Why an island on Diablo Lake is called Monkey Island

I spent the beginning of summer in the North Cascades. I can’t imagine a better way to kick off my favorite season.

Seattle City Light, along with the North Cascades Institute and the National Park Service, offered a sampling of some of the activities on Highway 20.

Along with other journalists, I got a chance to visit the Gorge Powerhouse, take a look at the towns of Newhalem and Diablo and enjoy lunch at the North Cascades Institute.

I’ll write a longer story later, but for now here are a few amusing tidbits from the trip.

J.D. Ross, the second superintendent of Seattle City Light and a huge proponent of hydropower projects on the Skagit River, was quite the character.

He wanted a grand garden at the site of the Gorge powerhouse at Newhalem. Tourists who visited were able to see bananas and bamboo growing in the manicured gardens. In winter, the out-of-place plants were dug up and tucked safely into greenhouses. At night, lights lit up an nearby stream and music was played through the ground on speakers. Ross really wanted people to think electricity was cool. (Those lights, after being put out of service by electrical storms, will be back in service sometime this summer, if all goes as planned.)

While I found the bananas growing in the North Cascades amusing, the best J.D. Ross story is the monkeys. Apparently, the beauty of Diablo Lake (the reservoir created by the Diablo Dam) with its turquoise waters wasn’t enough of a draw for him. So he borrowed monkeys from the zoo and put them on a small island in the lake. The climate was clearly not any good for monkeys, so each night they’d be brought inside so they didn’t freeze. They still call it Monkey Island.

He also put a number of white deer on what was dubbed Deer Island. Deer, it turns out, can swim. And, not surprisingly, some of them found living on a tiny island rather boring. Staff at NCI told me that until a few years ago, they would still see white deer on campus, presumably descendants of the original white deer.

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