Five years later, fish numbers are up in Goldsborough Creek near Shelton. With more dam removals planned, and still more being debated, scientists are watching closely.

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SHELTON, Mason County — For more than a century, salmon followed Goldsborough Creek as it passed through the grounds of a sawmill, into the middle of Shelton and toward the woods beyond — before bumping smack into a 30-foot-high wall called the Goldsborough Dam.

And for decades, the salmon runs limped along, blocked from prime spawning grounds by the manmade barrier of wood and concrete.

Then, five years ago, with the rumble of bulldozers and backhoes, the dam was taken down. Today the descendants of those earlier salmon now splash through a series of riffles and gradual stair steps where the dam once stood, free to pass on to spawn in a 25-mile network of streams.

Along the way, scientists are getting a glimpse of what can happen when a dam, albeit a small one, is demolished: As fish gradually reclaim their former habitat, Goldsborough Creek is becoming a more important source of salmon for the southern tip of Puget Sound.

Though small, this dam is a harbinger of things to come in the Northwest. Seven dams in Washington and Oregon, including two big dams on the Elwha River in Olympic National Park, are slated for demolition in the next five years. That’s an unprecedented burst of activity. At the same time, debate still rages over tearing down huge dams on the Snake River.

“This is the kind of project that I’d like to see a lot more of,” said Fred Goetz, a fish biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which helped remove the dam.

“If we can get human structures out of the way, the natural habitat is much more effective at sustaining itself.”

The dam’s demise

Dam removal is often fiercely contentious, with people who rely on dams for electricity, irrigation and other uses squarely against the environmentalists who say dams kill fish.

But after more than a century of survival, the dam on Goldsborough Creek was doomed by an unusual consensus of interests — and a timber-company accountant.

People dammed the big creek in 1885, first using it as a millpond to store logs. Later, the city of Shelton rebuilt it to produce electricity. Eventually, Simpson Timber Co. ended up with it, using it to divert water for its Shelton lumber mill.

A fish ladder was installed at some point to help fish get past the dam, but the creek became virtually useless to fish by the 1990s. Chum salmon weren’t getting above the dam at all, and the only coho came from eggs that were artificially planted there. On their way to Puget Sound, young coho had to survive a 14-foot drop over the dam spill.

Then, in the winter of 1996, a flood damaged the dam. At a meeting about possible repairs, a Simpson accountant declared that the dam was a liability to the company, not an asset.

“From then on, everyone understood the dam was going to come down,” recalled Jeff Dickison, a natural-resources manager for the Squaxin Island Tribe, whose reservation is nearby.

In 2001, workers diverted the creek into pipes bypassing the dam. They used heavy equipment to tear down the wood and concrete structure, then trucked out the tons of sediment that had accumulated behind the dam.

Finally, the creek was set loose.

“Better than we had”

Still, the result is hardly a return to the creek’s pristine 19th-century past. As it flows through the former dam site, it cascades down a series of 36 tiny concrete waterfalls put there to slow the river and protect Shelton from flooding.

Joseph Peters, a Squaxin Island tribal biologist, made his way through the snow and past young alders and willow trees to the water’s edge one day this month to look for signs of returning salmon.

“It’s not as natural as maybe we intended it,” he said. “But it’s better than what we had.”

No fish showed up that day. But biologists say salmon have been spawning upstream of where the dam once stood. They stopped planting salmon eggs up there after the dam came down, yet the number of juvenile salmon headed downstream has risen.

When the dam was in place, Goldsborough Creek accounted for less than half of all the young coho entering the southern tip of Puget Sound from it and surrounding streams. Since the dam came down, the creek has begun consistently producing more than 60 percent of the young coho of that area of South Puget Sound. The change also is expected to benefit steelhead and cutthroat migrating upstream.

It could take another five years or so before the full impacts are clear.

It can take salmon a decade or more to fully occupy habitat previously blocked by dams, rockslides or glaciers, said George Pess, a biologist for the federal Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

Still, the tribe sees the project as a success story. Some tribal families have traditionally called the banks of Goldsborough Creek home, and the tribe has fishing rights in Puget Sound that include areas populated by salmon from the creek.

Charlene Krise, a historian who serves on the tribal council, said one of her uncles used to sit on a concrete bridge over the creek in Shelton and wave to people going by. One day Krise asked a relative why he did that.

“That was his family’s property and he wants to be remembered being by that creek,” Krise recalled being told.

“It has a sentimentalness even today.”

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or