While some may think removing dams on the Klamath River is a relatively new idea, history tells a different tale. Back in 1889, the timber town of Klamathon was erected near present-day Hornbrook, only a few miles off today’s Interstate 5, and built the first Klamath River dam which stirred local controversy.
The lumber company that constructed the town built the dam in 1889 to catch logs floated from further upriver to feed the town’s sawmill and box factory. The Klamathon dam immediately and dramatically interrupted the fall salmon runs the year it was completed. Newspaper articles and historical records describe how the dam blocked the salmon runs in their entirety. Upriver from the dam, residents expressed outrage at the depletion of salmon runs they had come to depend on, and eventually requested a state investigation into the mill town’s actions and the questionable legality of the dam’s construction.
Witnesses described how the dam was fixed with baskets to catch salmon migrating upriver to their spawning grounds. The fish were then illegally processed and sold “by the wagonload,” interrupting upstream resident’s fishing prospects for the year. According to an article in the October 2, 1889 edition of the Yreka Journal, settlers upriver from Klamathon protested the dam’s construction and “hope[d] that the Fish Commissioner w[ould] see that such [was] stopped…” Community members requested that the owners of the dam at Klamathon install a fish ladder or similar solution to enable salmon to make their way upriver.
This destruction of salmon bound for Oregon created a regional political issue and became the first precedent for fish ladders on the Klamath River. From Salem, Oregon Governor Sylvester Pennoyer insisted that “measures be taken to stop the lawless acts and to have a fishway constructed that will allow the millions of salmon to pass up this important river, as this is the season they must go up to spawn.” Governor Robert Waterman of California responded by dispatching the Deputy Fish Commissioner of California to investigate. Within two weeks, Waterman had appointed a Siskiyou County representative, and the matter was brought to the State Fish Commissioners. The Sheriff of Siskiyou County was instructed by telegraph to lend “every assistance possible” to the new Fish Commissioner. Authorities arrested seven violators. Although the timber company complied with the law by immediately constructing a fish ladder to pass salmon, a portion of the dam was destroyed by high flows during the following winter of 1889–1890 and, as one newspaper put it, salmon were “… running up the Klamath river clear into the lakes at its head,”
A report from a visitor in early September 1902 indicates that migration had been fully re-established by then:
“On our arrival at the springs [Klamath Hot Springs Resort at Shovel Creek (about RK 366)] we heard the good news that the rainbows were running in the river and also that a great number of salmon were making their regular fall pilgrim- age to the spawning grounds, thanks to the fish ladder at Klamathon which this year was in good condition. It is the earnest wish of all those living along the Klamath, as well as of all visiting sportsmen, that this ladder be at all times kept in first class condition. “
The dam ceased to be an obstacle for migrating salmon and Upper Klamath Basin anglers alike after the mill and the dam was destroyed by fire in 1902 and never rebuilt.
Though the dam at Klamathon had a detrimental impact on salmon runs in 1889 and was clearly problematic for both fish and Klamath Basin communities, its history serves as a telling example of how dams affect rivers and fish and how dam removal can lead to the rapid return of fisheries in the Upper Klamath Basin.