Grand Coulee DamAired April 3, 2012
During the darkest days of the Depression when construction was started on Grand Coulee Dam, everything about it was described in superlatives. It would be the "Biggest Thing on Earth," the salvation of the common man, a dam and irrigation project that would make the desert bloom, a source of cheap power that would boost an entire region of the country. Of the many public works projects of the New Deal, Grand Coulee Dam loomed largest in America's imagination, promising to fulfill President Franklin Roosevelt's vision for a "planned promised land" where hard-working farm families would finally be free from the drought and dislocation caused by the elements.
Although the waters it captured would, in fact, generate seemingly limitless amounts of clean hydropower, and create one of the largest agricultural irrigation projects in the nation, the dam left a complicated and controversial legacy. In the end, the dam would be seen by many as a monument to noble ideals and unintended consequences.
Featuring interviews with the men who worked on the dam and families who lived alongside it, Native people whose lives were profoundly altered by it, and historians and writers who have sought to grapple with its many contradictions, Grand Coulee Dam explores the astonishing achievements and profound controversies that are part of the dam's legacy. At once a symbol of America's remarkable ability to dominate nature and rejuvenate an entire region of the country, it is also a cautionary tale about arrogance, our relationship to the natural world, and the price of progress.
Cast and Crew
Director of Photography
Gina F. Tolentino
Additional Assistant Editing
Office Production Assistants
Assistant Sound Editor
Post Production Facility
Du-Art Film and Video
Post Production Project Manager
Archival Materials Courtesy of
Bonneville Power Administration Library
Phil Borck and Family
Central Washington University, Brooks Library, Archives and Special Collections Department
The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation
Wes Crago, City of Ephrata
David Rice/Footage Search
Norbert Wu/Footage Search
Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York
Special Collections, Fresno County Public Library
Lon Gibby/Gibby Media Group, Inc.
ITN Source/Fox Movietone
Lake County Discovery Museum/Curt Teich Postcard Archives
Library of Congress
Museum of History & Industry, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection
National Archives and Records Administration
Robert N. Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Views, New York Public Library
Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture/Eastern Washington State Historical Society
Gerald W. Williams Collection, Gifford Photographic Collection, Special Collections and Archives Research Center, Oregon State University
Streamline Films, Inc.
Tacoma Public Library
Thought Equity Motion
UCLA Film & Television Archive
Columbia River Basin Project, Special Collections & Archives, University of Idaho Library
UNLV Libraries, Special Collections
Special Collections Division, University of Washington
U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation
State Library Photograph Collection, 1851-1990, Washington State Archives
Washington State Historical Society
MASC, Washington State University Libraries
Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center, Wenatchee, Washington
The Wenatchee World
The Stewart M. Whipple and Marcia Johnson Whipple Family
Lester Balog / Woody Guthrie Archives
WPA Film Library
Arrangement by Glenn Shambroom (BMI)
Published by Pump Box Music (BMI)
Glenn Shambroom & Friends/Pump Audio/Getty Images
"Roll on Columbia"
Written by Woody Guthrie
Published by Ludlow Music, Inc. (BMI)/Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc. (BMI)
Courtesy of Rounder Records
Dry Falls, WA
Grand Coulee Dam, Grand Coulee, WA
Ron Fode Farm, Moses Lake, WA
Pike's Place Market, Seattle, WA
Vista House State Park, Corbett, OR
Weber Farms, Quincy, WA
Wenatchee World Office, Wenatchee, WA
The Law Offices of James Kendrick
Silver, Laski and Weisel
Insignia Films Directors
John T. Sughrue
Robert A. Wilson
Bureau of Reclamation
The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation
Wilfred Woods and The Wenatchee World
Julie and Stewart Whipple
The Ball family
Wenatchee Valley Visitors Bureau
Steve Hussman & Patricia Cutright
For American Experience
Marketing & Publicity
James E. Dunford
An Insignia Films production for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.
American Experience is a production of WGBH, which is solely responsible for its content.
© 2012 WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved.
Narrator: It was called "The Biggest Thing On Earth," a dam unlike any other, a wall of concrete that dared to tame the mighty Columbia.
William Lang, Historian: A river is the most dynamic thing in nature. To block a river is the most audacious thing a human being can do. And when you block a river, you create a new future. There's no going back.
Narrator: Its massive generators would power entire cities, and the water it captured would make the desert bloom. It came to embody the promise of America when many believed their country's promises had all been broken.
Blaine Harden, Writer: It was this idea of manifest destiny -- Americans asserting their will on the natural resources of the country. And people really believed in that.
Margaret O'Mara, Historian: The Grand Coulee Dam starts a process of transforming the whole river system into a working landscape like never before. The New Deal was a radical idea. Roosevelt really redefined what the balance is between the individual good and the collective good.
Narrator: Its power would help win a war and unite a nation, but its construction would leave a region bitterly divided.
Steven Hawley, Writer: Who controls the water and the natural resources of the West? I think there is an attitude amongst the managers of the river and they simply said, "we stole these rivers fair and square and we're not giving them back, not without a fight."
D.C. Jackson, Historian: It's supposed to be for everyone. It's easy to say that it's a public resource. But everyone has a different vision of what they think that public interest should be.
Narrator: For some, the Grand Coulee Dam would be an engine of growth and prosperity, for others it would come to symbolize heartbreak and betrayal.
In the end, it was an out-sized statement of American power and prestige, a monument to noble ideals and unintended consequences.
Richard White, Historian: There is a way in which people hate the dams and are proud of the dams, ways in which people imagine a Columbia running free, but they could not live without the Columbia's electricity. That river is our most profound dreams for what we can become and our deepest regrets about what we've done. We've woven them together and we're never going to be able to take them apart.
Narrator: On a blisteringly hot day in July of 1918, a weathered Model T Ford drove down 1st Avenue in the dusty little town of Ephrata, Washington, and pulled up in front of the offices of a local lawyer named William Clapp. On the side of the car, a small sign read "The Wenatchee Daily World. The World's Greatest Daily Paper."
The car belonged to a restless 40-year-old editor and publisher named Rufus Woods. A part-time school teacher, failed attorney, and veteran of the Alaskan gold rush, he had finally found his calling at the helm of eastern Washington's first daily newspaper, founded in 1905.
Woods had turned the failing paper around with a mix of shrewd business acumen, a strong regional focus, and a dash of showmanship. Early subscribers received a free set of dishes. Others, free knives. Papers were sometimes delivered on horseback and in one stunt, Woods painted a pony of his with zebra stripes for extra publicity.
Three years after buying the paper, Woods had boosted circulation by 600%.
Paul C. Pitzer, Historian: Rufus Woods had a vision. His vision was to create something of what he called north central Washington. He was in competition with Spokane on the east side of the state and of course Seattle on the west side of the state. He used to travel around looking for stories.
Narrator: The town fathers of Ephrata gathered in Clapp's office that day were worried about the future of their region, tired of it being seen as a desolate backwater, without big industries or farms. Then Billy started talking about building a dam on the Columbia River at the mouth of what was called the Grand Coulee.
Blaine Harden, Writer: Grand Coulee is basically a big ditch, a really big ditch. And the thought was that you could divert water out of the river up into that big ditch and then using gravity, feed that water down across the country where the soil was great and all it needed was water.
William Lang, Historian: He sells it as a great location because of this wonderful landscape that has been completely scoured out by these floods that ravaged the area thousands of years ago. And so it creates these huge dry coulees and he sees the ability to make these into reservoirs to capture the water from a dammed Columbia. And this one spot makes it possible to dam the river up for miles and miles and miles.
Narrator: The plan the boosters hatched called for water to be pumped out of the lake formed by the dam, up over the rim of the river's canyon, and into the Grand Coulee, which would become a new, huge reservoir. From there, the water could be fed by gravity down a sloping plateau to the south, irrigating more than 1,000,000 new acres of land.
Wilfred Woods, Son of Rufus Woods: In 1918, Billy Clapp told my father about this great idea of a Grand Coulee Dam. Well, it was really in 1918 a fantastic dream to build a project of that size.
Narrator: Rufus Woods' hometown of Wenatchee was a modest agricultural community that had recently diverted some water from the river for its emerging apple industry, but it yearned to truly harness the Columbia and put it to work.
It was a vision as old as the river itself.
Lying in the rain shadow created by the Cascade Mountains to the West, which trapped the moisture-rich winds coming in from the Pacific, eastern Washington contains some of the driest land in an already parched American West. "It is a desert pure and simple," one 19th century surveyor noted, "an almost lifeless, waterless desert."
Coursing through this barren and mostly uninhabited landscape, for 1,200 tantalizing miles, ran one of the greatest sources of water in the world -- the Columbia River.
Draining a watershed of more than 258,000 square miles, including the Canadian Rockies, the river's cold, crystalline waters flowed south into the United States, then curved in a huge bend around what was known as the Columbia Basin, before turning west and cutting through the Cascades to the Pacific.
For a millennium, the Columbia had been a meeting place for a diverse community of people, all drawn to the river's primordial energy.
Margaret O'Mara, Historian: The Columbia was a place of work. It was the economic lifeline of a region. You have native fisheries, you have the river itself being a source of food, a hub of the trade routes, the way that these different native communities communicated with one another and traded with one another... It's this place of astounding size, of beauty, and of endless resources.
Narrator: After running some of the Columbia's terrifying rapids, the American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark responded with a mixture of awe and hatred for the river, calling it "incredible," "inconceivable," and "horrid."
More welcoming were the Native people -- the Yakima, Walla Walla, and Umatilla -- who sustained themselves on the astonishing annual runs of salmon, relying on the fish for their diet, their trade, and as inspiration for their culture.
Richard White, Historian: It's a place of incredible abundance which links both the land and the sea and which really for Indian peoples is ideal because the salmon will always return every year at the same time. It's a system that Indian peoples will live on for centuries.
Narrator: Born in the gravel beds and clear water of the upper Columbia, the young salmon rode the swift moving currents to the Pacific Ocean, there to grow for five years, until being called back to the place of their birth, this time to reproduce and die.
The salmon's journey back up the Columbia was one of the epic migrations in all of nature, as they fought against the current, as far as 900 miles, braving any obstacle in their drive to finally come home.
Indians were not the only people drawn to the annual bounty of the salmon. New waves of Americans followed in Lewis and Clark's wake, reaping their own huge harvest of fish, building the towns of Portland and Seattle, working the river with steamboats and barges, and settling the basin with small towns like Wenatchee.
But once the pioneers left the river behind, and tried to farm the more forbidding lands of the interior, the harsh reality of the climate quickly reasserted itself.
Blaine Harden, Writer: Eastern Washington had good soil, but no water. And the people who moved there realized that that was critical failure of, of trying to build a life there. There were dry land farmers. And they would come in, after there had been a, a couple years of good rain. And they would do okay. And then the rain would fizzle down to its usual eight to ten inches a year. And so they wouldn't do very well, they moved on mostly, or they stayed and were poor.
Narrator: That summer of 1918, as Rufus Woods listened to Billy Clapp and his friends lay out their plans, he began pacing around the lawyer's small office, unable to control his excitement.
No longer would his region have to suffer as an isolated backwater. The hydro-power from this miraculous dam would transform their region at last.
Steven Hawley, Writer: It became almost an obsession, this idea that if they could just control this river, they could have a kind of Garden of Eden. You know the inland empire with crops, orchards, farms a kind of Shangri-La of agricultural and industrial delights that would build a new civilization.
Blaine Harden, Writer: Rufus Woods pitched the dam as a scientific marvel, the answer to all their prayers about the future, as something that God himself wanted done and he just needed to get the federal government to come in, pay for it, and let the locals run with the advantages that would come from it. And that's the way he sold it.
Narrator: Woods quickly gained an important ally in James O'Sullivan, a hard-charging, cantankerous Ephrata lawyer who became so convinced of the irrigation possibilities of the dam that he was willing to neglect his career, and even his family, to see it come true.
The boosters called themselves the Dam University, and although they had no technical know-how, and no powerful political connections, they shared a dream about Grand Coulee Dam and the waters it would unleash to make their desert bloom.
If they could find the money to build it, they might at last conquer the wild Columbia.
Wilfred Woods, Son of Rufus Woods: Oh my, what a stream. My dad called it the imperial Columbia. And it's true, it's a tremendous stream.
D.C. Jackson, Historian: It's just one huge, free-flowing river. It's the largest in the West, much larger than the Colorado, just a tremendous waterway.
William Lang, Historian: We've got an enormous amount of water because of it catching all of the Pacific snow and rain and all of this water falling in about 600 miles.
Richard White, Historian: This river quite literally... it'll eat through mountain ranges, it'll eat through the Cascades. This is an incredibly powerful natural force. And it will drop with a power that is almost beyond belief.
Narrator: It was the Columbia's raw energy that Rufus Woods imagined Grand Coulee would convert to a productive use.
Throughout the 1920s however, he often found his crusade for the dam falling on deaf ears.
William Lang, Historian: Rufus Woods recognized that he had to find a way to get the government to actually invest in something as big as he had in mind. And what he had in mind was huge, it was bigger than anything else that had been built...
Paul C. Pitzer, Historian: The early promoters hoped that a large dam would generate a great amount of power which could be sold and the money from the selling of the power would be used to support the irrigation.
Richard White, Historian: To understand the promoters of the dam, you have to realize that they thought about electricity the same way the public today thinks about the Internet. This is not just a technology. These are machines that are going to transform society itself.
Narrator: Stacked up against Woods and the other members of the Dam University were groups like the powerful Spokane Chamber of Commerce, and private utilities such as Washington Water Power Company, and Puget Sound Power and Light -- all of which had their own hydro-electric and irrigation projects and their own agendas.
D.C. Jackson, Historian: Private power companies see this as competition. They don't want this. And the big argument against it is that it's just... doesn't make financial sense.
Blaine Harden, Writer: At the time that he was proposing building the biggest dam in the history of the world, there were only a couple hundred thousand people living in eastern Washington.
Richard White, Historian: As critics of the project say about the power, who's the electricity for, is it for jackrabbits? There's nobody out there to consume it. And they're right.
Wilfred Woods: My Dad was fighting the power company in Spokane all this time... it was a long, long battle. And it was a classic case of the little guys against the big guys and no money against big money. There were national magazines writing big exposes about "The White Elephant in the Desert" as well as a lot of Republican legislators in Congress who were fulminating against the use of public funds for that dam.
Narrator: The nation, it seemed, wasn't ready for Grand Coulee Dam.
Then, in 1929, the stock market crashed, plunging the nation into Depression. Scorching winds turned the drought-ravaged western prairie into a Dust Bowl.
Blaine Harden, Writer: My father was working on a farm. And he had got a letter from his father telling him not to come back to the home place, cause there was no money, there was no food. And my grandfather told my dad to go west to find a job. So my father took the money he had, that he'd made baling hay and bought a sandwich in a rail yard, and hopped in a boxcar. In the boxcar, he said that they were regular people, well-educated people, as he described them... He said there was even lawyers. He just, he was just part of this huge slipstream of unemployed people.
Narrator: The dark clouds of the Dust Bowl actually brightened the prospects for Grand Coulee Dam.
The economic crisis brought a renewed focus on large irrigation projects, and a new President into office.
As a life-long Republican, Rufus Woods had opposed Franklin Roosevelt's election, but during FDR's frenetic first months in office, Woods came to appreciate his call for bold action.
Blaine Harden, Writer: FDR comes into office and the Great Depression bottoms out. The idea for the dam was floating around in Washington for years. The Army Corps of Engineers had written a report about how to dam the river all the way up and down. Roosevelt was desperately searching for shovel ready projects that could employ lots of people and have long-term use. The dam made a lot of sense then.
D.C. Jackson, Historian: Roosevelt put himself on the side of these huge resources like the Columbia River. And so the stake for him was going up against the plutocrats of Wall Street that controlled the private power industry. So he had a real vested interest in developing these large hydroelectric power dams as a way of demonstrating the importance of public power. And the Columbia offered one of the great opportunities for that.
William Lang, Historian: Whether you were vested in this dam or not, it, it meant that something new and something big and something promising was going to happen.
Narrator: From Wenatchee, Woods and his allies felt some cause for hope. With Roosevelt on their side, their dream of turning their town into a great metropolis, and the desert into a garden, at last seemed possible.
For his part, the President saw the dam and irrigation project as fitting into his administration's vision for what was called a "planned promised land."
Paul C. Pitzer, Historian: And the idea was to create a number of small towns around the project area and they would have the power from the dam, they would have the water from the river, so that you would have a community that would not suffer any of the problems of economic shifts up and down over the years. That was the goal.
Narrator: In mid-June of 1933, with the nationwide unemployment rate at 25%, Congress approved one of Roosevelt's most ambitious programs -- the Public Works Administration. The President was authorized to spend, at his discretion, up to $3.3 billion on new infrastructure projects around the country.
The Bureau of Reclamation, the huge federal builder of water projects in the West, came up with a plan for the entire dam and reservoir at a cost of $162 million.
FDR was determined to get it off the ground, but was unable to pay for the entire project all at once, so on July 26th he approved $63 million in start-up funds for the Grand Coulee Dam.
D.C. Jackson, Historian: But once you commit a small amount, small being $63 million, it's going to be much harder to sort of pull the plug on it. You commit a sizable amount, but not the total to get the project going, with the idea that down the road you would be able to bring it to completion.
Narrator: Half of the dam was to be built on the Colville Indian Reservation, home to a confederation of twelve Northwestern tribes, including the Chief Joseph band of the Nez Perce, which had fought a famous war against the United States in 1877.
Blaine Harden, Writer: In the years before the dam construction began, some lawmakers said, "how are we going to compensate the Indians, because you know half of the dam's on, on their land." And some grudging consideration was given to this idea and some promises were made.
Colleen F. Cawston, Colville Tribal Member: I've heard that what was implied we would receive is the ability to irrigate our land and electricity at a rate that would be much more affordable.
Narrator: On July 16, 1933, a group of dignitaries, including Washington governor Clarence Martin, and Jim James, chief of the San Poil Indians from the Colville Reservation, gathered on the banks of the Columbia to mark the start of construction.
With Chief James holding it, the governor drove in the first stake, inaugurating what would become the largest irrigation and hydroelectric project in the country.
To realize its Olympian goals, the Grand Coulee's vast reservoir would inundate Indian communities, submerge sacred fishing spots and ancestral burial grounds, and erect an impenetrable barrier denying salmon access to their network of spawning grounds in the upper Columbia.
But none of that mattered during the dark days of 1933.
There was little consideration of the extraordinary changes that Grand Coulee would have on America's wildest stream -- on its rapids and waterfalls, its fish and the native peoples whose world revolved around it.
Rufus Woods and FDR's engineers believed that they could achieve miracles with the Columbia. And they were ready to begin.
Wilfred Woods, Son of Rufus Woods: It's a story that really wouldn't have happened without a lot of dreaming on a lot of people in central Washington that dreamed about a big thing. And it finally happened thanks to a depression. Amazing, isn't it?
Richard White, Historian: Grand Coulee is going to be the biggest thing on earth. These are not people who thought small. It's a very big dam and the dreams around it were as big as the dam itself. And what it's going to deliver to the United States is, first of all, jobs, which is the only thing they could be certain of, it's going to take a lot of people a long time to build this, but after that it's going to create farms, and beyond that, it's going to produce electricity. It can power pumps that can bring water into kitchens. It can provide electric lights so that people can extend their days and not sit around by kerosene and coal lamps. It can provide washing machines. It can make housewives' and farm wives' lives incredibly easier. There just seems to be no end of the good things that can come out of Grand Coulee Dam.
Narrator: By July of 1933, thousands of hungry, desperate men had flooded into eastern Washington, lured by the promise that Grand Coulee Dam would create as many as 100,000 jobs.
The Wenatchee World urged the laborers to wait and file applications with the Bureau of Reclamation -- but the men came anyway.
Blaine Harden, Writer: The people came up to the dam, working men, many of whom had ridden boxcars from other parts of the country. They slept in their cars. They slept in the street. They slept in caves near the town. They slept in the boxes that dance hall pianos came in.
Narrator: Anxious to avoid having their much-touted jobs project turn into a shanty town of unemployed men, the federal government released another million dollars for preliminary excavation, but it took time to get the workforce organized.
Ed Kern, Dam Worker: Well, see the depression was so bad, ya know, I was just outta high school. I was still 19 years old. And, well what there to do. I walked down there, hey, there's a whole block of people waiting ahead of me, see. Trying to get on. So I just waited and waited and waited, and finally my turn came. He looks at me, he says, what can you do? Are you a carpenter? No. Are you a welder? No. Trade? No. Well then we got nothing for you but labor. That's when he put me down with the rock gang. He said, it's going to be hard, hard work, and he proved it to me.
Narrator: Once the project finally got underway, the sheer scale of the obstacles became apparent.
The construction site was hundreds of miles from the nearest big city, without decent roads or rail connections. Steep hillsides plunged down to the water's edge, and the dam would have to stretch beyond the river on both sides, almost a mile across in total.
To contain the impulsive Columbia, and create the reservoir needed for power and irrigation, the dam would need to rise 550 feet in the air, and back water up for hundreds of miles, all the way to the Canadian border.
D.C. Jackson, Historian: The river has a huge flow. And the key to waterpower is flow times drop. And because you have this huge flow, even a relatively modest drop, you can get a lot of power. But when you build up 500 feet of drop, then you get a lot of power.
Narrator: To convert the power of the Columbia into electricity, the river would be funneled into tubes, called penstocks, that would then use the Grand Coulee's height to force the water at high speed through 12 turbines encased in power-houses at the base of the dam.
D.C. Jackson, Historian: What does a turbine do? There are those blades which move and pass the water through them. That's how the waterpower's converted into this rotating mechanical power. And then those turbines, they have a, a shaft. And they go up and then they turn the generators. And the generators are big magnets that revolve around and then there's the copper. And as those turn, they generate electricity.
Narrator: Operating at full capacity, the dam would be capable of producing almost 2,000 megawatts, enough power to run entire cities.
Unlike the soon to be completed Hoover Dam, which combined size with an elegant arch design that pressed against the walls of a steep canyon, Grand Coulee Dam would rely on only one thing to stop the river -- its enormous mass.
Paul C. Pitzer, Historian: A gravity dam uses basically the weight of the dam to keep it there. It's just a big block that sits in the river and there it is.
Blaine Harden, Writer: What was different about Grand Coulee, it was just bigger, much, much bigger than any other gravity dam had ever been. And the river itself, the water they were holding back was a larger, more powerful river than had ever been dammed before.
Narrator: On August 4th, 1934, shortly after construction began, the Grand Coulee Dam site received a surprising visitor.
Blaine Harden, Writer: Roosevelt showed up, which was completely unexpected for the President of the United States to come to this godforsaken corner of, of Washington state, when there was almost nothing to show for it. There was just dust and a hole in the side of the river. But he was there to talk about what could be and what this big project represented as part of the New Deal.
Narrator: "We are going to see with our own eyes electricity made so cheap that it will become a standard article of use not only for manufacturing but for every home," proclaimed the President, with his wife Eleanor looking on. "I know that this empty desert country is going to be filled with men, women, and children who will be making an honest livelihood and doing their best to live up to the American standard of living and American standard of citizenship."
Blaine Harden, Writer: He talked about it as a, sort of planting a seed for a new future for that region and for all of the West. He looked on it as, as the perfect symbol of what he was trying to do. "Look at all these men who have jobs," he said, "sitting in the back of an open roadster, surrounded by dust and not much else."
Mary Henning, Grand Coulee Resident: I was ten years old and here came Franklin Roosevelt. This hillside was just covered with people that came from all over. We're in the midst of this terrible Depression and, I mean, here you are in this open field and... the cars and people were just everywhere. And they were so excited. The idea that there was going to be some employment, there was gonna be something to do and there was gonna be a paycheck. Of course, we believed in Franklin D. Roosevelt. We just knew something wonderful was going to happen.
Narrator: By January of 1935, Grand Coulee had finally become the epic public works project that its boosters had promised. 2,500 men worked on the dam, with hundreds more pouring in every month, all employed by a conglomerate of three companies known by the acronym MWAK.
The company's superintendent was a profane, hard-drinking and former ironworker named Manley Harvey Slocum. Partially crippled from a gas explosion in his youth, Slocum's gnarled hands and stooped walk hid an iron determination.
Known affectionately by his men as Harvey, he had proven himself on dams in California and in the jungles of Panama. Though he never made it past the 8th grade, what Slocum knew how to do was build.
D.C. Jackson, Historian: Harvey Slocum, he's the superintendent at the dam site. He's in charge of making this thing work, you know, on a day-to-day level. He's a bit of a roustabout, he would go on his binges, he would have his drunks, and that was, you know, one of those things, maybe you paid a price. The workers, they know how to work hard or not work so hard depending upon whether they think they're being treated fairly. And having a superintendent who is willing to go out on a drunk every once in a while, well they might feel, hey, there's a guy who is on our side.
Narrator: Slocum's biggest challenge was to divert the flow of the river, allowing workers to dig out the mud and expose the granite bedrock on which the dam would rest.
To start, they needed to build cofferdams -- temporary structures that would keep the river at bay. The first would run along the west bank, pushing a third of the river out of the way, and be anchored by a large piece of the foundation, known as 'Block 40.'
Once the work on the west side was complete, another set of cofferdams would extend out from the east side of the river, diverting the flow over the recently completed foundation.
D.C. Jackson, Historian: Once you've built the west side, and then you've got the foundation that's stable enough so that you can actually run water over it, then you go and you do it on the other side. And you use that big center block, that... that 'Block 40' as sort of the one that connects the two together.
Narrator: Complicating Slocum's already daunting task was the unpredictable power of the Columbia.
In the spring, the flow of the river could sometimes surge dramatically, as snowmelt and rain would suddenly turn the already muscular waterway into a raging torrent. The cofferdams had to be built quickly during low water months. If not finished in time, the spring runoff would tear them to pieces.
Racing against the clock, more than 1,200 men worked in continuous shifts, driving huge interlocking steel pilings deep into the river's bottom with steam hammers, nervously watching for the river to rise.
On March 23rd, 1935, only 90 days after they started, workers completed the west side cofferdam. And just in time. That spring the river peaked at 32 feet above its normal height.
The fragile cofferdams held for a time, until one night they suddenly ruptured, and 15,000 gallons a minute came pouring in.
Roused from his bed, still wearing his red pajamas, Harvey Slocum rushed to the dam site, where his men threw anything they could find into the river to stop the leak -- mattresses, canvas, building materials, even sagebrush. Only more pilings, and a supply of bentonite, a mineral that forms a thick paste when mixed with water, finally staunched the flow.
Against all odds, the cofferdams had controlled the surging Columbia, but one critical issue remained. In 1933, FDR had been able to commit only a portion of the dam's cost, planning to get the rest from Congress at a later date.
Now, in April of 1935, the President's strategy was derailed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down his right to spend money on dams without Congressional approval.
D.C. Jackson, Historian: The Supreme Court, which is rather conservative at this point, says to have FDR allocate that money, that's not going to be enough. Congress is going to have to specifically vote to authorize these dams.
Narrator: In June, the administration asked Congress to fund Grand Coulee -- as well as twenty other dams around the country.
With James O'Sullivan working feverishly behind the scenes, the bill sailed through the Senate, but Republican forces in the House, led by representative Francis Culkin of New York, insisted that Grand Coulee be voted on separately.
Not content to argue solely on the House floor, Culkin took to the radio, claiming that the entire Grand Coulee project would destroy fruit farmers in California, squander federal resources on what he called "a vast area of gloomy table lands," and destroy the Columbia's entire $300 million salmon industry. And he went still further, denouncing the dam as a "dangerously un-American exercise in socialism."
Joining the frantic lobbying with characteristic gusto, Rufus Woods had the World print an eight-page special edition that extolled the benefits of the dam, emblazoned with the banner headline, "TWO MILLION WILD HORSES." He made sure every member of Congress received a copy.
Congressman Sam Hill led the counter-attack by playing down the irrigation possibilities of the dam, and promoting the benefits of Grand Coulee's massive public power. Finally, 61% of the House agreed, and the bill become law on August 30th, 1935.
With the river contained by the cofferdams and its political fate secured, the dam could now rise to its full height and attempt to realize its even loftier ambitions.
In December of that year, as more than a thousand spectators looked on, Washington Governor Clarence Martin, dressed in overalls and rubber boots, spread the first bucket of concrete on the dam. When the ceremony was complete, a representative from MWAK handed the governor a check for 75 cents, covering his wages for one hour as a common laborer.
D.C. Jackson, Historian: You don't build this as one single, massive structure. If you did that, you would get all kinds of cracks -- like sidewalks. You know concrete, as it hardens, it will naturally shrink a little bit and when you build a sidewalk you build those cracks into it. At Grand Coulee they want to make sure that they don't get cracking, so you put it into... to these discrete blocks about 50 foot square things, which there are hundreds of them, that make up the dam.
Narrator: Trestles built on top of the foundation brought concrete to the site, and cranes lowered it down in huge buckets to be spread onto the dam. Each new pour added a five-foot layer. 72 hours later, the process was repeated.
Ed Kern, Dam Worker: We had to scrub the concrete like, with big wide brushes... remember, concrete forms a scum. And we had to brush it off... and that's all we did, we went from one block to the other and kept cleaning up. I want to tell you, that was a 24-hour job and that contract had to be done at a certain time and they pushed it and then pushed it. They worked the death of us. And no breaks. No breaks at all. You work till noon and have half an hour... till night. That was it. I got so tired. Wouldn't I like to have a break? Oh, my... no no. There were no breaks in those days.
Narrator: By June of 1937, trestles spanned the entire river. The following February, the foundation was complete -- 14 months ahead of schedule.
It would take millions of cubic yards of concrete to finish the job, but what was being called "the biggest thing on earth" was at last taking shape.
The year before the foundation of the dam was finished, Arno Harden had arrived at the dam site looking for a job.
Blaine Harden, Writer: My dad went up to Grand Coulee with his brother Albert. And my father worked at the dam for three months and he thought it was just too dangerous to work down there, it's just so big. And the river's so powerful and noisy. It's, it's just scary. I mean, he wasn't terrified of the place, he just... didn't think the odds were good for survival if you worked at the lowliest job.
Narrator: For every thousand cubic yards of concrete poured, or million dollars expended, men paid with their lives. They were knocked off the steep walls of the foundation and impaled on rebar, drowned in the frigid waters of the Columbia, or in one horrible incident, ripped apart by a heavy conveyor belt. By the time the foundation was complete, 60 men had died. In the midst of the Depression, there were always new workers to take their place.
And they kept on coming, completely transforming the area around the dam. In the canyon, closest to the river, the Bureau of Reclamation had erected two all-electric, model communities for their skilled employees. Called Engineers Town and Mason City, they boasted houses with carefully tended lawns, tree lined streets, flower-growing contests, and laws against drinking.
Up in the hills, beyond the western edge of the canyon, the mass of common laborers, who were mostly single, found what lodgings they could in the raucous and ramshackle boomtown of Grand Coulee, which featured a larger collection of saloons and brothels than any other town in the West.
The heart of this Sodom and Gomorrah in the desert was B-Street, a dilapidated collection of false-fronted bars and crib-houses.
Blaine Harden, Writer: B Street was unpaved, mud in the winter, dust in the, in the summer. And it was lined by dance halls.
Stewart Whipple, Dam Worker: We'd drive up there and park close to the bars and see all the activity. Of course I was too young to get into any of those places. And then they had great jazz music, and we'd go through the alley and listen -- the doors would be all open because it'd be 100 degrees outside. Music was going on until two in the morning. And then of course, we never parked there in front of the door of these bars because the fights would come out, and you didn't want anybody landing on the hoods of the car.
Lawney Reyes, Writer/Grand Coulee Resident: Lots of times, uh, you'd be walking down the street and they had these swing doors leading into the tavern and you'd see two guys fighting come rolling out onto the boardwalk, and they'd be beating each other to death. And after they got through doing that then they'd go back in and drink some more.
Blaine Harden, Writer: More alcohol was consumed per capita in B Street than any other place in the state of Washington. They fought over the women in town. My father saw a shooting. He said knifings were common. Trucks used to go up and down the street from the, the state health department, telling people to be quiet and avoid activity that spread social diseases.
Narrator: Far from the din and depravity of B Street, the foundation of the dam now spanned the river, and in the summer of 1938, the time had come to raise it 550 feet into the air.
Seeking to reduce costs, MWAK accepted an offer to merge with the huge conglomerate run by the industrialist Henry Kaiser that had just finished building Hoover Dam.
The new, even larger corporation was called Consolidated Builders Incorporated, or CBI.
Their bid of $34,400,442 won the contract to finish the dam, and over the next year and a half, the work went on, around the clock, as thousands of men per shift swarmed over the structure. Seen from a distance, the dam seemed to pulsate with energy, as if it were alive. Brightly illuminated by thousands of floodlights at night, it was filled with surreal shadows and otherworldly hues.
Lawney Reyes, Writer/Grand Coulee Resident: We had never seen anything like this before. We had never seen so many people before... but it was really something to see... they had at one time close to 8,000 workers, you know, here.
Narrator: As the huge structure continued to rise out of the river, the massive penstocks were installed to funnel water to the generators, the cofferdams removed, and the spillway and powerhouses at the base of the dam constructed.
Superintendent Harvey Slocum never saw the dam take shape. During one particularly hot spell in Grand Coulee, he had sent a government-paid plumbing crew to install sprinklers on the roof of his favorite B-Street brothel, called the Swanee Rooms.
Grand Coulee's first air-conditioning system cost Slocum his job, but not his pride, and he assailed a reporter for the Wenatchee World for the coverage of his departure. "You put in that paper of yours that I was canned because of ill-health," he complained, "Now you know damn well I got canned because I was drunk."
Throughout the late 1930s, work on the dam continued at a remarkable pace. But preparations for filling the reservoir, which would come to be known as Lake Roosevelt, were another story.
The lake began to fill in March of 1940, but the Bureau of Reclamation got a late start clearing the area, and the construction of the dam proceeded so quickly that the rising waters behind it caught everyone by surprise.
Colleen F. Cawston, Colville Tribal Member: The people were given very short notice that the flood was going to come. And leadership called the people together and said, the landscape was going to change. Many of our other traditional foods that we would gather near the river would be now under river. Many of the routes that we would take to go and harvest other foods would be no more.
Narrator: One particularly vexing problem was what to do with Indian gravesites that were about to be submerged.
The Bureau quickly hired a Spokane funeral home for the removal work, but more and more sites were discovered. As they were identified, scavengers plundered the graves for the artifacts buried there.
With time running out, and just over 1,300 graves moved so far, the Bureau simply ordered the work stopped and let the waters continue their steady ascent.
Lawney Reyes, Writer/Colville Tribal Member: When a lot of them saw the water rising, they couldn't believe that this is happening, you know. And the water had stopped flowing totally and of course the Indians knew that the river was dead then. You know, and uh, this is very hard for the Indians to take because it was a very beautiful river. You know, it was moving, had a lot of power, you know, you could hear it. I can still hear it.
Narrator: As painful as it was for native people to lose their land, and to suffer the desecration of their cemeteries, it was equally hard to endure the loss of the salmon that had defined their lives for centuries.
Every summer the Colville tribe would gather, under the direction of the salmon chief, and in a time-honored ritual, harvest the incredible bounty of fish -- more than 300,000 annually. The center of this activity was a majestic series of ledges in the river, known as Kettle Falls.
Colleen F. Cawston, Colville Tribal Member: Kettle Falls was a renowned fishing village that had rocks protruding out over the river so that you could fish in a traditional manner. And it took great teaching. So it was a skill that was taught from older generation to younger generation.
Narrator: The Bureau had installed ladders to get fish over the much lower Bonneville Dam downstream, and considered a similar approach at Grand Coulee, but the dam was simply too high, and the plans were put aside.
Bureau scientists hoped that hatcheries would be able to replenish the populations of spawning salmon, but the experiments failed to live up to expectations.
Now, the rising waters of the reservoir were going to submerge the falls forever. For three days, beginning on June 14 th, 1940, a large crowd, mostly native people, but also reporters, politicians and local whites, assembled at Kettle Falls.
The Indians called their gathering "The Ceremony of Tears." But in some respects, it was a surprisingly upbeat event. There was a carnival, an all-outdoor Indian dance, and boxing matches.
In a speech heralding the arrival of cheap electricity, Washington Senator Clarence Dill hoped that "Indians of future generations will find the change made here a great benefit to the people."
The Spokane Spokesman-Review reported that, for their part, the chiefs "told of their sadness of the passing of the falls, and some thought the government should reimburse them for their loss."
Colleen F. Cawston, Colville Tribal Member: The loss of Kettle Falls took away a part of the fabric of who I am, because no longer can I bring my children to this place. And no longer will they ever be able to see a river turn red from the backs of the salmon, because that's how thick they would run through Kettle Falls.
Richard White, Historian: What'll happen is once those dams start to back up, these worlds where people had fished, where families had rites, where there are certain rituals that are exacted, gradually as the water backs up those things vanish under the water. It's not just the fish that's vanishing, it's this intimate cultural world which had been passed on for centuries. That world is gone.
Lawney Reyes, Writer/Colville Tribal Member: You look at Lake Roosevelt today, it's dead. To me, there's no beauty whatsoever in Lake Roosevelt... some of the people I worked with, you know they'd take, uh, a large boat up the Columbia and spend a couple of weeks, and they'd come back and tell me they have never seen so much beauty, you know, and I told them, you don't really know what beauty is. You know, because I am old enough to have seen it when it was alive. And you people will never see that again.
Narrator: One anthropologist, who had lived on the Colville Reservation in the 1920s, was stunned by the effect of Grand Coulee Dam. It was built with "a ruthless disregard for Indians as human beings," he wrote, creating a blockaded river that "drowned the culture it had nourished."
Blaine Harden, Writer: For years they didn't have phone service. They never got the cheap electricity that the white people down where I lived got. They were really, really dispossessed of everything and were always an afterthought. It took the federal government about a half-century before they began to even pay the Indians for the use of their land. They got a settlement in the '90s, gave them more than $50 million plus $15 million a year.
Lawney Reyes, Writer/Colville Tribal Member: It took us over 50 years to get the first payment you know. Now we know that we got screwed because that electricity is worth a lot more that that. But we have no, no power to fight, you know.
Narrator: By the close of 1940, Grand Coulee Dam was nearing completion, yet Roosevelt and his New Deal supporters were on the defensive.
FDR's attempts at balancing the federal budget in his second term had pushed the nation back into recession. For the next two years, unemployment once again soared to as high as 19%.
All of the old arguments against Grand Coulee were resurrected. The dam was ridiculed as an expensive boondoggle, with no market for its electricity. Even less popular was the idea of an ambitious and costly irrigation scheme whose benefits seemed less tangible every day. Representative Culkin called the entire project "a colossal, un-economic folly, born of deceit of the distinguished occupant of the White House."
To date, the dam had dislocated the Colville Indians, devastated the Columbia's salmon, and little else.72 men had died on the project.
It appeared as though the critics of the "White Elephant in the Desert" might have been right after all.
March 22nd, 1941, marked the formal dedication of Grand Coulee Dam. Close to 8,000 people watched from the hills, as the band from Grand Coulee High School led a parade before the official start of two small in-house generators.
Speeches were made, and a congratulatory telegram from Roosevelt's Interior Secretary hailed the dam as "the greatest single structure man has built."
Blaine Harden, Writer: One of the ways of selling it was by talking about how big it was. The Bureau of Reclamation described it as simply "the biggest thing on earth."
Narrator: The dam contained 11 million cubic yards of concrete -- enough to fill 50,000 boxcars in a train 500 miles long, or pave a highway from New York City to Seattle, down to Los Angeles, and back to Manhattan again. It had cost almost $163 million, and CBI had finished it so fast, that $16 million in savings was returned to the U.S. Treasury.
Despite the impressive numbers, however, the Roosevelt administration felt the need to justify the dam to the American public, and turned to an unlikely ally.
In early May of 1941, a car pulled up in front of the dam and out stepped the folk singer Woody Guthrie.
He had been hired by the Bonneville Power Authority, the agency responsible for managing the electricity generated by Grand Coulee and the smaller Bonneville Dam downstream. The BPA wanted to make a documentary film promoting the virtues of public power, and a musicologist at the Library of Congress had recommended Guthrie's songs to enliven the film's soundtrack.
Steven Hawley, Writer: Well, you know Woody Guthrie was broke too. He auditioned in the offices of the BPA administrator and got a contract. I think Woody was also intoxicated by the vision of the dam as providing the greatest good to the greatest number of people and Woody as kind of an activist on behalf of the working man, that vision really appealed to him.
Narrator: Warned to avoid overtly political themes, Guthrie was paid $266, and given a car for a month, to see what inspirational poetry he could extract from the largest piece of concrete ever created in America.
Woody Guthrie Singing (Audio): Roll On, Columbia, Roll On. Roll On, Columbia, Roll On. Your power is turning our darkness to dawn, Roll On, Columbia, Roll On...
Blaine Harden, Writer: He wrote 26 songs, many of them forgettable... but he wrote one really good one, Roll On Columbia, which somehow captured the essence of what they were trying to do.
Woody Guthrie Singing (Audio): On up the river at Grand Coulee Dam, mightiest thing ever built by a man, to run the great factories for old Uncle Sam, Roll On, Columbia, Roll On. Roll On, Columbia, Roll On...
Richard White, Historian: Woody Guthrie buys the dam, lock, stock and barrel, this is going to be all the utopian dreams, the fact that electricity is going to redeem the working man, it's going to redeem the environment. It's going to make a better society, a fairer society, a more just society. All the things he pours into those songs, he believed every word of it.
Blaine Harden, Writer: The song did transform the dam and the river and the New Deal into a certain... mythical expression of, of how great Americans can be when they put their mind to it.
Woody Guthrie Singing (Audio): Your power is turning darkness to dawn, Roll On, Columbia, Roll On...
Narrator: But in the end, it would not be Woody Guthrie's inspirational songs that would earn Grand Coulee Dam its legitimacy.
Only two months after the Bureau started up its first massive generator inside the dam, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and America was at war.
The "White Elephant Comes into Its Own," announced the Saturday Evening Post, admitting that the dam had gone from a magnificent daydream into "one of the best investments Uncle Sam has ever made."
Blaine Harden, Writer: So all the critics of Grand Coulee Dam, from the engineers in the East Coast to some critics in the press to Republicans in Congress to the private utilities, they all shut up because all of a sudden you could see that this was a strategic godsend for the war effort.
Steven Hawley, Writer: Roosevelt and his boosters looked like geniuses. It was really one of the most amazing coincidences in American history.
Richard White, Historian: Sometimes there's just a thing as just really good luck and that's what this was. The industry that becomes the major consumer of Columbia electricity is the aluminum industry. The aluminum industry is critical for the war effort. We need it for bombers, we need it for all kinds of things. It takes huge amounts of electricity to produce aluminum. The Columbia is producing electricity.
Narrator: Grand Coulee's turbines helped the Boeing Airplane Company in Seattle churn out a third of the planes used in World War II, as many as 16 Flying Fortresses a day.
In Portland, the dam's power put 750 big ships on the high seas.
Blaine Harden, Writer: After leaving Grand Coulee, my father went to Portland where they were welding ships together, and my father became the foreman of an all-woman welding crew. One of the women on that crew was an 18 year-old gal from North Dakota named Betty Thoe. And she worked for my dad and he taught her how to weld and they fell in love and got married in Portland. He was living the American dream because of electricity generated by Grand Coulee and he could see where it came from. He'd helped build it.
Narrator: Thousands of other men and women found jobs because of Grand Coulee's so-called "secret load," a huge amount of electricity funneled to an isolated spot on the river called Hanford.
The site was one of the Manhattan project's most cloistered realms, home to 51,000 people, and built to produce plutonium for the atomic bomb. It sprang up from the desert in less than six months to become the fourth largest city in Washington.
Richard White, Historian: Hanford itself was selected because it was largely in the middle of nowhere. Planners for creating an atomic bomb love it because it's isolated, it's on a river with abundant cold water, and there's abundant electricity. There couldn't be a Hanford nuclear works without the Columbia River. The workers at Hanford knew they were working on the war, but they have no idea what they're actually producing. And it's only with the explosion of the atomic bomb do they guess what they have done.
Narrator: The stunned Hanford workers eventually discovered that the plutonium they had produced had been used to fuel the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, bringing World War II to an end.
Blaine Harden, Writer: Harry Truman said that without Grand Coulee and, and Bonneville Dam, it would have been almost impossible to win the war. And there's a lot of truth to that.
Paul C. Pitzer, Historian: The government said that Grand Coulee won the war, I would argue that the war made Grand Coulee, because the need for the power showed the value of the dam and the government played that up. And played it up wonderfully, that "look what we did, your government at work, we built this wonderful dam that won the war."
Narrator: The conflict had delayed the irrigation of the Columbia Basin, but by any measure, Grand Coulee played a significant role in powering the American arsenal of democracy. Like the current from some magic wand, the dam's electricity reached the modest cities of the Pacific Northwest and sparked an astonishing fluorescence.
Over the course of the war, Seattle's population swelled by more than a third, and Portland's grew to nearly half a million residents. A regional economy that had once been dominated by fishing and timber, now boasted an industrial base to rival other major metropolitan areas of the country.
Margaret O'Mara, Historian: Grand Coulee Dam, creator of cities. These great dams of the West are why we have the metropolitan areas of the West. It is providing cheap power. It is providing water not only to go in pipes, but also to water lawns. It's really fueling the suburban revolution.
Narrator: Grand Coulee's success created an insatiable demand for electricity, and in the ensuing decades, nine more dams were erected on the Columbia.
Even Grand Coulee itself was upgraded, with a massive third powerhouse that almost tripled the dam's output.
Blaine Harden, Writer: The real payoff of the dam itself is that they had somehow insinuated into the minds of lots of people that government can do big things and it can do them well. It can conquer the West, and this is what Americans do. And I think it's that idea that was much more important than the actual reality of the dam itself.
Narrator: By the early 1950s, Rufus Woods' long-delayed dream of bringing water to the deserts of eastern Washington was finally in sight and construction of the Columbia Basin Project was ready to begin. The huge system of canals, tunnels and aqueducts would flow south out of the huge new Grand Coulee reservoir, and in the first phase, irrigate more than 500,000 acres of new farmland.
Newsreel (archival): "Grand Coulee Dam, newest monument to American engineering genius... A waterfall higher than Niagara, a million and a half gallons every second. The Columbia River harnessed to irrigate a million acres of farmland. Power to turn the wheels of America's vast new industrial empire of the West!"
Blaine Harden, Writer: After my parents got married, they moved back to the Columbia Basin, to Ephrata. And then my father began a series of jobs, most of them linked to working on the dams. One of the towns that my dad lived in was Moses Lake... and that's where I was born in 1952. Moses Lake is the place where it rains about eight to ten inches a year. It's a semi-desert, and it has very fertile land, but not enough water to grow anything, really. But when the water came, all of a sudden this land was worth something, and the town began to prosper.
Narrator: In the first week of April 1952, almost 50,000 people, including state and national officials, newspaper reporters, and newsreel cameramen, swarmed into Moses Lake. They had come to witness the creation of a Farm-In-A-Day, a publicity stunt dreamed up by the Bureau of Reclamation to promote the Columbia Basin Project.
The lucky recipient of the farm was a 30-year-old World War II veteran from Kansas named Donald Dunn, his pregnant wife Vernetta Jean, and their two daughters Deanna and Sally Ann. In just 24-hours, the army of helpers constructed a fully functioning ranch house that included a workshop, a chicken house, barns, and a two-stall milking parlor. The volunteers even set the table and filled the refrigerator with groceries.
Blaine Harden, Writer: My whole family got into a brand new, brown 1952 Chevy Bel-Air, my father's first new car and we drove out there. And this was, for him, it was kind of a celebration of what the dam could do and what the dam was going to do to bring middle class life to good working people, as he saw it, and the water went into the ditches that day and officials were there from the Bureau of Reclamation. It was a big deal in Moses Lake.
Narrator: The Columbia Basin Project, however, turned out very differently from the one Rufus Woods and Franklin Roosevelt originally envisioned. Within three years, the "Farm-In-A-Day" property was for sale, and Donald Dunn and his family had moved on. The farm would change hands three more times over the following decades as over-production of crops and low prices made many of the small operations in the Basin simply unsustainable.
Richard White, Historian: These farms turn out to be industrialized, large-scale agriculture in which most of the farmers do not actually live on their farms, in which most of the crops are going to be produced for distant markets because even after World War II, the great problem American agriculture faces is surplus. It's too much crops. It's not too little crops.
Narrator: Three decades after water began flowing onto the desert, the landowners in the Basin petitioned the state of Washington, and the federal government, to fund another half-million-acre expansion of the project. They were turned down.
The experiment begun at Donald Dunn's farm had grown to become one of the largest water systems in the nation's history: 670,000 acres of farmland that each year consumed more than 814 billion gallons of the Columbia's annual flow at the dam, generating hundreds of millions of dollars worth of agricultural products.
But building the irrigation works had cost more than Grand Coulee Dam itself, it was expensive to pump the water out of the river and up into the reservoir, and any water used for irrigation meant less running through the dam's turbines to make electricity.
Blaine Harden, Writer: The irrigators in the Columbia Basin, they justified their subsidized water by saying, the world needs food. We're doing God's work here. And that argument was a little hollow at the time. There was a surplus of food in the United States. That's changed now. There's a food shortage in the world. Expansion of the Columbia Basin project may in fact make sense, if they can do it without using more water. And it may be another example of how years ago, building such a big dam was a very farsighted thing to do.
Narrator: By the mid-1980s, a profound change began to be felt up and down the Columbia. The consensus in favor of hydropower that had dominated the region began to be questioned, and no issue divided the river's stakeholders more than the fate of salmon.
When it was built, Grand Coulee had blocked any fish from reaching the Upper Columbia. In the first few years after the dam was finished, runs of Sockeye, Steelhead and Chinook still showed up at the dam only to be stopped by the massive structure and denied a place to spawn. After the fifth year, they never returned.
Steven Hawley, Writer: Everything above Grand Coulee Dam, 1,150 miles of habitat, the fish runs were made extinct. So a third of the habitat that was in the river was lost forever.
Narrator: Fish ladders at the smaller dams downstream allowed access to the spawning grounds of the lower reaches of the river and to tributaries like the Snake River in Idaho while hatchery programs continued to try and support the fish populations, but with so many dams in the way, salmon continued their steady decline.
Steven Hawley, Writer: This is a resource that was diminished by the sort of techno industrial managers of the river and they simply said we are going to serve this vision of the river as an industrial corridor, as a producer of power, and if we have to sacrifice the salmon to do that, so be it.
Narrator: Then, in the late 1990s, the Columbia salmon began to be placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Now, the Bonneville Power Authority had to balance the electricity they generated from the river against the fish that lived in it.
Every year, BPA scientists went to greater and greater lengths to keep the salmon alive. They were nurtured in hatcheries, shipped and trucked downstream past a string of dams, and released into the sea.
Richard White, Historian: Long after the Columbia salmon have ceased to be an important commercial resource, they have become an incredible cultural resource... so we've begun to modify the river to keep a remnant of salmon alive.
William Lang, Historian: Many in the Northwest are convinced, how goes the salmon so goes the larger environment. And so we spend millions and millions of dollars on really what is a fundamentally uneconomic investment. It's an investment, in many ways, in ourselves.
Blaine Harden, Writer: I went back to Washington State, I tried to figure out what had happened to the river. And went up to Grand Coulee and looked at it from the perspective of my father, for the first time and how it was his, his salvation. But I also looked at it from the perspective of the Indians who lived above the dam who I'd never really heard of, the Colville Indian tribe. I'd been told about an Indian named Martin Louie, Jr., and I went into his trailer on sort of a misty morning and it had a blue tarp over it, cause it leaked. And he was lying on, on a couch. He was an old man in... in his eighties. And he was a poor guy. And the first thing is he did, he got off the couch and went to the kitchen and grabbed a can of salmon, government issued pink salmon. It was a white can, it said, "Pink Salmon" on it. And he shoved it in my face. And he screamed at me, said, "you guys took all my food." And then he said, "my whole family's been destroyed because of you guys. What you did is you took away our fish. And you destroyed us as a people." And the people around Moses Lake, which is about a hundred miles south of there, they had no idea what the dam had wrought for those other than themselves. And that insight, the epiphany, accusation, whatever it was, it really changed my understanding of who I was and how the irrigated West came together. My father was pleased to tell me about what he'd done at the dam. But when I talked to him about the bad things that resulted from it, the fish and the Indians and stuff, he wasn't interested in that question. It had never occurred to him and it just... it seemed irrelevant. It just wasn't part of his worldview. Which is very typical of most of the people who were beneficiaries of this system.
Narrator: Rufus Woods would live to see his dream of Grand Coulee Dam completed, but not the waters of the Columbia flow onto the land he loved, having died in 1950, at the age of 72.
Richard White, Historian: For Rufus Woods, Grand Coulee Dam was really ultimately about Wenatchee. The problem is, Grand Coulee Dam is not ultimately about Wenatchee.
Steven Hawley, Writer: I think Woods was an honest enough character to see that dams become this perfect device for transferring wealth from one community, usually upstream, usually more agricultural or rural and transfer it downstream, usually to some place urban, a center of economic power.
Blaine Harden, Writer: Wenatchee was hoping to become an industrial center. But it more or less became a place where they were growing apples, which is what it was before. And the cheap power went over the mountains to Seattle to power the birth of a prosperous Pacific Northwest.
Narrator: All along the Columbia, the story of Grand Coulee Dam has been one of dramatic achievements and never-ending controversies.
Reviled by many for its mastery of the river, it now generates enough clean power to run the entire city of Seattle -- two times over.
The creator of a vast agricultural heartland, its irrigation network now supports less than 2,200 landowners.
Hailed for its power to transform a region, it now serves as a reminder of the price of progress.
Blaine Harden, Writer: Grand Coulee Dam is the most wonderfully mixed metaphor you can imagine. You know it was a club to defeat the Japanese, an elixir for the Great Depression. It made the desert into a garden. And it was a bit of cultural savagery for the Indians affected and environmental butchery for the salmon. Amends have been made for some of the mistakes. And lessons have been learned. And the benefits continue.
Steven Hawley, Writer: I think if you look back at what was happening in the country at the time, it was a country in crisis, it was a people that no longer trusted their government or felt that it worked, and it was an effort by the federal government to furnish the greatest number of people with the greatest amount of good. In that sense, yes, it was worth it. But what are those consequences? What are the values that were left behind? What are the new values that we learned in the 70 years since Grand Coulee was built?
William Lang, Historian: There isn't anybody in the Northwest today who'd be living here if it weren't for these dams. They've created the region in a fundamental way. And I don't think that there's anybody who can seriously say that they don't want what they have.
D.C. Jackson, Historian: One of the great defining characteristics of the modern world versus the un-modern world is electricity -- it's power. We have to confront the fact though, it comes with a price. It is not an unmitigated good. And transforming the Columbia River into a very different environment is one of those prices that is paid.
Richard White, Historian: It's easy for me to object to what we did to the river. It's much harder for me to object to what we hope will come out of what we did to the river. And so, I have the same ambivalence as when I walk into those dams. It's both a structure which seems in many ways to have done great harm, but when you're in the middle of it, you can't believe how powerful they are and what a tremendous human accomplishment they are. Both of them are true.