the mouth of Ship Creek; its engines were used to generate power to supplement the supply from the Eklutna plant. The SS Sackett’s Harbor was taken out of service in 1955 and later sold. The new owners replaced the bow section and installed stainless steel tanks in place of the oil bunkers; it then was used to haul wine from California to the East Coast for two decades. It was scrapped in 1978.
Power needs for the growing population in the Southcentral portion of the Territory of Alaska were met after the federal government built a replacement power plant farther up the Palmer Highway. It became operational in 1955 and continues to provide electricity under joint ownership of Matanuska Electric Association, Chugach Electric Association and Municipal Light & Power.
Instead of drawing water from the river, the new power plant’s turbines are driven by water flowing through a tunnel reaching from the bottom of Eklutna Lake itself to near sea level. That tunnel earned worldwide kudos for the man who guided the tunneling crews. Chugiak resident Carl Steeby was praised for the feat in engineering journals.
Tunneling was begun at both ends, with one crew starting at the top and another boring in from the bottom. After a year of arduous work far underground, the points of both drills broke through. Incredibly, they were only a quarter of an inch apart. That, mind you, was 63 years ago—long before lasers and super-sensitive electronic equipment were even imagined.
Removal of the old dam was described as a “celebration” by some 150 people who gathered at the site.
Its removal enables fish once again to swim up the river to spawn. It got rid of tons of built-up debris such as that Erickson kept free of the screens so long ago. It eliminated a relic that had become an eye-sore.
In celebrating those accomplishments, though, we should not forget the benefits that our forefathers were able to enjoy by its presence. Frank Reed was the man who designed the original power plant and the dam that provided the water that generated the electricity. Percy Bergt was the superintendent. To early residents, they were heroes who made it possible for them to turn the lights on and enjoy hot meals.
We need to remember the crew of the Sackett’s Harbor, too. They made it safely through the war without being sunk, only to have their tanker split apart in a storm while far out to sea. That disaster happened about 11 o’clock at night, raising an alarm. The bow section floated off while the stern continued to plod forward without benefit of a pointed bow to break waves. The oil tanks were in the fore, their wide beam taking the brunt of oncoming waves. The captain and many of the crew were on the bow section. The remainder were on the stern.
It was several hours before other vessels sighted lights that had been deflected skyward. They came alongside and stayed with the stern as it struggled along in search of the rudderless and powerless bow section. They finally came upon it and rescued the stranded crew still aboard. All were saved, the only casualties apparently being two pet cats.
The stern was towed to Adak and then obtained by the Anchorage electric utility which had purchased the private company and its facility. It was a welcome addition, tied up on the mudflats, a thick cable extending to connect with the city’s power supply. The ship’s engines cranked away, fed by oil handily stored in the remaining tanks that had buffered the stern’s way through the storm to safety.
We welcome the water flowing unimpeded from Eklutna Lake to Knik Arm, the muck, mud, rocks, limbs, plastic bags and other clutter now cleared away.