The Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Company – “All Electric” Mill

by David Battey (originally published in 2004)

Frederick Weyerhaesuer. Minnesota Historical Society Collection.

The plan was to build the second “all electric” mill in the nation.  The first such mill being an upgrade of Weyerhaeuser’s Everett Mill B, completed in 1916.  It is important to remember that the underground power plant at Snoqualmie Falls, the first hydroelectric plant in the State of Washington, went on line in late 1898 and helped prove the viability of the alternating current system of power transmission over the direct current system espoused by Thomas Edison.  The town of Snoqualmie did not have electricity until 1912 and outlying Valley farms were without electricity until the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.

So the use of electricity in heavy manufacturing was still relatively new and using it to run a large lumber mill was an experiment honed on Everett Mill B and perfected at the Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Company facility.

Mill powerhouse and mill 1, c 1920. Cress-Dale photo. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection PO.381.0003.
Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Co stack smoke. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection PO.040.3035.

The original power house at the mill was designed to accommodate four 750 horsepower Stirling boilers from Babcock and Wilcox that burned waste chips, shavings and sawdust to create steam and power the “turbo-generator.”

Previously, lumber mills used steam for “everything”.  This new mill used electricity for much of the rotary motion, saving steam for saw carriage motion, dry kilns, lifting cylinders and other situations where electricity was inefficient.  In fact by 1921 the mill was utilizing over 400 electric motors having an aggregate connected load in excess of 6500 horsepower.  The same electrical engineer that designed Everett Mill B, Albert H. Onstad, became an independent consultant for the Snoqualmie Falls operation earning a salary that equated to thirteen dollars per day when the general forest products labor rate was three dollars.

Dinner Group at Snoqualmie Falls home. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection PO.288.0009.
Mill 1 bandsaw. March 1, 1918. Cress-Dale. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection PO.534.0195.

Of primary interest to first mill manager W. W. Warren, was the innovative and untested concept of extending power lines into the woods so that electricity rather than steam could provide the energy for yarding logs.  The value of electric yarders/loaders (donkeys) was not just in their assumed efficiency and speed over steam units but the fact that steam donkey boilers create sparks and the attendant risk of forest fires.  Starting with the opening of the mill in 1917, the company went through four years of experiments using equipment from Westinghouse, General Electric and others before accepting and installing the fast, efficient, spark-free units in 1921.  Electricity was provided by running wires all the way from the power generating plant at Mill 1 into the deep woods and directly to the electric donkey.  The electric yarders were an immediate success as noted in these quotes from W. W. Warren to George Long at Weyerhaeuser:  “The new electric loading machine is a wonderful success, and has this week justified our faith, hopes, and expectations.  Mr. Lewis (the logging foreman) is very enthusiastic.  The crew is proud of it, and the yarding part is the fastest machine in the woods.”  In a postscript he states, “Lewis says this A.M. the loader picked a butt log (7’ to 8’ on stump) up bodily and placed (it) on (a railroad) car on top of two other logs.  The Duplex steam loader couldn’t do that.”

1917 correspondence between George S Long and WW Warren regarding potential sale of power to Puget Sound Traction Light and Power Company. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection.
Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Co Mill 1, Greenchain and Powerhouse. May 11, 1917. Cress-Dale Photo. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection PO.534.0210.
Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Co stacks, after 1944. Harold Keller Photo. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection
PO.045.0406.g.

Dreams of efficient harvesting of Snoqualmie Valley timber began in 1900 when Weyerhaeuser purchased thousands of acres in Western Washington from railroad interests.  The Grandin Coast Lumber Company purchased railroad lands checker-boarded with the Weyerhaeuser holdings in the Valley in 1906.  By 1914 the feasibility of heavy investment in milling and marketing the exceptional timber resources of the Snoqualmie Valley bore fruit in the incorporation of the Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Company (SFLCo) by Weyerhaeuser and Grandin Coast.  With capitalization of $23,000,000 this was serious business.

Snoqualmie Falls Power Plant. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection.
Arc flame in cavity at Snoqualmie Falls Power Plant, c.1898. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection PO.112.0076.

It took two years of planning before actual mill construction began in 1916.  The heart of the mill was a large brick fuel bunker, powerhouse, generating plant and stack, built between Mill 1 (with its 11’ electrically driven headrig or giant bandsaw) and the mill pond.  The still existing 211 foot ‘stack’ for this generating plant was constructed of special “radial perforated” curved brick and is nineteen feet in diameter at the base and thirteen feet in diameter at the upper lip.  Still visible on the side of the stack are the company initials, SFLCo.

Although World War I specified wood as a strategic product, attempting to get the mill up and running during times of severe shortages in manpower, metals and machines was a challenge.  It was especially difficult obtaining the large electric motors required for the mill and the delivery of the 4,000 Kilowatt Allis-Chalmers “turbo-generator” was the last piece of equipment required before the mill could go operational on November 25th 1917.

Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Co powerhouse construction progress. August 22, 1917. Cress-Dale photo. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection PO.534.0176.
Snoqualmie Falls Powerhouse equipment. March 11, 1918. Cress-Dale photo. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection PO.534.0201.

In addition to power needed for production, this mill created “home” electricity for the lights and appliances of the new and growing mill town of Snoqualmie Falls (250 domiciles at buildout in 1924).  That the mill created their electricity was made evident to all of the households at the mill site.  Their lights would dim when the eleven-foot band saw (head-rig) of Mill 1 ripped into a large knot, a hog (gigantic motor driven chipper) gobbled a hard to digest log or one of the electric donkey engines in the woods was working extra hard.  Electricity at the townsite was also very obvious to neighboring farms, many of whom did not have power in their homes until over a decade after the mill began operation.

WW Warren, Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Co manager. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection PO.473.0101.
Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Co Triple drum electric donkey engine on skids on log car. Kinsey Photo. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection. PO.486.0007.
Electric logging donkey on skids. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection PO.320.0026.

During planning, engineer Onstad recognized that the Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Company could easily generate additional power for sale into the Puget Sound Traction Light and Power Company grid.  Negotiations began in 1917 and the first co-generation contract was signed in 1920.  This process allowed the Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Company to sell excess power to Puget Power.  It also provided for Puget to act as backup in case the mill was unable to generate enough power of her own.

As the mill and mill town grew, the need for electricity and steam rose.  In the early 1929 a fifth, much larger boiler was added.  A second stack some 250 feet high and 16 feet in diameter at the base was added in 1944.

In 1989 Mill 1 was dismantled, but the generating plant was still required for the kilns, planer mill, grading and shipping that remained in service.  Green cut lumber from the Weyerhaeuser White River sawmill was trucked up to Snoqualmie where it was dried and finished.  In 1991 the two power house smoke stacks were assisted by pollution-combating scrubbers.

In 2002 Weyerhaeuser sold the Snoqualmie Tree Farm and in 2003 the mill itself was closed and the dismantling of the buildings began.

On August 11, 2004 the “new” stack erected in 1944 was toppled but the original brick stack currently remains.

Addendum: In 2010, Weyerhaeuser sold the mill site to Snoqualmie Mill Ventures who created DirtFish rally school on the site.

Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Co mill 1, powerhouse and beginning of mill town, c 1920. Cress-Dale photo. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection PO.381.0003
Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Co Mill site, c 1950s. Harold Keller. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection PO.045.402.b.
Weyerhaeuser Mill and Townsite, November 2004. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection.
Powerhouse and stack, 2004. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection.