Monday, August 22, 2011

The Girl and the Fish

Washington State Historical Society, Asahel Curtis Negative Collection
The photograph has occupied an important wall in every place I’ve lived over the past 30 years.  For most of that time, I did not know that the woman is Eleanor Chittenden, the daughter of Hiram Chittenden, Seattle District Engineer for the Corps of Engineers and after whom the locks on the Lake Washington Ship Canal are named.
It is August 1, 1907.  Eleanor’s jacket, neck sash and straw hat maintain a coolness that pushes through the years.  She is on the very first annual outing held by the cool, new club, The Mountaineers, organized just a year earlier.
The fish is a steelhead – maybe 15 pounds – which she has just picked up from the rock on which she stands.  The photo seems an afterthought of the photographer, Asahel Curtis, one of the founders of the Mountaineers.  The reel of the bamboo fly rod has been put away, perhaps just recently, and before the rod is broken down, Curtis asks Eleanor to hold the fish and the rod and pose by the side of the river, the Elwha, soon to become the first river in Washington state to be dammed, the first of the many dams that will follow.  In June of this year, the power at the Elwha Dam was turned off and the river behind it allowed a more normal flow in preparation of the dam’s demolition over the next three years.

University of Washington
Special Collections

So many characters have come together in this picture.  Let’s start with the photographer, Asahel Curtis.  This photograph is one of 60,000 or so that he took over his career, photographing literally everything that happened in the Puget Sound until his death in 1940.  Overshadowed by his brother, Edward, whose obsession with the photography of Native Americans made him famous, Asahel was a good businessman and a promoter and no slouch with the camera either.  No boat launching, no new train service was complete without Asahel Curtis lugging his tripod past the parked cars of the guests. He was once the official photographer of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. 
He was a practical guy and a joiner.  He and others saw value and pleasure in promoting the natural wonders of the region so they formed The Mountaineers in 1906.  It’s hard to imagine anyone as influential in the development of the Mount Rainier National Park.  He was chair of its advisory committee from 1911-1936 and its chief guide in 1917.  He wanted everyone to see it and worked for a system of roads through the park that would allow them to see its wonders.

US Corps of Engineers

Another person contributing to the aura of this photograph is Brigadier General Chittenden, whose career in the Corps included the construction of the Port of Seattle and the connection of Lake Washington and the sea, accomplishments enough.  However, after graduating from West Point, he worked on plans for the Missouri River system and became engaged in the creation of Yellowstone Park, designing its road systems, bridges and the stone arch at its Northern entrance. 
Along the way, he wrote the definitive history of Yellowstone and later, an admired history of fur trading in the west.  The lush gardens at the locks serve to remind us of an engineer’s softer side.  At the end of his career, he served as President of the Port of Seattle.  

Olympic National Park
Lurking near the photograph, three years away and downriver, is the Elwha Dam, built to supply electricity to nearby sawmills and, ultimately, to a Crown Zellerbach paper company.  Built illegally by the Olympic Power Company -- state law required fish passage -- it blocked prodigious runs of salmon numbering 500,000 which included a race of very large Chinook Salmon. 
Olympic Power cut corners on the cost of the dam.  As they began to fill the dam, the lower part of it blew out, destroying the houses on the Lower Elwha Reservation near the river’s delta. 

Crown Zellerbach began the effort to relicense the dam in the late sixties/early 70s and finally had to confront its responsibilities to a more observant citizenry.  Over time, the idea of removing the dam along with its upriver neighbor dam Glines Canyon developed powerful allies, among them Michigan Congressman John Dingell, Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and a fisherman.
In 1996, a Record of Decision was signed stating that dam removal was the preferred alternative.  Fifteen years of environmental work and preparation followed before the generators were turned off last June.  The dams will be gone in 2014.
Eleanor is 15 in this photograph.  She was popular, showing up frequently in the society pages with her friends at the Pantages Theater, or, in 1913, christening the new ferry, Leschi.  There she is again with the announcement of her engagement to James Bell Cress and then her marriage, September 14, 1916, at the Chittenden home.
Top row, Hiram Junior and Eleanor, bottom row
Nettie Chittenden, Theodore and General Chittenden
Corps of Engineers
Like Eleanor’s father, Cress was a West Point graduate and was a lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers.  Cress’ father and General Chittenden were classmates at West Point.  At the wedding, Eleanor was given away by her brother, Hiram Chittenden Junior, not her father.  Perhaps it says something about an especially close relationship between them.  He became a professor of engineering at the University of Washington and remained there for 42 years.
After the buffet, the newlyweds left for Banff and Lake Louise, to make their way back to Washington, DC where they would make their home.  Chittenden senior died the following year.
After the wedding, we learn that Cress is sent to France in anticipation of the arrival of American Forces in World War I.  Now a Captain, he is one of the authors of a report on American readiness for war.  That same year, we learn that Eleanor and several Delta Gamma sorority sisters hold a fundraiser in Seattle for Belgian war victims. 

Cherbourg, 1944
United States Army

In 1925, she shows up once again in the society pages of The Seattle Times, in Greensboro, North Carolina, with Colonel Cress and their two young girls, Ethlyn and Lois.  In World War II, Colonel Cress is in charge of the engineering battalion that enters Cherbourg in June of 1944 to restore the devastated and booby trapped port.  The first cargo comes across its docks in eight days.
In 1949, Eleanor and parks writer Isabelle F. Story edit the fifth edition of Hiram Chittenden’s book on Yellowstone Park.  A decade later, the family donates their father’s papers to the Washington State Historical Society and we learn that the last year of his life was spent trying to keep the US out of the European war.
Major General James Bell Cress, United States Military Academy, 1914, First Captain of Cadets, died in 1967 at 77 years in southern California. 
Though Eleanor, who died three years later, is buried at West Point with him, for me, she is always at her post, slowly revealed again, standing on the rock, holding her fish, looking coyly at Mr.  Curtis as the waters behind the Elwha Dam recede and start to think they might form a great river once again. 

Washington Historical Society Curtis Archive
University of Washington Curtis Archive
Popular Mechanics: Tearing Down the Elwha Dam


  1. What a great story and amazing how one 15 year girl was at the nexus of such historical significance.

    1. Thank you for this. I've had a crush on this girl for 30 years, and it's nice to know the full story.

    2. Thanks, Paul. About half the fisheries biologists in the Pacific Northwest have this photo on their cubicle or in the front seat of their van!!

    3. Thanks, Paul. About half the fisheries biologists in the Pacific Northwest have this photo on their cubicle or in the front seat of their van!!