Why Kent farmers used to sneak out to blow up dams | KUOW News and Information

Why Kent farmers used to sneak out to blow up dams

Apr 29, 2017

This is a story of a war between farmers. Farmers in Kent and Auburn were frustrated because their valley was constantly flooding. And that made it difficult to farm in their beautiful, very fertile valley.

That led those farmers to do some naughty things.


This month, the Region of Boom team starts rolling out stories about Renton, Kent, and Auburn. It’s a booming industrial area with cheaper housing than Seattle. But before the valley could become the jobs center it is today, it had to deal with a problem. Which led KUOW’s Joshua McNichols to this little known piece of history.

Patricia Cosgrove is the director of the White River Valley Museum (today, we call it the Green River). Cosgrove told me how the "war" got started.

In 1906, nature handed the frustrated, wet-ankled Kent and Auburn farmers a gift. A massive flood altered the course of the White River. Instead of sending the water north, through their valley toward Seattle, "the river very conveniently turned south,” Cosgrove said, sending much of its water through Puyallup into Tacoma. That was somebody else’s valley. Suddenly, the floods were somebody else’s problem.

Whoo hoo, right?

Well, not exactly.

“From 1906 to 1913, the communities argued back and forth and created little diversion dams trying to make it flood the other guy’s valley," said Cosgrove, "They would do this by piling up saplings and rocks. And then they’d sneak out and dynamite the other guy’s dam. And back and forth.”

An early diversion dam under construction on the White River in 1906. The White River, with its water from Mount Rainier, was known as the river nobody wanted, because its water regularly flooded whichever valley it passed through. Farmers in adjacent valleys routinely blew up each other's diversion dams in a back and forth struggle to send the river into the other guy's valley.
Credit Washington State Historical Society

The underground wall that keeps the White River's water out of the Kent Valley, at Game Farm Park in Auburn.
Hiram M Chittenden, a man whose countenance clearly indicates he is above the squabbles of dynamite wielding farmers. Photo is from 1916.
Credit U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Finally, the government hired Hiram Chittenden to solve the mess. He’s the guy who designed the Ballard Locks. He built a huge underground dam, forcing the river permanently south. So the north won.

The south got a consolation prize: levees and a straightened Puyallup river.

But the Kent and Auburn valley wasn’t dry enough yet for industry to thrive there.

Later this week, we’ll learn about the massive earthen dam that changed everything after World War II: The Howard Hanson Dam. It’s the reason why the Kent Valley has Washington state’s largest collection of warehouses and factories.

You can learn more scintillating details about the war between farmers in neighboring valleys on this page of the White River Valley Museum's website.