Lesson Plan

Freeing the Elwha (Good Intentions)

Equipment at work to build the Elwha Dam without fish ladders.


How did an 1881 law in Washington interfere with the support of the building of the Elwha Dam and what was the consequence for salmon? What did the building of the dam do for the economy of the Port Angeles area?


  • Identify the purpose of the Homestead Act;
  • Decide what was needed to move west during the 1800s;
  • Describe the day-to-day life of homesteaders;
  • Explore who moved onto the Olympic peninsula;
  • Develop a time line for events and developments along the Elwha River and Port Angeles, WA.


The Territory of Washington code of 1881 made it a crime for anyone to obstruct the passage of salmon in any waterway. When Thomas Aldwell built the lower Elwha Dam in 1912 it became clear during construction that the dam was an impediment to salmon. Aldwell failed to include a fish ladder or passage as required by law making the Elwha Dam an illegal dam. In 1913 Washington State fish commissioner, Leslie Darwin, found a loop hole in the 1881 law that allowed the Elwha Dam to function legally. In this lesson, students will read about the loop hole and the subsequent repeal of the 1881 law and its replacement by a 1914 law that allowed below dam hatcheries to be built instead of waterways. The Elwha Dam is important in that it set a precedent for dams in Washington. The students will then compare the early economic gain from the dam to the Olympic Peninsula in the form of hydropower with the loss of the salmon and write an editorial for The Port Angeles Evening News either supporting the dam or supporting the salmon.


  • Pencil and paper
  • Computer access
  • Reflection Journal Pages (printable handout)
  • Student pages (printable handout)


Review the essential question; introduce the guiding question.

Hand out Reflection Journal pages then have students take a minute to write down their ideas about the questions. Ask students to share any thoughts they have written about.
Hand out the student pages. Students will research and answer some questions about the loophole in the 1881 Washington Code that allowed the Elwha Dam to function legally. Students will research and answer questions on the economic impact of the dam to Port Angeles and the Olympic Peninsula, and then its impact on salmon.

Students will use the information from the reading and questions to write a letter to the editor of The Port Angeles Evening News (1916-1972) either supporting the legality of the dam and its promise of prosperity or supporting the protection of salmon.

Hand out the second Reflection Journal Page. Give students time for a final reflection the lesson.


Reflection Journal (see rubric)
Editorial (see rubric)

Additional Resources

Letter writing help for struggling students: