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Tacoma couple’s restoration of historic Sullivan Creek powerhouse a labor of love

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 26, 2017, 9:33 a.m.

METALINE FALLS – A Tacoma couple fell in love with a 107-year-old abandoned brick powerhouse in northeast Washington and bought it. Now the work begins.

The picturesque two-story building in a forested canyon next to crystal-clear Sullivan Creek inspired this passion. But the significant place in history it holds also played a part.

“I like historic buildings,” said Kyle Harris while taking a break from clearing brush and debris for the first time around their building in early September.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Ellen Woolard.

So what do they plan to do with 12.6 acres and a 4,600-square-foot building in the northeast corner of Washington, 400 miles from their home?

They aren’t sure yet, they said, as the sweat and dust settled on them after a week working at the site and living in a motel in Ione.

They said they had lots of ideas but are realistic about the limitations of the remote location and small population in the area.

“We’re in love with the building,” Harris said. “At the moment it will be our (part-time) residence.”

Maybe they will find other uses in the future, he said. They want people to be able to enjoy the property someday.

Woolard, 34, and Harris, 33, are partners in life and business. The energetic couple have full-time careers, but together in their spare time they invest in property – mostly single-family residences in Tacoma and Spokane.

While in Spokane looking at investment property, they spotted the Sullivan Creek Powerhouse advertisement. The Pend Oreille Public Utility District had put it on the market after abandoning its hydroelectric generating license in 2005.

The couple drove 100 miles from Spokane to Metaline Falls on a Saturday morning to see the powerhouse. It is on state Route 31 just outside the city limits on the way to the Canadian border. It is often viewed or photographed from the narrow cement bridge over the creek.

After that first visit to the property, they decided they wanted it even though they weren’t sure what they would do with it.

“Last Valentine’s Day I surprised Kyle and told him we owned the powerhouse,” Woolard said. They purchased it for $75,000.

Harris said they plan a two-year restoration of the building.

“We aren’t changing anything,” he said. “Preserving the building is top priority.”

The utility district removed the two turbines that released water through the floor to the creek, so the floor must be replaced. The roof over the two-story building is also on the replacement list. The massive paned windows will need new glass and frames. Brick and foundation repairs must be done.

But structurally it is sound, he said. The brick walls are straight and mortar is in good shape. Exposed steel trusses support the vaulted ceilings. There is a giant chain hoist on overhead tracks and other remnants of industrial fixtures they say will stay after restoration.

Harris said he is also looking for other historic pieces from the powerhouse to put on display.

This winter they will consult with an engineer and county building officials to develop plans. They will be back to begin work next spring.

“We’re a crew of two,” Harris said with a smile when asked how long it will take.

Kyle said he isn’t shy about big projects. He is a marine-diesel mechanic and owns his own business. His current project is renovating a research ship for a client who will use it as a yacht.

Woolard says she is the assistant worker and planner for this venture. Her regular job in Tacoma is selling medical supplies.

The site has access to power and city water, but the city sewer line is a long way away.

Endless possibilities

What it can be is a unique and stunning residence on 550 feet of a beautiful, waterfall-laced mountain stream.

During a walk through the building, Harris and Woolard both pointed and talked about the possibilities.

Most of the 4,600 square feet of space is in the two-story open portion that features exposed steel trusses and large, paned glass windows with brick arches. The brick walls will be beautiful after sandblasting.

A hoist on a track is still there. They envision this raising a giant chandelier over the open space.

Woolard sees it as a community event area, possibly for weddings. They would have to get a conditional use permit from the county for any commercial use since it is zoned residential.

A long, open staircase accesses a second floor. Harris said they might turn this into living quarters or an elegant bedroom. Below it is another enclosed space they say might become two large bedrooms with bathrooms.

Even though advertisements claimed it was on the national historic register, Woolard found out the application process was never completed. But any building permits would have to be reviewed by the Washington State Historic Preservation Office, she said.

Heart of community

Metaline Falls was one of the most prosperous small towns in the region at one time. And at the heart was the Sullivan Creek Powerhouse.

There was gold and timber in the area, but the real economic boom would come from cement in 1909. Since there was a large deposit of high-grade limestone near Metaline Falls, some of the early town entrepreneurs pushed for a cement plant. And the investors lined up.

But a cement plant needed lots of electricity to power motors. So the newly formed Inland Portland Cement Company built the Sullivan Creek Powerhouse.

A wooden flume carried the water 2.5 miles down the mountain along Sullivan Creek to a spot where they drilled a shaft through solid rock for a steel pipe. The water dropped another 470 feet into the powerhouse. The pipe is still there but is plugged at both ends.

Two Pelton wheels produced a peak generation of 3500 kilowatts.

The cement plant and town were being built at the same time. Bricks for the powerhouse and some of the existing buildings were made from a clay deposit in town. Power and water for the town would also come from the powerhouse.

This area was part of Stevens County at the time. The growing tax base from Metaline Falls allowed residents to ask the Legislature to create Pend Oreille County in 1911.

So the powerhouse was the start of a community and possibly a county. The powerhouse generated power from 1910 to 1956, when the utility district purchased it.

The utility district considered rebuilding it for many years for power generation, but the small size and increasing relicensing costs made the project unfeasible.

In 2005, the utility district notified the federal government of its intention to surrender the license to operate the project as a power facility. The Mill Pond Dam that stored water to feed the powerhouse is being removed this fall.

The powerhouse stands as one of the last monuments to the region’s history, and as the heart of a young couple’s dreams.


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