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History of the Dungeness Area, Part 1

Exploration and Settlement, Farming and Logging

by Welden & Virginia Clark

To set the stage, the northern hemisphere was still influenced by the “little ice age” well through the 1800s, so the climate of the Dungeness area during exploration and settlement by Euro-Americans was probably cooler and wetter than at present.  River flows were likely greater, due to higher precipitation, larger and longer-persisting snowpacks, and little ice age mountain glaciers feeding the headwaters.  Forest cover was dominant in the north Olympic Peninsula.

Exploration from the sea and by land by Euro-Americans

The discovery of the Strait is credited to a Spanish vessel under the command of Juan de Fuca in 1592. The first known exploration and mapping of the length of the Strait was in 1790 in a Spanish ship commanded by Manuel Quimper.  The British exploration by Captain George Vancouver in 1792 provided the most information on the coastlines of the northeast Olympic Peninsula. The same year Captain Robert Gray, an American, entered and explored the Columbia River.

The next forty years saw both British and American interest in the Washington area.  The Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06 pushed to the Pacific Coast at the mouth of  the Columbia River.  The British North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company controlled fur trading from Astoria and later Vancouver on the Columbia River after the War of 1812.  A treaty in 1818 provided for joint occupation of the Oregon region by British and American  people, but the British Hudson’s Bay Company in fact provided most governmental authority.  A United States Exploring Expedition of six ships under the command of Lt. Charles Wilkes explored the Puget Sound region in 1841.

Early Settlement in the nineteenth century

Most of the new settlers in the Northwest prior to the 1840s were from the United States.  In 1843 the Provisional Government for the Oregon Territory was established, and by 1845 several counties had been delimited within the territory.   As originally described, Lewis County included most of present western Washington and British Columbia up to latitude 54 degrees 40 minutes north.  The northern boundary was finally set in 1846 by Britain and the United States at latitude 49 degrees N and the center of the Strait.

The U. S. Congress formally established the Oregon Territory in 1848, and the Washington Territory was separated from it in 1853.  By the early 1850s there were over a thousand settlers north of the Columbia River.  In 1852 Jefferson County was established, covering the whole of the north Olympic Peninsula, but in 1854 Clallam County was carved from it.  The first settlers came to the Dungeness area in 1851, cleared land near the river and planted crops such as potatoes.  Timber was shipped to Puget Sound mills and south to California.

A survey in 1855 resulted in a map of Dungeness Spit and the Dungeness community at Dungeness Bay.  This map has provided a baseline for changes in the Spit ever since.  The U.S. Congress authorized the construction of a lighthouse near the end of Dungeness Spit, which was the site of several early shipwrecks.  This lighthouse entered service in 1857.

Isaac Stevens, governor of the Washington Territory, negotiated treaties with Indian tribes in western Washington in 1855 that would have had the tribes relocated to a reservation at the southern end of Hood Canal.  The Dungeness area S’Klallam tribal members resisted relocation, even though they had largely been displaced from their village locations at the mouth of the Dungeness River and at Washington Harbor.  In 1874 they bought 210 acres of land (Jamestown) as a tribal home along the coast east of Dungeness.

The Territory of Washington became the State of Washington in 1889, one of six added to the pre-existing 38 states in a year’s time.  About 240,000 people lived in Washington then, but few of those were in the Dungeness area.

The first townsite of Dungeness was located within inner Dungeness Bay, but the townsite was relocated to its present location, New Dungeness, in 1890, reportedly because of concerns that the inner bay was filling up with silt.   A long dock and wharf was built at New Dungeness in 1891 and the town subsequently became a major shipping port.  This dock remained in service until 1941, but today only some broken pier pilings remain near the Three Crabs restaurant.  A wharf and settlement built about 1890 at Port Williams also enjoyed a thriving shipping trade.

Although summer droughts could be disastrous, more settlers came to the Sequim area.  They settled into Sequim prairie, Happy Valley, Lost Mountain, Texas Valley, the top of Burnt Hill, and the Palo Alto area (first called Simmonds Valley and Freeland Valley).  In the late 1800s the main cash crops were potatoes, wheat, oats, peas, and dairy products.  The principal markets for these products were Port Townsend, Port Discovery, Port Gamble, Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, and Shelton.  Dungeness became known as one of the main agricultural centers on the Sound and Strait, but it often was difficult to find sufficient customers.

Water diversions for agriculture

The first Dungeness River water diverted for agricultural irrigation was the Sequim Prairie ditch of 1896, which is still flowing under the “bump” on Priest Road.  This was the start of a system of nine separate ditch companies and districts in place by the 1920s, intended to serve some 26,000 acres of irrigable land.  It is not clear whether the land actually irrigated ever reached this size.  The maximum withdrawal for the nine districts and companies was set at 518 cubic feet per second for the irrigation season from mid-April to mid-September.

Unfortunately, there is considerably less water in the river than 518 cfs during the critical months of August, September, and October.  By the late 1930s and early 1940s problems became obvious, including excessive diversions from the river, poor control of flood irrigation, shortages of water for junior water-right holders, and waterlogging of low-lying farm areas.  With assistance from WA congressional leaders, a series of studies were undertaken to gain information and solve problems.  Early choruses were heard of what seems to be a regional anthem — ambiguous feelings about help from government.

The US Department of Agriculture created a Water Facilities Plan for the Dungeness River and McDonald Creek watersheds in 1943.  The USDA Plan stated that ~7,000 acres were being irrigated from the estimated 14,000 acres devoted to pastures and crops.   Dairy farming predominated, and farmers used nearly 90 percent of the cropland to produce livestock feed, mostly hay.   The report noted that some water must be left in the river for the salmon but that ‘no one knows how much.’

The federal Bureau of Reclamation developed a plan in the latter 1940s for a closed pipe gravity-flow irrigation system to provide water at sprinkler-head pressure for nearly 18,000 irrigable acres, after allowing for the 25 cfs water right for fish (the hatchery right) and 1.4 cfs for the Sequim water right.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service and WA Fish and Game Departments filed concerns that anadromous fish runs would be affected ‘without adequate considerations.’  Local opposition to the plan was significant, and the Bureau suspended further work.

In the 1950s and 1960s, irrigation practices changed away from flood irrigation toward sprinklers fed from pumps.  The change was actively promoted by the USDA Soil Conservation Service, with a full-time Soil Conservationist and engineering assistance to irrigators beginning about 1960.  The Bureau of Reclamation report noted in 1950 that Bonneville Power Administration had recently built a transmission line through the area, and that the Sequim population was about 1,000.  The irrigation service area population was about 3,500 persons.

By the 1970s, agriculture began declining in the area as residential development expanded.  Irrigators at this time also became more attentive to water conservation and instream flows.  During the 1980s and 1990s, environmental concerns increased even more, and several programs began to limit detrimental changes to the river (see History, Part 2, following).

Logging of the lowland forests and land clearing

The Vancouver expedition described the land in our area as totally forested, although later descriptions identified some open prairies.  Early settlers from the United States came with the promise of farm land, encouraged to clear the forests for agriculture.  By about 1902, a summary map showed the lowland area around Sequim almost totally cleared.  The 1914 Assessor’s Maps showed large areas labeled as “cleared” or “stumps”.

The National Forest Reserves system of 1891 resulted in the creation of the Olympic Forest Reserve in 1897.  This included areas of present Olympic National Forest and Olympic National Park.   By 1907 the Forest Reserves were transferred to The Department of Agriculture, and what we now know as the Olympic National Forest resulted.  In 1909 an Olympic National Monument was established at the core of the Reserve.  In 1933 control of the Monument was transferred to the National Park Service (established in 1916).  In 1938 the Olympic National Park was created out of Monument and National Forest (Forest Reserve) lands.

One of the best descriptions of Dungeness forests in the early twentieth century comes from field assessments of the Olympic Forest Reserve done by Federal experts in 1902.  It indicated very little prior logging or settlement on the entire 3,483 square miles of the Forest Reserve across the Olympic Peninsula.  The report notes that the Dungeness River valley [apparently referring to the lower Dungeness watershed, north of the Reserve] “… has been to a large extent cleared and is thickly settled.”  Further, the timber in the Reserve “… can be logged to Dungeness River, although this is a poor logging stream, with low banks and many gravel bars.”  The report also noted prior logging near the south end of Sequim Bay, and devastation from the 1890-91 Burnt Hill fire that burned some 30,000 acres back into the Dungeness watershed.  [Major fires impacted much of the Olympic Peninsula including the Dungeness in the early 1500s and early 1700s. A few old-growth trees in the Burnt Hill area are thought to have germinated after the 1700s fire.]

River channel management and the needs of fish

During the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, several floods focused attention on river channels and the protection of property. Groundwater studies also raised questions about potential difficulties if irrigation further declined.   Declining anadromous fisheries brought attention to irrigation diversions and decreasing river flows. In combination, management of the river during this time became an engineering problem, with little concern for natural processes or native fish.

Through much of the 1900s the State’s efforts to protect anadromous fisheries focused on hatchery production, with rivers considered to be conduits to move anadromous fish to and from salt water.  The Washington State Dungeness Hatchery opened in 1902 at the confluence of Canyon Creek and the Dungeness, above its present location.  In the mid 1940s the hatchery moved to the present site at river mile 10.5.   The instream flow required by fish in the river was identified in several mid-century reports as the water right for the hatchery (25 cfs), indicating that little attention was given to protection of  native fish in the river.

An apparently common concept in the 1940s through the 1960s was that river channels could be “improved” by straightening out meanders, armoring river banks, cleaning and revising channels with bulldozers, and removing woody debris, all to speed the flow and to protect property.  With this concept in mind, construction of small dikes occurred at various locations in the 1950s, such as between the Hatchery and the BPA transmission line, and along Taylor Cutoff Road.  The east-bank Railroad Bridge dike was built after the 1961 flood destroyed the east-trestle of the bridge.  The Army Corps of Engineers built a dike along the east bank of the river from the estuary south to nearly Woodcock Road in 1964.  The Game Farm dike on the west bank was later built to counteract flood waters redirected by the Corps dike, thus effectively channelizing the river to the detriment of Pink Salmon spawning habitat.  Likewise, the west bank dike at River’s End, opposite the Corps dike below the Schoolhouse Bridge, effectively channelized that reach.  The Dungeness Meadows dike south of Highway 101 was constructed in 1972 and later extended to protect residential development.  That dike, along with other engineering projects in the area, seriously degraded that reach.