Hidden away in the North Cascades of Washington are two tiny hamlets, too small to be called towns or even villages. Heading west from I-5 over the North Cascades Highway (highway 20) you drive through jaw-dropping steep mountains and jagged peaks. Located within the North Cascades National Park Complex, the area is very rugged and barely developed. Ninety-three percent of the area is wilderness. There are no accommodations. You won’t be spending the night. But take a little time to stop and check out these unusual little places anyway.
From the west, you first come upon Newhalem, which is owned by Seattle City Light. They manage the Skagit Hydroelectric Project. Only employees of Seattle City Light or agencies such as the National Park Service live in the town. It has a some buildings such as a small store (warning- it is closed on the weekends!) a helicopter landing area, small park, houses, and the engine from the train that used to bring visitors to the area from Rockport. There is also a visitor center which is separate from the North Cascades National Park Visitors Center, and is staffed by National Park Service employees. On the day we went in, the Park Guide, Eric Vermeers, was very friendly and knowledgeable and willing to answer all our questions.
He told us the word “Newhalem” is an Upper Skagit tribe word for “place to snare goats”. He then entertained us with the story of how miners attempted to mine for gold and silver in the 1800’s without much luck. A man named Goodell provided supplies to the miners for awhile then got investors to build a road up. But the guy who accepted the bid worked one day and quit because the rock is so hard. It’s called Skagit Gneiss and is harder than granite. Then in 1917 Seattle City Light got a permit and established Newhalem as a company town.
J.D. Ross was a superintendent at Seattle City Light and was the one who envisioned the Skagit Hydroelectric Project. He oversaw the building of three dams: Diablo, Ross, and Gorge. He resisted building the road for a long time so that he could control who came up there because there were concerns about sabotage. So that’s why the only way in and out for years was Engine number 6. Tours began in 1928 to show people what they were investing in by buying the bonds to fund the project. It was also billed as a great place to take a honeymoon – except when the couple got there they had to sleep in gender-separated barracks! But it was still a unique adventure for most honeymooners.
An interesting side note about J. D. Ross. As we were driving through town we saw a gate over what looked like a metal door leading into the side of the mountain. We thought it was a cave that was closed off, or maybe where the powder had been stored for blasting the mountain. Turns out it was the crypt for J.D. Ross and his wife, built into the side of the mountain.
Today’s visitors can still take tours during the summer months. You can take a walking tour of Newhalem, then visit the powerhouses and follow that up with a Diablo Lake Tour. Date are limited so you’ll want to book early. You can find more information at: http://www.seattle.gov/light/tours/skagit/
Just east of Newhalem you can take a road to the north of highway 20 to the area known as Diablo. It’s so small that you can’t even find any information on it on Wikipedia or other websites. There are only houses with addresses like “H9” and “H20” and a fire department. OK, really it just looks like a garage with a fire department sign on it. This is a “bedroom community” for both park staff and employees of the nearby North Cascades Institute. It’s an interesting little place. You have to cross over a bridge to go into the area and on both sides of the bridge are old emergency phones in boxes.
On the side of the bridge leading out of the town is also a sign with lights that says when those lights are flashing the highway into Newhalem is closed. You would
have to be very self-sufficient and prepared to live in that place! You might wonder why anyone would want to live in either of these hamlets, let alone visit them, but when you see the beautiful setting, truly nestled in the rugged canyon with the unusual green water of the river rushing by, water that flows so clear under the bridge it’s like looking through glass, you begin to understand. You really are “away from it all.”