The Relocation of a River

The Georgetown Steam Plant was originally built right on the Duwamish River. It was designed to take in river water for cooling, and to expel used water back into the river. But if you visit the steam plant today, there is no river anywhere in sight; it’s almost a mile away. What happened?

Georgetown Steam Plant 1909
A photo of the steam plant beside the Duwamish River in 1909.

The Duwamish was originally a winding river with large curves called “oxbows.” The Duwamish people, who lived on the river for thousands of years (the river was named “Duwamish” in the 19th century as an English language approximation of the name of the indigenous people living there), made use of this winding landscape for (among other things) catching ducks in the air and salmon in the water. For ships in the early 20th century, the curves made traveling up the river slow and sometimes dangerous, with submerged logs becoming jammed in the river’s twists. Ocean-going vessels could not travel on the river.

The river was also prone to flooding. After a series of destructive floods in 1906, an investigative board headed by Hiram Chittenden convened to study the problem and concluded that the river should be straightened and controlled. The Army Corps of Engineers began a project to straighten the river in 1913. By 1920, the oxbows were filled with dirt, and the river, now reshaped into the ‘Duwamish Waterway,’ flowed in a straight path past Georgetown and South Park, and had a depth of 50 feet for four and a half miles.

This 1922 survey map shows how the oxbows have been filled in, with the waterway to the left. The steam plant location is roughly in the center.

The steam plant, originally built on an oxbow, now found itself landlocked, quite a distance from the river it was designed to make use of. In 1917 a pumping station was built along the waterway to provide water to the steam plant across the new distance. A massive new flume was also constructed to expel wastewater.

The next time you visit the plant, take a look south, toward Boeing Field, and imagine a winding river rolling past.

The straightening of the river affected the land animals, marine life, and people who had lived in harmony with the it for generations. It also cleared the way for industry that would pollute the river’s waters with chemical waste. For more extensive information on the history of the Duwamish River, and what is being done to clean up and reclaim the river, see the website duwamishrevelaed.com.

And for an extensive history of changes to the land and water of the Seattle area, do not miss the Burke Museum’s excellent Waterlines project.

 

 

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