In 1947, just seven years after opening, Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery already was a thriving, active facility.

Our hatchery was authorized in 1937 and built by the Bureau of Reclamation from 1939-1940. At that time, it was the largest salmon hatchery in the world! Entiat and Winthrop national fish hatcheries opened in 1941 and 1942, creating a complex of hatcheries working together. The purpose of the hatcheries was to help salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia River system after dams like the Grand Coulee were built.

At Leavenworth, we currently raise 1.2 million juvenile spring Chinook salmon every year, releasing them into Icicle Creek. In 1998, our hatchery was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Visitors can see the nursery, adult holding ponds, fish ladder, raceways, rearing ponds, and other features of an active hatchery. Many of the original buildings are still used for daily operations.

The Leavenworth site was chosen in 1936 “because of the natural S-curve meander necessary for spawning ponds and the large terrace that would easily accommodate the large rearing ponds and hatchery building needed for the extensive fish-culture operation,” according to Hanford Thayer, who was on the survey team. A team of engineers and biologists designed the facility, surveying and planning from 1936-1938.

Construction began in the summer of 1939. The nursery needed to be ready in December or the whole year’s run of salmon would be lost; so despite delays, seven contractors worked rapidly and simultaneously to dig canals and rearing ponds, install pipes, and build dams, roads, the hatchery building, a garage, and a refrigeration plant. The work was finished in the summer of 1940, and houses were built in spring of 1941.

This group photo from 1949 may include staff from all 3 hatcheries, but we don't know. The photo was taken in front of the nursery building in winter.

Main Hatchery Building/Nursery

Our hatchery was the administrative headquarters and laboratory for a multi-hatchery plan that included hatcheries at Entiat, Winthrop, and the Okan0gan. Entiat and Winthrop NFHs were built in 1941 and 1942, but the fourth hatchery in Okanogan was not. The main building at Leavenworth, housing the nursery and offices, was meant to be impressive, befitting the world’s largest hatchery, with a row of six square columns at the front.

The footings for concrete troughs and the plumbing were being installed in March of 1940 inside the nursery.

The 90 x 225 foot building cost $159,999 when it was finished in April 1940 ($2,683,183 dollars in 2015). The original plan called for an even larger building, 162 x 308 feet. The central main section of the building is an open, unheated, single room, originally filled with 228 concrete hatchery rearing troughs.

By May of 1940, 228 concrete hatching troughs were installed in the nursery building.

These have been replaced now with fiberglass troughs but in the same placement as the originals. Tall windows provide natural light. A 28 foot wide loft runs the full length of the building, and has side walls but no ceiling. The loft was intended to fill always-critical needs for storage space, but has seen limited use.

What was originally a laboratory is now a break room; and second story storage in the front and back sections were converted to offices. 

Snow tore off the gutters and damaged the roof of the 3-year-old nursery. Modifications were later made to cope with the snowy local winters.

The tall windows proved vulnerable to winter snow and ice, which curls inward as it slides slowly from the eaves, pressing against and breaking the glass; so shutters were added later. The concrete building was not painted until 1976. Landscaping around the building was once more elaborate, changing over the decades.

View over large Foster-Lucas ponds of the nursery building in 1976.


This photo from February of 1940 shows the frame of the maintenance shop during construction.

Constructed by the David A. Richardson Company of Idaho, this structure structure
Something temporarily or permanently constructed, built, or placed; and constructed of natural or manufactured parts including, but not limited to, a building, shed, cabin, porch, bridge, walkway, stair steps, sign, landing, platform, dock, rack, fence, telecommunication device, antennae, fish cleaning table, satellite dish/mount, or well head.

Learn more about structure
is 89 feet 8 inches x 142 feet 8 inches, and cost $65,686 to build ($1,101,554 in 2015).  Across the front are the carpenter, blacksmith, and general machine shops. In the rear is a large storage area for vehicles and other equipment. The shops were used for building and repairing pipes and fashioning equipment and hardware for the hatchery. Many of the tools are the originals, like the band saw; and the original blacksmith forge and vent are in place.

Accordion-style wooden doors have been replaced with modern overhead ones. A few other changes have been made; but the building is largely the same, and still serves the same purposes for which it was built.

Cold Storage Building

In August of 1940, Foster-Lucas rearing ponds were under construction in the foreground while the cold storage and heating plant building was being completed in the background.

Feed for fish had to made on site for many years. For decades, the ingredients and the feed itself needed to be frozen or refrigerated. MacDonald Construction Company built the cold storage building in 1940, housing a heating plant that warmed all the buildings with steam from two coal-fired boilers, as well as refrigeration machinery, cold storage space, an ice-making room, and food preparation rooms.  The building was 67 feet 8 inches x 96 feet 8 inches; and cost $84,007 ($1,408,797 in 2015).

A worker prepares pipes during construction of the cold storage and heating plant.

Several ventilators and twin chimney stacks once made the roofline distinctive. The heating plant was converted from coal to oil in 1958; then eventually removed, along with the chimneys. The interior is reworked for new purposes, converting the boiler and coal storage area to vehicle storage and outfitting one room into a laboratory-style project space used by the Fish Health veterinarian and the Mid-Columbia Fish and WIldlife Conservation Office. The walk-in cold storage rooms kept moist fish feed chilled until 2010, when the hatchery converted to dry feed.

Herb Schwerin stands beside an enormous meat grinder at Coleman National Fish Hatchery.

A side note: Fish feed in the 1940s was made from horse meat, beef liver, hog spleen, and salmon carcasses, among other things. The animal products had to be ground, then extruded into smaller pellets. For smaller fish, it had to be pressed through a ricer. Later feeds incorporated herring meal, wheat germ and cottonseed meals, dried whey, fish oil, and other ingredients.

Fish Culture

Specialized buildings and structures are necessary for raising fish. The hatchery cycle begins with adult salmon returning to Icicle Creek to spawn. Adults are collected in holding ponds. In the early fall, eggs and milt are collected and mixed in the spawning shed, and the eggs placed in trays in the nursery building.

A hatchery worker in 1940 gently shakes a tray of salmon eggs to wash them.

When the eggs hatch during winter, they are moved into the nursery troughs. In early spring, the fingerlings are transferred to outside raceways (a long, rectangular tank with water running continuously from one end to the other). They are kept here until they reach the smolt stage and released in spring at 18 months old to make their own way in the world. Currently, less than one percent return to the hatchery as adults to restart the cycle. (For wild chinook salmon, the return rate is about one hundredth of one percent.)

The hatchery attempted an innovative method for rearing fish when it was initially built.  A series of ponds were developed in Icicle Creek, using a meander channel of about one mile in length. The channel was divided into three ponds using dams to help raise the water levels. Although the idea was interesting, it failed. Water levels in summer were too low and temperatures too warm for healthy conditions; and the concentration of fish proved irresistible to a wide range of predators. After just five years, fish culture shifted to constructed raceways on the grounds.

One dam remains; the others have been removed. Three spawning sheds were built beside the three ponds. All three of these are also now demolished.

A dam and diversion channel under construction in May of 1940.

Foster-Lucas Ponds

Workers raced to complete rearing ponds after initial plans to raise fish in nearby Icicle Creek proved disastrous.

Developed at Quilcene National Fish Hatchery, these oval ponds were named for Fred Foster, Director of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (later incorporated into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service); and his assistant, Clarence Lucas. Research done here in 1946 proved the F-L ponds to be unhealthy for fish. Two sizes were built here: larger ponds are 130 feet long, 29 feet wide, and 5 feet deep; while smaller ones are 76 feet long, 17 feet wide, and 4 feet deep. They are arranged in “banks” of 7 or 8 large units and 13 small units.

Although requests to build new raceways began in the 1950s, new ones were not constructed until 1979, when the easternmost bank of eight large F-L ponds were replaced with three banks of raceways. Each bank of raceways consists of 15 units. In the same year, an adult holding pond was built beside Icicle Creek.

Three banks of small Foster-Lucas ponds were operational by 1940.

In 1998, a second bank of seven large F-L ponds were replaced with single lane raceways. The westernmost bank of large F-L ponds was used the longest. One pond was converted into an interpretive station for viewing fish.

A new structure was completed in 2021, demolishing one bank of the smaller F-L ponds. This building houses four large circular tanks. These will be tested for rearing. If they perform well, it is likely the remaining small F-L ponds will be demolished to make way for circular tanks. This will make the raceways available for the Yakama Nation Fisheries to use for coho salmon.

Icicle Creek Diversion Channel

Looking down the newly constructed diversion channel in May of 1940.

Constructed during the summer of 1939, the 4,085 foot diversion channel was a major project, with excavation carried on around the clock in four shifts. The dam upstream is used to divert water into the channel from Icicle Creek.

On a calm December day in 1940, the newly completed diversion channel reflected Sleeping Lady Mountain.

It was intended to control water flow to the holding and spawning ponds. The diversion channel is capable of carrying twice the maximum recorded flow of Icicle Creek. Building the channel cut off the portion of land where the spawning sheds were located, creating an island.


Seven simple residences were built to house hatchery workers. Care of fish is round-the-clock, and housing on site makes that easier. Heavy snow interrupted construction, so the houses were not completed until late March 1941.

The design of the houses was straight out of the Bureau of Reclamation’s design book. The Type-4 plan is very plain. It includes a three-quarter finished basement, a single car garage, and one and a half stories. Four of these houses remain, occupied by hatchery employees.

Houses for hatchery personnel were built on a low bluff overlooking the hatchery.

A History in Progress

Other structures were part of the scene at Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery. But change is a fundamental part of the story. As improvements were made, the old made way for the new. Original wooden-stave pipes were replaced with cement and steel. Some of these were replaced in 2015 by plastic pipes. The two-mile pipe that brings water from the intake upstream on Icicle Creek will be replaced or re-lined over the course of four or five years, beginning in 2023. The old screening chamber was replaced with an enlarged one. An aerator was added to remove excess nitrogen from well water. A sand settling basin was built in 1994 to reduce sediment entering the rearing ponds.

Despite the changes that have occurred over the years, the hatchery still looks much as it did in the 1940s. Our hatchery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998 as representing twentieth century conservation and fish restoration on a grand scale.

What About Water?

Hatchery History Rooted in Alpine Lakes

It was already known when Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery was planned that summer water would be in short supply. Temperatures soar in summer, too, and salmon must have cool water to survive (below 60 degrees F). Engineers came up with an audacious plan: build a trail up to the nearby alpine lakes, blast a tunnel through 2,250 feet of solid granite, and install plumbing and a valve to control water release into Icicle Creek.

Pack trains of horses carried supplies to alpine camps.

Getting to the alpine on foot was one thing. Packing the necessary gear and supplies up the steep slope was another. U.S. Forest Service workers dug a 30 inch-wide trail in 1938 up to Nada and Snow lakes. Eight miles southwest and 3,000 feet above the hatchery, these lakes would provide badly needed cool water for raising fish.

A construction camp for 40 men was built near Nada Lake.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) was in charge of the engineering project. They established a camp in the high country. Forty men lived at Nada Lake Camp for nearly a year. They built a mess hall, cook shack, compressor house, blacksmith shop, and powder shed, as well as dormitories.

Every piece of equipment, every bite of food, every last thing needed at Nada Lake Camp had to come up the narrow trail with the help of horses and mules. Local packers were hired to keep the camp supplied.

Low-head dams were built across the outlets of Nada and Snow lakes to store more water. The plan was to tap Snow Lake from beneath with a pipe and valve system. When water was needed, the valve could be opened, and water would be released to flow down into Snow Creek, which empties into Icicle Creek. Reclamation engineer Louis Ackerman was the principal designer. Hydraulic engineer Sterling Hill correctly calculated the water pressure that would need to be held by the valve gate.

Tunnels led through solid granite underneath Snow Lake.

A tunnel 7 x 9 feet had to be cut into solid granite, reaching back 2,250 feet. Several crews of men labored on this monumental task.

Some of the heaviest and most challenging pieces of equipment to haul up the mountain were the valves.

A vital piece of equipment had to be delivered in the alpine: the valve that would hold back the water. The gate valve weighed 2,800 pounds! It took a month to maneuver its two halves up the six mile trail. In tight spots, the crew had to blast a wider passage.

On October 16, 1939, everything was in place. An audience assembled to witness the final blast that would crack the base of Snow Lake and let the water into the tunnel under the lake. But a short in the electrical wire leading to the powder charge caused a delay. Several men had to crawl through the 30 inch steel pipe embedded in concrete at the tunnel's mouth, then drag scaffolding and a ladder in after them to get across the many sump holes in the tunnel. The holes were designed to catch rock and debris that washed in after the blast and prevent the valve from clogging. They reset the charge, and at 6:15 that evening, dynamite allowed the water to rush in-- and the gate valve held!

Washes gushes from the Snow Lake valve, July 22, 1941.

Every year since 1939, someone from the hatchery climbs up the trail to Snow Lake and turns the valve gate open by hand to let alpine water out. Snow piled up around the lake in winter becomes valuable water flowing down Snow and Icicle creeks in summer.

The Snow Lake valve was assembled by 1939.

Snow and Nada lakes were enclosed by the Alpine Lakes Wilderness when it was formed by Congress in 1976. The Wilderness is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Since the dams and valve predate the establishment of the Wilderness, Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery retains ownership of the land and the use of the water around the lakes and the right to use them, as they have done since 1940. The trail hewed from the mountain by the crews that engineered a way to get the water from the lakes to the hatchery is now a popular access route into the Wilderness for hikers and backpackers.