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Another Benefit of Hydro: Seattle City Light Restores Historic Lighting at Ladder Creek Falls

Decades ago, Seattle City Light used a light show at Ladder Creek Falls, near its 711-MW Skagit project, to showcase the wonders of electric power generation. Last fall, the utility brought that light show back, with a new energy-efficient and colorful display that has renewed the stream of visitors coming to the site to enjoy the show.

At Seattle City Light Superintendent Jorge Carrasco's signal, the darkness enveloping Ladder Creek Falls was replaced by a swirl of vibrant colors cascading through the rushing waters.

The Oct. 11 relighting ceremony in Newhalem, Wash., marked the re-birth of this historic light show. About 30 programmable, energy efficient LED light fixtures now turn the glacier-fed falls into a spectacular display that repeats in 15-minute cycles each night from sunset until midnight.

A $1.6 million project restored the lightshow, which was created in the late 1920s by Seattle City Light's first superintendent, J.D. Ross, to attract visitors to the Skagit project and build appreciation for public power.

"J.D. Ross was a master salesman," Carrasco says. "The light show and Skagit tours that he started brought thousands of people from Seattle to see the hydroelectric dams and learn how City Light was providing them with low-cost, renewable energy."

Workers install LED lighting at Ladder Creek Falls as part of Seattle City Light's efforts to restore a light show near its Skagit hydroelectric project. The light show entertained visitors from 1930 to 2004 before being destroyed by a severe storm. It was restored and put back in service in October 2011.
Workers install LED lighting at Ladder Creek Falls as part of Seattle City Light's efforts to restore a light show near its Skagit hydroelectric project. The light show entertained visitors from 1930 to 2004 before being destroyed by a severe storm. It was restored and put back in service in October 2011.

Designing a new system

Ross designed the original system in the late 1920s, using 1,000-watt spotlights to capture his personal ideas and inspirations for artistic illumination when it came online in 1930. For early visitors who made the two-and-a-half hour trek northeast from Seattle, the lights created a fairyland symbolizing the new wonders of electricity. Ross often described it as "a paradise of color in the wilderness." But over the years, the original system slowly fell into disrepair. Finally, damage from a severe storm in 2004 left the lighting system completely dark.

One of the many requirements in Seattle City Light's Federal Energy Regulatory Commission new operating license for the Skagit hydroelectric, issued in 1995, is to preserve historical aspects of the facilities. Ladder Creek Falls is part of the Newhalem Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Thus, in 2008, Seattle City Light started working to restore the lights.

The design team of Berger Partnership and Candela - both Seattle-based firms - was hired for $164,000 to design the new system. The team completed the designs in 2009. Valley Electric Co. of Everett, Wash., was awarded a $900,000 contract to install the new system, and work began in 2010. The labor-intensive work of restoring the lights also included rebuilding concrete stairs and installing a seating area, handrails, guard rails, signs, and benches.

This view shows a downstream view of a lit-up Ladder Creek Falls. Energy-efficient LED lights helped bring the light show back from a seven-year hiatus in October 2011.
This view shows a downstream view of a lit-up Ladder Creek Falls. Energy-efficient LED lights helped bring the light show back from a seven-year hiatus in October 2011.

"Certainly, the challenge was in maintaining the original concept," said Lauren MacLeod, the project's lighting designer. "But we needed to simplify the locations of the fixtures. The original ones were on both sides of the falls and in some very precarious positions. I don't know how they maintained them."

Trenches for most of the wiring were dug by hand to avoid damaging tree roots. Valley Electric crews often worked in full climbing harnesses hanging on the side of the cliff face to install equipment. They also built a temporary work platform that hung below an observation bridge so they could stand while installing lights beneath the bridge. And no work could be done for five months while a La Nina-driven winter buried the area in snow.

Overcoming those challenges made the project that much more rewarding.

"It's beautiful. It's just one of those things where you're glad you were involved in it," says John Probstfield, project manager for Valley Electric.

While the original installation was seen, in part, as a feat of man conquering nature, designers of the new system tried to make the equipment that generates the light show invisible. Operating in balance with nature that way mirrors the relationship between the Skagit project and the North Cascades National Park that surrounds it.

Steel mounting boxes, conduit covers and other exposed components of the lighting system were painted to camouflage them amid the surrounding terrain.

"When you're in the space you can let the beauty of the site be what you're experiencing, not necessarily the improvements we put in," says Andy Mitton, a landscape architect with Berger Partnership.

Operating the new show

The new LED fixtures can be individually programmed to display any color for any length of time, providing an almost unlimited number of options. When the lights come on, the falls appear to glow with colors that seem to cascade downward with the water.

Seattle City Light is considering special lighting programs for holidays and other events. The light show requires little support because it is automated. Trained employees program the light cycles and colors, including a timer for the system to start and stop.

Another benefit of the new lights is that they use about 90% less electricity than the original fixtures. The lights have an expected lifespan of 50,000 hours. Visitors can view the light show nightly. Many people have already traveled to Newhalem to see the lights, including Rita Lihly of Bellingham.

"We were in awe of the light display," Lihly says. "It was phenomenal! Exceptional! We lingered a long time, watching the play and changing of the colors."

Increasing the number of visitors adds to the economic boost the Skagit project provides to the Skagit Valley.

LED lighting illuminates Ladder Creek Falls near the Skagit Hydroelectric project in Washington state.
LED lighting illuminates Ladder Creek Falls near the Skagit Hydroelectric project in Washington state.

That was one of the considerations for FERC when it renewed Seattle City Light's license to operate the Skagit project. As part of that renewal, FERC included provisions for preserving historical aspects of the project and maintaining tours.

National Park Service historian Gretchen Luxenberg was thrilled by the return of the lights at Ladder Creek Falls. "There is a renaissance going on in Newhalem with the historic designed landscape, and City Light should be applauded for its stewardship of these significant and unique resources," she says.

Protecting the right to operate the Skagit's three dams is a vital component of Seattle City Light's mission to deliver reliable, low-cost, environmentally sensitive electricity to its 400,000 customers.

The Skagit project produces about 38% of the electricity Seattle City Light generates for its customers. Skagit is one of the many reasons Seattle City Light has been able to fully offset its carbon emissions since 2005.

"As our customers benefit from the renewable power the Skagit generates, it is our commitment to be a good neighbor to surrounding communities, operate in a sustainable manner, protect habitat for fish and wildlife, and preserve the unique historical aspects of this tremendous resource," Carrasco says. "Restoring the Ladder Creek Falls light show is just one of the ways we demonstrate that commitment."

-By Scott Thomsen, senior strategic adviser, Seattle City Light

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