At Whatcom County’s southeasternmost corner, bordering Skagit and Okanagan Counties, stand our county’s only two company towns: Newhalem and Diablo. Seattle City Light, a citizen-owned public utility, has generated hydroelectric power at these North Cascades hamlets for more than 100 years.

A company town is a settlement with housing and businesses exclusively owned and operated by one company. Newhalem and Diablo share a zip code with Rockport and house only Skagit River Hydroelectric Project and public employees.

The Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, a series of dams powering Seattle, started under superintendent James Delmage Ross in 1917. Ross (“Father of Seattle City Light”) advocated for municipal ownership of utilities and saw revolutionary potential in electricity.

Today, Seattle City Light is the United States’ 10th largest public utility and has reduced its carbon emissions to zero since 2005. The Skagit River Hydroelectric Project provides 20% of all its power, while other dams statewide supply the rest. Present-day visitors on State Highway 20 can still walk through the wonders of hydropower on the peaks.

Company Town Life

Since 1918, Seattle City Light has generated hydroelectricity at three dams near Newhalem and Diablo: Gorge Dam, Diablo Dam, and Ross Dam. Using gravity, these dams pressurize water to rotate their turbines — channeling the energy of their movement into electricity through the rotors.

In the town’s early history, Newhalem and Diablo housed up to 300 workers; today it’s fewer than 40. The earliest workers building sites for the dams lived in backcountry camps, occupying tents and abandoned settlers’ cabins. Logging crews that included Native American and non-native workers cleared land, while railroad builders conquered the elements and rough terrain. Dam planners and engineers also surveyed and drew plans for construction on-site.

Diablo Lake is open to fishing year-round for rainbow trout. Photo credit: Anna Diehl

City Light workers today maintain generators, inspect dams for issues, replace turbine runners, clear land for powerlines, and repair lines.

The company coordinates with biologists, climate scientists, historic preservationists, and public agencies to preserve the environment and promote recreation. They control water flows to protect steelhead trout and salmon and prevent flooding.

In the 1990s, Seattle City Light partnered with the North Cascades Institute and National Park Service and the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake opened in 2005. NPS also operates the North Cascades Visitor Center outside Newhalem. These organizations offer tours of the Skagit Project and company towns every summer.

Newhalem’s historic landmarks include the 1920 General Store and Gorge Inn, Currier Hall, bunkhouses, and Gorge Powerhouse — now a museum. Engine Number 6, “The Iron Horse of the Skagit,” transported workers and materials on the Skagit River Railway (1918-1954) and stands today on Newhalem’s Main Street. Visitors can climb the train and ring its bell.

“Old Number Six” was a Baldwin steam locomotive refurbished as a historic landmark. Photo credit: Anna Diehl

Local Attractions

Informing Newhalem visitors that “anything was possible with electricity,” J.D. Ross created an electrified art installation that still dazzles tourists. Built in 1925, Ladder Creek Falls and Gardens, just outside Gorge Powerhouse, combined his fascination with electricity and his horticulturist background. These illuminated falls still glow in vibrant colors at night, though the garden’s tropical plants and electrified trees have been phased out.

Beside the gardens, the Gorge Powerhouse interior allows visitors to view the dam’s inner workings with interpretive signage on Newhalem history and hydroelectricity.

From dusk to midnight, visitors to Ladder Creek Falls and Gardens can view a light show with LED bulbs reinstalled since its creation. Photo credit: Anna Diehl

At the heart of Newhalem, the Pantheon-inspired Temple of Power recycles electrical equipment from the Diablo Switching Station. Don Corson built this futuristic gazebo in 2002 to honor Newhalem’s history of powering Seattle.

Diablo’s townsite features mainly sparse company houses and facilities. However, Diablo Lake is a popular tourist destination for hiking, fishing, and photography from the overlook. The artificial reservoir gets its turquoise color from minerals eroded from glaciers. When visiting, prepare for powerful mountain winds above the beautiful vista.

Powering the Future

Seattle City Light and public employees enjoy a relaxed local culture in Whatcom County’s company towns. Since 1977, Newhalem has hosted a softball tournament and pancake feed for Skagit Valley teams on the third weekend of July.

The Temple of Power monument combines antique, Victorian, and futuristic sensibilities as a recycled art installation. Photo credit: Anna Diehl

Newhalem has even featured in popular culture. In the memoir, This Boy’s Life, adapted to film in 1993, Tobias Wolff describes growing up there and taking hourlong bus rides to the nearest high school in Concrete. The 1983 film WarGames also features scenes filmed in Newhalem.

Tourists today can stay awhile at Newhalem Campground and Goodell Creek Campground by Newhalem or Colonial Creek South Campground by Diablo. These sites offer access to the river and trails with minimal facilities.

From the 1910s to the present, Whatcom County’s remotest unincorporated communities remind us that the powerful current of innovation runs through obscure, humble places.

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