Snoqualmie Falls is a popular tourist destination for people making the trip over the Cascades, either headed to or from Seattle.
It’s also part of the opening credits in the early ‘90s TV series “Twin Peaks,” which starred Yakima native Kyle MacLachlan.
But there’s more than just good looks to that cataract. For 100 years it has generated electricity for customers in the Seattle area.
The area around the falls had been a rendezvous site for the Native American tribes in the area, including the Snoqualmie, a subset of the Coast Salish. The first non-Natives arrived in 1855, after taking a trip by boat and canoe from the Puget Sound area. Eventually a logging industry grew up in the area.
Tourists continued to come to marvel at the falls — which, while only 100 feet wide, are 100 feet taller than Niagara Falls.
In 1889, when rail lines were extended to the area, more than 1,000 people came to celebrate and were entertained by a tightrope walker who crossed the falls.
Accounts identify the tightrope walker as a “Mr. Blondin,” but research suggests it was not Charles Blondin, the French acrobat whose multiple crossings of Niagara Falls had made his name synonymous with the sport. A year earlier, Blondin had returned to his home in England from a tour of America, outraged that organizers of events insisted he use safety nets, while his final attempt to cross Niagara Falls was vetoed by authorities in the area.
Charles H. Baker, an engineer with the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railway, saw more than a tourist attraction with the falls. He saw the potential of harnessing the water to make electricity.
With financial backing from his father, Chicago Board of Trade President William Baker, the younger Baker began work on the Snoqualmie Falls Power Plant, located in the town the younger Baker platted around the falls. Baker’s father, who also organized the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, was listed as the sole owner of the plant to keep creditors off Baker, who had lost his railroad job during the Panic of 1893.
While harnessing the power of flowing water was not new — grist and lumber mills had done it long before the advent of electricity — Baker’s plant was revolutionary in that it would be the first completely underground power plant.
In April 1898, the river was diverted from the southern side of the waterfall while a 270-foot shaft was drilled into the rock to bring equipment down to where the powerhouse would be located. An 8-foot-diameter pipe channeled water down the shaft to four underground water wheels, which generated electricity that was then sent to a transformer house that converted it into 32,000 volts of electricity.
The plant began generating power July 31, 1899, with Baker’s 18-month-old daughter, Dorothy, pulling the switch that put the plant online.
The electricity flowed from the plant to a substation in Issaquah, then to Renton and finally to customers in Seattle.
In 1903, a fire broke out at the plant, destroying much of the equipment, but Baker was able to get it back online in 36 hours. Also that year, Baker’s father died. Since his father’s was the only name on the power plant, Baker was not recognized as a business partner in the venture by the estate’s lawyers.
In 1908, the plant was sold to the Seattle-Tacoma Power Co., which would eventually become Puget Sound Energy.
The new owners built a second plant a quarter-mile downstream from the original plant in 1910, and expanded its capacity in 1957. From 2010 to 2015, PSE made improvements at both plants, as well as the park and historic buildings around the falls.
Today, the two power plants generate 53 megawatts of electricity. A megawatt can typically power several hundred homes, depending on several factors.
The Hydroelectric Museum at Snoqualmie Falls is open through Labor Day and has some of the equipment from the original plant on display.