In Search of Electron

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Pierce County is full of towns with strange names – and even stranger histories.

Many of our place names here and around the state are derivations of Native words or place names; Steilacoom, Nisqually, Puyallup, Tacoma, Kapowsin,  Spokane and Seattle are only a few. Others are named for pioneers or prominent politicians.

Sign just south of Sumner  Photo by Morf Morford

Sign just south of Sumner
Photo by Morf Morford

And then there is Electron. Electron was founded in 1903 as a futuristic power-producing city of the future.

In 1903, electricity was new, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison were in their prime and the idea of providing electricity to the homes and businesses of the burgeoning Puget Sound area – especially Seattle – was the goal and vision of the builders of this literal town on a hill.

Semi-deluxe housing for the workers. Notice the date - 6/3/03 - that's 1903. For details on how the vintage hydroelectric system works, take a look here - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electron_Hydroelectric_Project.  Image courtesy of Electron archives

Semi-deluxe housing for the workers. Notice the date – 6/3/03 – that’s 1903.
For details on how the vintage hydroelectric system works, take a look here – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electron_Hydroelectric_Project.
Image courtesy of Electron archives

You would never guess it, but tucked away on a hill outside of Orting is one of the most astounding feats of engineering in Pierce County – if not the state.

The Puyallup River, barely out of Mt Rainier National Park, is divided by a flume (built originally of fir, but being replaced by more durable yellow cedar). This flume is a bit over ten miles long, hugs the hillsides and is at a grade of about seven feet per mile. There are over 300 turns on this twisty waterway. But that is not all.

Fans of obsolete machinery are in for a treat       Photo by Morf Morford

Fans of obsolete machinery are in for a treat  Photo by Morf Morford

On top of this eight-foot wide flume is a set of rails for specially made railroad cars for maintenance and reconstruction. These railroad cars are made to order – on site.

The flume takes about 20-30% of the Puyallup River (but is authorized to take up to 75%) reroutes the fish (salmon) and guides the water through pipes, down about a thousand foot drop, to the original powerhouse, built in 1903, to turn the turbines to produce up to 26 megawatts of hydropower.

If you see this sign, you found it. Photo by Morf Morford

If you see this sign, you found it.
Photo by Morf Morford

All this is amazing enough, but if you make your way to Electron (it can be tricky to find) and if you see the flume, even from a distance or in photographs, remember that it was built with essentially no technology – just horses, human hands, picks, shovels, axes and immense determination.

And yes, this 1903 machinery still produces electricity.