National Academy of Engineering Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 10
Membership Directory
PublisherNational Academies Press
Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 10

Search this Publication

  • Previous
  •    Table of Contents
  • Next
             MILO C.BELL                                               19
                                 MILO C.BELL
                “If it wasn’t for salmonthere wouldn’t be a clean river left in this State!”
                “Water that’s good for salmon is good for people.”
                IN A PROFESSIONAL CAREER that spanned almost sixty years, Milo
            Bell, mechanical engineer, evolved and forged an outstanding career as a
            fisheries engineer. He worked throughout his long life to save the wild salmon
            runs of the Pacific Coast of North America from depletion and extinction caused
            by obstruction and other uses and abuses of the freshwater access routes and
            spawning streams and lakes vital to salmon’s continued existence.
                Milo Bell was born in Iowa on June 4, 1905. He came to the Pacific
            Northwest as a young man and received his degree in mechanical engineering
            from the University of Washington in 1930, as the Great Depression was
            beginning to spread its chill across the economy of the United States. Jobs were
            scarce, but Milo found employment helping to solve the problems of the salmon
            fisheries, which in the state of Washington, depended heavily on the wild salmon
            produced in the tributaries and lakes of the Columbia River and its 250,000
            square-mile watershed. To understand his unique achievements in conserving
            wild salmon stocks, it will help to know something of their life history.
                The five major salmon species of the genus Oncorhynchus, numbering
            hundreds of millions in total abundance, range both sides
             MILO C.BELL                                               20
             of the North Pacific Ocean and its tributaries from approximately the latitude of
             San Francisco and central Japan north to the Artic Ocean, including Alaska and
             north-flowing streams in Siberia. All Pacific salmon are anadromous, that is, all
             spawn in fresh water. Without exception, all are predestined to die after spawning
             once, giving their lives for progeny they will never see. All their offspring are
             programmed to migrate downstream to the sea sooner or later, in search of its
             vastly more abundant food supplies. There they remain, growing rapidly, until
             approaching sexual maturity impels their return to their home streams to spawn
             and die.
                The salmon’s requirement for access to freshwater streams and lakes for
            spawning conflicts with many other uses and users of the watersheds. Dams,
            diversions, waste disposal, and other pollution, natural hazards, and many other
            uses of the water-sheds, all damage or destroy salmon runs. Since salmon cease
            feeding when leaving the sea for their parent streams and then migrate hundreds
            and even thousands of miles, delays or added stress can be deadly.
                Major dams on the Columbia posed new obstacles to upstream migrant
            salmon enroute to their home streams. Their offspring, when headed downstream
            to the sea, met other hazards, including relatively still-water reservoirs, irrigation
            diversions, and turbines.
                During the long era of dam building on the Columbia and its tributaries,
            Milo Bell, as chief engineer of the State of Washington Department of Fisheries,
            took the lead in conceiving and initiating the design and construction of many
            specialized structures to pass adult salmon safely upstream and their progeny
            downstream. He led the design and construction of rotary screens to prevent
            downstream-migrating young salmon from entering irrigation off-takes, which led
            only to death in farmers’ fields. He designed and constructed hatcheries to
             produce young salmon in man-made environments where natural production was
             no longer feasible or adequate.
                In 1940 a new phase of Milo’s care began. In neighboring British Columbia,
             the Fraser River watershed of 90,000 square miles provided numerous spawning
             tributaries for great runs of
             MILO C.BELL                                               21
             spawning sockeye salmon, along with all the other anadromous species. Fraser
             River sockeye, inbound to spawn, were caught by fishermen of both Canada and
             the United States in their respective territorial waters. An international treaty
             creating the International Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission (IPSFC) came
             into effect between Canada and the United States in 1937. Field investigations
             determined that a major obstacle to upstream migration of mature sockeye
             enroute to their parent tributaries to spawn existed at Hell’s Gate, 130 miles
             above the mouth of the Fraser. Here, railway construction in 1913, notching into
             the wall of the 600-foot-deep granite canyon, had deposited masses of rock into
             the already constricted river, the eroded site of an ancient waterfall. Prompt action
             had been taken to remove the debris, but the passing of decades brought down
             more rock. This created a head of about nine feet over a short distance at certain
             stages, resulting in high velocities and excessively turbulent flow, which impeded
             or prevented the upstream passage of sockeye salmon. Because salmon do not
             feed enroute upstream and rely on their supply of stored energy for migration,
             delays can cause failure to complete their journeys or even death before
                In about 1940 Milo Bell, first as a consultant and then as chief engineer,
             came to the IPFSC to lead the investigation, design, and construction of fishways
             at Hell’s Gate to enable the free passage of sockeye at all critical stages of flow.
            Because of the restricted width of the river between bedrock outcrops, the river
            level could fluctuate as much as fifteen feet in a day. Dynamic model studies Bell
            organized at the Hydraulic Laboratories of the University of Washington led to
            the design of unique vertical-slot baffle “fishways” to be built into both steep and
            rocky banks of the turbulent river. Necessarily constructed during low water in
            harsh winter conditions during the years of the Second World War, the difficult
            construction was completed on schedule and within budget. Milo Bell returned to
            Seattle in 1951, having established himself as an outstanding innovator and
            leader in the specialized field of engineering solutions to the natural and man-
            made problems of migrating salmon.
                In a career that continued for almost four more decades, he
             MILO C.BELL                                               22
             dealt with almost every physical, engineering related problem of freshwater
             fisheries throughout the United States and Canada. In the same decades, Milo
             Bell produced designs and conducted model studies in search of solutions for
             fish-passage or protective facilities for migrant and resident fishes of every type
             and size. From 1940 to 1953 he was a special lecturer at the well-known College
             of Fisheries of the University of Washington in Seattle. His academic career at
             that college continued as he rose to the rank of professor in 1963 and to emeritus
             professor in 1975. He became a member of the National Academy of Engineering
             in 1968. He won the Eugene Baker Award of the Association of Conservation
             Engineers in 1969 and the Award of Excellence, Bioengineering Section, of the
             American Fisheries Society in 1984. In 1973 in recognition of his contributions to
             fisheries conservation, he was admitted as a fellow of the American Institute of
             Fisheries Research Biologists. His many publications included handbooks for
             problem solving and technical reports of research, design, and operational
                Milo Bell’s professional career of almost sixty years was single-purposed,
             working always to protect an important living natural resource from hazards
             arising from increasing human population and industry and the growing and
             competitive uses of our river systems. He was an environmentalist long before the
             concept became generic. His concern was always to hold the line, to minimize
             losses, to save brood stocks and gene pools. He knew that each separate stream
             population of each species developed its own characteristics and timing in
             response to the individual environmental characteristics and location of each
             parent stream.
                To me, because I know it best, Milo Bell’s outstanding achievement will
             always be the magnificent Fishway System at Hell’s Gate, which has now
            functioned superbly for more than half a century. His innovative and unique
            design has become a prototype for solutions wherever comparable needs and
            problems exist. Self-adjusting and self-operating, requiring almost no
            maintenance, the design embodies no moving parts other than downflowing
            water and upstream-driven salmon. Resisting the constant pounding force and
            energy of a major river in flood, they function for any salmon that needs
            assistance and are capable of
             MILO C.BELL                                               23
             safely passing a million salmon a day. Fishways so skillfully designed and placed
             that they offer all migrant salmon safe passage at the right time and place. A
             fitting monument to a great fisheries engineer.
                Milo Bell’s engineer son, Milo D.Bell, says it best: “The Hell’s Gate
            Fishways were my father’s pride and joy.”
    • Previous
    •    Table of Contents
    • Next