Rufus Woods
Wenatchee World

Rufus Woods
July 18, 1918

Rufus Woods, owner and publisher of the Wenatchee Daily World, publishes a story titled, "Formulate Brand New Idea For Irrigation Grant, Adams, Franklin Counties, Covering Million Acres Or More." The story introduces readers to the idea of a dam at Grand Coulee and an irrigation system in the Columbia Basin.

July 1920

The Columbia Basin Survey Commission, formed by the Washington State Legislature, releases a feasibility report declaring that Rufus Woods' plan for putting a dam and irrigation system at Grand Coulee is "infeasible" due to the commission's cost projections (totaling approximately $243 million), and the proposed location of the Grand Coulee Dam. "Every probability points to the site being not suitable for a dam of sufficient height to develop the power required," according to the Commission.


With a $600,000 appropriation from the River and Harbor Bill, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commissions Major John Butler to begin a survey to comprehensively revisit the plan for a Grand Coulee Dam.

October 29, 1929

The Crash of 1929 leads to a decline in U.S. stock market values and signals the beginning of the Great Depression. The day of the crash is known as "Black Tuesday."

March 1932

The Army Corps of Engineers releases a report that favors building a dam at Grand Coulee due to its potential for substantial power generation. The report specifies that the revenue from the dam's power generation could subsidize construction of an irrigation system originating from the dam.

June 1933

As part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, Congress passes the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). The Act establishes the Public Works Administration (PWA), designed to build new infrastructure around the country and to create jobs. Headed by Harold Ickes, the PWA has $3.3 billion to spend on "contracts for the construction of public works" within the next year.

June 30, 1933

The Washington State Emergency Relief Commission announces the allocation of $377,000 of unemployment relief funds for preliminary work at Grand Coulee Dam. An article published in the Spokesman-Review states, "Under the plan outlined by the president... the state must pay the cost of completing preliminary engineering work before a license to build the dam and power plant can be obtained from the federal power commission."

Chief Jim James holds the spike for Gov. Clarence Martin
Wenatchee World

Chief Jim James holds the spike for Gov. Clarence Martin
July 16, 1933: Breaking Ground

Washington governor Clarence Martin and Jim James, chief of the San Poil Indians from the nearby Colville Reservation, join a gathering of 3,000 citizens along the Columbia River to drive in the ceremonial first stake, marking the beginning of the construction of Grand Coulee Dam.

Approximately half of the new dam will be built on the Colville Reservation, which had been established as a Native American Reservation in 1872. The new reservoir will permanently submerge several Colville Indian villages and sacred fishing spots, including Kettle Falls.

July 26, 1933

Having heard from Senator Clarence Dill (D-WA) that the original "high dam" necessary for irrigation would cost $450 million, FDR has the Bureau of Reclamation draft a plan for a "low dam" and reservoir at a cost of $162 million. FDR allocates $63 million in start-up federal funding for the construction of a "low dam" at Grand Coulee. This design calls for a 290-foot tall dam that will be large enough to generate electricity, but not large enough to successfully support irrigation.

Around the same time, thousands of men begin arriving at the Grand Coulee Dam construction site, enticed by the promise of jobs.

June 18, 1934

Four companies submit bids for the construction of Grand Coulee Dam, including Six Companies, Inc., which is constructing the Hoover Dam in Nevada.

July 13, 1934

With a bid of $29,339,301, MWAK (a joint venture of Silas Mason Company, Inc., Walsh Construction Company, and Atkinson-Kier Company) wins the contract to build a "low dam" at Grand Coulee. MWAK's bid is about 15% lower than the next bidder, Six Companies, Inc.

FDR giving a speech at the site
Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture

FDR giving a speech at the site
August 4, 1934

FDR makes his first visit to the Grand Coulee Dam construction site.

October 1934

The first lights turn on in Mason City: a town, named after Silas Mason of MWAK, that houses company employees and officials.

Jackhammer crew drilling the bedrock behind the cofferdam
University of Washington

Jackhammer crew drilling the bedrock behind the cofferdam
March 23, 1935: Beginning to Keep the Columbia at Bay

The west side cofferdam at the Grand Coulee Dam construction site is completed. Soon after, the water level in Columbia River rises 32 feet.

The cofferdam is a temporary structure that keeps the river at bay on the west side, allowing workers to dig out the mud and expose the granite bedrock on which the dam will rest.

August 1935

Under the 1935 River and Harbors Act, Congress officially authorizes construction of Grand Coulee Dam, making it a federally funded project and ultimately providing millions of dollars to increase the height of the dam to 550 feet. Unlike the "low dam," at 290 feet, the upgraded "high dam" will support an irrigation system originating from the Grand Coulee.

Gov. Martin placing the first concrete in the dam
University of Washington

Gov. Martin placing the first concrete in the dam
December 6, 1935: The First Bucket of Concrete

Washington Governor Clarence Martin spreads the first bucket of concrete on the foundation of the dam, beginning construction of the dam's foundation. A representative from MWAK gives the governor a check for 75 cents, the hourly rate for a common laborer at the site.

December 31, 1936

Freezing weather conditions in Grand Coulee halt concrete production and idle several thousand workers until March.

West side mix plant and high and low crane trestles
Bureau of Reclamation

West side mix plant and high and low crane trestles
January 1937

Approximately four years after construction started on the Grand Coulee Dam, concrete trestles span the Columbia River.

February 1938

The concrete foundation of the "low dam" is completed 14 months ahead of schedule. To date, 60 men have died at the construction site.

March 1938

MWAK and Six Companies, Inc. combine forces, forming Consolidated Builders, Inc. (CBI) and immediately begin construction on the "high dam."

A Colville Reservation house is inundated by the rising waters
Confederated Tribe of Colville

A Colville Reservation house is inundated by the rising waters
March 1940: The Rising Waters

The reservoir at the base of the dam begins to fill at a faster rate than initially anticipated, giving the Colville Indians very short notice of the impending flood that will submerge acres of their land and sacred burial grounds. This reservoir will later be named "Lake Roosevelt."

The Bureau of Reclamation hires a Spokane funeral home to move Native American gravesites that are about to be submerged to higher ground. They move 1,300 graves before the rising water forces them to quit.

June 16, 1940

Colville Indians, along with politicians, local reporters, and local whites, gather at Kettle Falls, one of the Colville tribe's renowned fishing spots, which will soon be submerged under Lake Roosevelt. This gathering, known as "The Ceremony of Tears," includes a carnival, an Indian dance, and boxing matches.

Archaeologists believe that Kettle Falls had been a renowned fishing spot for over 7,000 years.

June 29, 1940

The U.S. passes The Acquisition of Indian Lands for Grand Coulee Dam Act. This act officially entitles some of the Colville reservation land to the U.S. government for the purposes of the dam, though much of it is under water already. Under this act, Native Americans who have been forced to relocate are supposed to be financially compensated.

January 21, 1941

Despite ongoing construction on the "high dam," officials activate Grand Coulee's first generator and provide the first power from the dam.

February 15, 1941

Grand Coulee's second generator goes into operation.

The Grand Coulee High School marching band on the bridge
CW Brooks Library

The Grand Coulee High School marching band on the bridge
March 22, 1941: The Opening Ceremony

Eight years after beginning construction, the Grand Coulee Dam is formally dedicated in front of a crowd of 8,000. The Grand Coulee High School marching band leads a parade to celebrate the official start of the dam's in-house generators. Harold Ickes venerates the dam, calling it "the greatest single structure man has built."

May 1941

For its documentary film promoting the benefits of the public power created by Grand Coulee Dam, the Bonneville Power Authority commissions popular folk singer Woody Guthrie to compose 26 songs, including "Roll On, Columbia, Roll On."

December 12, 1941

Consolidated Builders, Inc. (CBI) announces that the last section of concrete has been placed, and that the dam is officially completed. The finished dam contains approximately 11 million cubic yards of concrete.

March 10, 1943

The "Grand Coulee Dam Project" is officially renamed the "Columbia Basin Project" and signed and authorized by President Roosevelt. With the dam fully constructed and functioning, the project shifts focus from dam-building to irrigation.

Congress authorizes an average of $30 million a year for 20 years for the construction of the Columbia Basin irrigation system. The project's plans include an extensive system that will eventually provide irrigation development for approximately one million acres.

Farming in many parts of the Northwest would not be possible today without irrigation

Farming in many parts of the Northwest would not be possible today without irrigation
May 1952

The Bureau of Reclamation promotes the Columbia Basin Project with the "Farm-In-A-Day" publicity stunt, in which 50,000 people watch as dozens of volunteers construct a fully functioning ranch in 24-hours for the Dunn family. Canals constructed by the Columbia Basin Project will irrigate the new farm.

That spring, the irrigation system will carry water from Grand Coulee Dam to 66,000 acres of farmland. By 2012, the acreage will increase more than ten fold to 671,000.

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

The U.S. has dozens of impressive, important, and iconic structures. Which ones have you been to? Which has had the biggest impact on its local community and on the country? Which one is your favorite?

  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • The Kendeda Fund