A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

April 2003

Flooding, Dams and Renamed Rivers

by Dave Sprau


Once upon a time,
the Green River flooded
every year,
and the White River
flowed north
to Seattle.

During earlier times, the Green River was expected to overflow its banks nearly every winter. The entire valley, from Boeing Field to Auburn would be under water. At times, downtown Kent was negotiable only by rowboat. Livestock often drowned. Chickens and cats were marooned in trees. Homes on "R" Street, at the east end of Auburn, often had two- to three-feet of water running through the living room while the Green River temporarily reclaimed much of its ancient bed.

Here is a short explanation of why this doesn't happen today.

Flooding at the Kent Hallock Garage
A scene of annual flooding, at the Kent Hallock Garage, c 1920.
Photo by Clark Studio, WRVM #922

In 1926, the Associated Improvement Club of South King County was formed. A prime objective of this optimistically named organization was, "The Need for Flood Control in our Valley." Fortunately, the group had lots of patience, as this project was to take over 30 years to complete.

As if yearly flooding wasn't bad enough, some years were worse than others. River flow records have been compiled since 1891. The following year (1892) was considered a benchmark, when approximately forty thousand gallons-per-second of water flow was measured in the Green River. In 1933, a volume of water similar to 1892, with resultant flood damage, was measured by more accurate methods and found actually to be only twenty-one thousand gallons per second. Nevertheless, damage was severe.

A Flood in the 1930s
Looking Northeast from Cemetery Hill during a flood in the 1930s.
Photo by George Kinkade, WRVM #544

By 1937, the public was growing impatient. Tired of pumping out basements and sweeping out silt, a public meeting was held in Seattle by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of War, on November 12, 1937. Only 53 people attended. But, as in 1926, everyone agreed upon the obvious: "Something must be done."

Though momentum to find a solution seemed to be growing, World War II intervened. Wartime concerns took precedence, and civilians went about their business, doing their part for the war effort. Volunteers stood in ankle-deep water and watched for enemy airplanes. Farmers under blackout restrictions milked cows in wet fields when barns were flooded. Gasoline and rubber-tire rationing meant nobody could drive much anyway, so if roads were underwater, "so be it."

But by 1947, the war having ended, interest was revived in flood control. More public meetings were held and the momentum had once again begun. In 1949, Eagle Gorge, a narrow defile on the Green River 35 miles east of Auburn, was chosen as the site for the flood control dam. Our congressional representatives and local politicians including Howard Hanson, the Chairman of the Rivers and Harbors Committee of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, labored to obtain funding which arrived finally in July 1955, when Congress appropriated one million dollars to begin the project. King County matched this by half a million dollars and another 1.5 million came from the State of Washington.

But before actual construction could begin, much peripheral work was necessary. The main line of the Northern Pacific Railway had to be removed from the Green River gorge necessitating a relocation of 14 miles of railroad line, at a cost of 20 million dollars. The railroad line work began in January 1956 and was completed in June 1959. Additionally, the entire retention area above the dam seven miles east and four miles across had to be logged to make way for the 3.6 miles of river bed to be flooded.

Finally, groundbreaking ceremonies for the dam took place on February 3, 1959. Afterward, work progressed rapidly. The dam would control the Green River flow with the 235 feet high and 675 feet wide dam, able to contain 106,000 acre-feet of water.

During construction, 1959 to 1962, the river had its way with residents of the White River Valley. Record flooding took place in November of 1959 as 28,000 cubic feet of water per second overflowed. Nearly 100 residents again evacuated, while roads and property vanished underwater, livestock was lost and homes and property were ruined. Property damage figures this time exceeded four and one-half million dollars.

In 1958, the Eagle Gorge Dam project was officially re-named in honor Howard A. Hanson who had fought tirelessly for flood control.

Howard Hanson Dam
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Howard Hanson dam,
dedicated May 1962.

The target date for completion of Howard Hanson Dam had been October 1962, however, 10 months earlier, in December of 1961, the uncompleted facility was put to the acid test. Several days of rain unleashed a torrent into the Green River. The discharge gates at the new dam were closed, and they held, causing the Green River to fill its retention area behind the dam. How much water? Enough to cover 100,000 acres of flat ground to a depth of just over one foot.

And so, this time, the river between Auburn and Renton stayed within its banks. No water-filled basements. No ruined property.

A bit of tidy-up work was necessary before the dam was officially opened. So on May 12, 1962, a special train and a cadre of buses brought 3000 visitors to Hanson Dam. Under threatening skies, Senator Warren G. Magnuson, Governor Albert D. Rosellini and dignitaries including Mayor Jim Shaughnessy of Auburn participated in the festivities and later toured the finished product: Towering over the Green River the proud achievement spoke for itself. No more flooding in the White River Valley. The cost? 40 million dollars. Money well spent, because a flood even every other year since 1960 would have cost valley cities at least six hundred million, in 1960 dollars, by the year 2000.

So, should you seek a winter break in the gloom of a wet day by shopping at Southcenter, attending a race at Emerald Downs, flying a plane in or out of Auburn Airport, or if you live or work anywhere in the lowlands between Renton and Auburn, you may thank Howard Hanson Dam, and the people who made it possible for your warm, dry feet.

Howard A. Hanson

Howard A. Hanson was a Seattle attorney and civic leader
who spearheaded Green River Valley Flood control efforts
from several differing fronts. A civil engineer and Colonel
in the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers himself,
Hanson's first-hand knowledge of hydrology provided
a valuable basis for this work. From 1929 until 1938
he served as Chief Deputy (Civil) Prosecutor for King County,
and during this time was involved in legal work involving flood control.
Later, for a period of 28 years, Hanson also was
Chairman of the Rivers and Harbors Committee of the
Seattle Chamber of Commerce. The dam was posthumously
renamed in his honor in 1958.

Those Confusing River Names
Why are entities physically nearer the Green River (including our museum) named after the White River instead of the Green? Why does the Green River flow through the "White River Valley?" If that isn't confusing enough, why does the Green River as it flows north suddenly become the Duwamish? And what is this so-called Stuck River, flowing under the railroad and Sumner Highway bridges in south Auburn? Do you hear Rentonites speak of the Black River, and wonder where it is? It is indeed very confusing, so here is our brief explanation:

The White and the Green
The White River, flowing along the County border between Enumclaw and Buckley, once split about three miles east of Auburn, into two rivers. The north channel, retaining the name White River, continued into Auburn. It ran (roughly speaking) down Auburn Way South from approximately Game Farm Park, under the Northern Pacific tracks near the present "F" street railroad underpass, and continued northerly until it reached a confluence with the Green River near Scootie Brown Park in north Auburn. The Green River lost its identity at this confluence, and the White River continued in what is now the Green River's watercourse, through Kent to a point near Southcenter, where it became the Duwamish.

The early pioneers to the area called the entire region the White River Valley, including in their reference present day Kent, Auburn, Algona and Pacific. When this Historical Society was begun, a contingent of founders wanted to call it the Green River Valley Historical Society, but those wishing to honor the pioneers won out.

Where is the Stuck River?
The south stream, mentioned above, which spurred off the White River above Auburn was named Stuck River, after a nearby settlement, and was known thusly for its entire length. It paralleled the White, in a separate bed, for a short distance, then veered south, picking up a few creeks and streams along its way, passing under the railway in south Auburn (as its does today), continuing southward until reaching Sumner, where it joined the Puyallup River.

In 1906, the White River overflowed its banks near Game Farm Park (some say it had help from Auburnites tired of being flooded), cut a brand-new channel south and deposited its entire flow in the Stuck River. This natural diversion into the new channel relieved flooding in downtown Auburn, which of course pleased the local citizens. In 1916 an underground diversion wall, earthwork and channeling made the change permanent. As a result the entire former bed of the White River from (present day) Game Farm Park to Scootie Brown Park became dry land.

With no White River intruding at the former confluence, the Green River, by default, claimed title to the former bed of the White, and has held that title ever since, except for institutions that wish to honor the historic past.

Black River is No Longer
Lake Washington, before 1916, was eleven feet higher than now. In that year, Lakes Washington and Union were connected and permitted to discharge into Puget Sound via the new Ship Canal and Ballard Locks.

Lake Washington's former outlet, the Black River, ran from the south tip of the lake past the present Safeway/High School area in downtown Renton, through the Fred Meyer complex, and very close to where I-405 passes over the railroad tracks (near Southcenter) where it met the White River. Combined waters beyond that point were known as the Duwamish, named after the Native people who resided in that area. It remains so named today, though the Black River no longer flows, and the White River flows elsewhere. 

Getting Water to Lake Tapps
One last question: What is the river-like stream flowing west from the electric generating plant along the Sumner highway at Dieringer, into the Stuck River? The Stuck, at that point, is sometimes now referred to as the White River, due to changes described earlier, but no matter which name is used-the two rivers now are one and the same. The stream in question is a man-made outflow from Lake Tapps, whose water comes down the large pipes (penstocks) behind the generating plant, spins the power turbines, and then is discharged through a man-made channel into the river. At Buckley, another man-made canal diverted water from the White River, and carried it to Lake Tapps, insuring the generating process does not deplete the lake's water.

Dave Sprau