Grand Coulee Dam: Leaving a Legacy

by Christian McClung

Cover of a promotional pamphlet about the Grand Coulee Dam, made possible by the New Deal's public works funding. The Dam made Washington's contribution to World War II's industry possible, and remade the land, economy, and geography of the state. (Image courtesy of the University of Washington Library Digital Collection.)

The construction of the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River was the crown jewel of President Roosevelt’s public works projects in the Pacific Northwest. Though it was built more than seventy years ago, it is still a massive and productive asset that will have an impact on many generations to come. It took forty years for the proposal of the dam to get the funding required to begin construction, as the hope of irrigation to more than five hundred thousand acres and massive hydroelectric power production were not enough for the dam to gain the full support of the federal government. Ultimately, the Great Depression and President Roosevelt’s subsequent New Deal program gave concrete backing to the Grand Coulee Dam, as dam construction promised long-term employment for thousands and a continuing economic asset to the region. This paper will give a background on the dam, the politics involved with its proposal and construction, its impact on employment and the economy, and a comparison between public works projects during the Great Depression and public works projects proposed today.

Long before the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam, farmers in the Western half of the United States wanted irrigation to make the dry parts of their land flourish and become more fertile.[1] In the central part of Washington State, farmers were faced with a harsh climate that brought insufficient rainfall to produce healthy crops. They understood that proper irrigation would lead to productive fields, which would lead to a prosperous crop, healthy economy, and ultimately a self-sufficient way of life.[2] Local citizens and businessmen understood that a massive dam structure on the Columbia River could be the much-needed solution that would provide the water required to achieve this self-sufficiency. If built to its full extent, a large dam could even help pay for its own cost, as electricity could be sold to the surrounding areas. Rufus Woods, editor of the Wenatchee Daily World and one of Grand Coulee Dam’s greatest proponents argued, “As stated by Mr. Sullivan, the project would be worthy of consideration as a purely irrigation enterprise. But with the great depletion of the fuel and oil supplies of the country, the development of electrical energy to the amount of 1,000,000 horsepower up to a tremendous total of 3,800,000 horsepower becomes added interest.”[3]

A.H. Smythe and his wife with a WPA administrator, in Kettle Falls, WA, April 12, 1939. The Dam would place the Smythe home completely underwater, though Smythe was quoted as saying "Let 'er come. I've got me a piece of ground back yonder from the high water mark and I've got most of my house already built on it. The water can't get here too quick to suite me. It will be just like living on a lake." (Image courtesy of the University of Washington Library Digital Collection.)

Despite the overwhelming positives of constructing the dam, there were several obstacles that delayed construction. The idea of building a dam to help with irrigation challenges was first proposed in a copy of the Coulee City News in 1892.[4] The dam, however, was not the only proposal of how to irrigate the Columbia Basin; other ideas that had the support of influential politicians and local citizens. One plan aimed to use artesian wells to irrigate the Columbia Basin, while a more popular idea was to build a long gravity canal from lakes in Idaho for irrigation. The debate between building a dam versus constructing a gravity canal lasted for nearly fifteen years until the October 1931, when the proposal to build a dam won the support of the Army Corp of Engineers.[5] As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer put it, “Army engineers agree with the reclamation bureau engineers that the cheapest most feasible plan for developing the Columbia Basin is by erection of a great dam at Grand Coulee.”[6]

Even after the long-awaited army report settled the debate over the most effective method of irrigating the Columbia Basin, the biggest challenge still remained. Securing the necessary funding to build a structure of the size and complexity of the Grand Coulee Dam proved to be a major challenge. Most people living outside of Central Washington simply did not understand the benefits of building it, especially when it meant spending millions of dollars in a lowly populated area during a poor economy. William Miner put it best when he said, “To a great part of the nation, which knew nothing of irrigation and cared less, the whole project was a giant “pork barrel” scheme of the Pacific Northwest.”[7] At the time, most did not realize that it would take the Great Depression and the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt to get the federally appropriated funds required to build the dam.

Prior to the Great Depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election, Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover had heard of the Grand Coulee Dam proposal. President Hoover was involved in extensive talks regarding the development of plans and construction of the dam, but ultimately never gathered the necessary funds. While President Hoover was courted strongly by dam supporters, including Rufus Woods, he eventually sided with his Secretary of Agriculture Arthur M. Hyde, who believed that there was no need for additional farmlands at a time when the economy was struggling and demand was already being met.[8] After nearly forty years of proposals, meetings with politicians, and vigorous debate, ground had yet to be broken on the Grand Coulee Dam. 

The election of President Roosevelt in 1932 brought a new sense of optimism to advocates of the dam. After years of delays and setbacks, the state of Washington realized they had a strong shot at getting the dam proposal passed with the help of President Roosevelt, who was a major proponent of public works projects. Understanding the great opportunity before them, “The State of Washington, in strengthening its bargaining role for the project, put forth $377,000 for continuing studies, surveys, investigations and specifications for a low dam.”[9] In an urgent message to its readers, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said, “Now it is up to all of us to induce congress at the coming session to agree to endorse the project, adopt it, and make initial appropriations for its start.”[10] After months of negotiations and debate, on July 27, 1933, President Roosevelt appropriated $63,000,000 for the beginning stages of the Grand Coulee Dam.[11]

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's visit to the Grand Coulee Dam construction site, October 2, 1937. (Image courtesy of the University of Washington Library Digital Collection.)

Two months after a contract was awarded to build the dam, President Roosevelt made a trip out to Grand Coulee to visit the dam site along with Governor Martin, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, and his wife Eleanor.[12] A crowd of 20,000 people were in attendance to hear the President give a speech. Many were there to thank him for his vote of confidence, as well as lobby for continued funding to complete the entire dam project. In his closing remarks to the massive crowd, President Roosevelt said, “I leave here today with the feeling that this work is well undertaken; that we are going ahead with a useful project, and we are going to see it through for the benefit of our country.”[13]

At the core of President Roosevelt’s support for the dam was that its construction would provide much-needed employment in a struggling economy. In a time when 25% unemployment was gripping the nation, the prospect of suddenly employing thousands of workers to build a strategic and sustainable resource was overwhelmingly attractive. The construction of Grand Coulee Dam was exactly the type of project that Roosevelt envisioned when he created the Public Works Administration in June of 1933. As specified in the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Public Works Administration was allotted several billion dollars to be used for major construction projects that would provide employment and improve the welfare of the public.[14] President Roosevelt viewed major public works projects as a way to improve the country’s infrastructure while providing jobs to those who were out of work. Without President Roosevelt’s vision and the creation of the Public Works Administration, it is hard to imagine that the Grand Coulee Dam would have ever received federal funding.

The employment numbers during the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam were staggering. As stated in the pamphlet Grand Coulee Dam and a Last Frontier, “During the three year construction period of MWAK, the payroll reached a peak of 6,000 men, exclusive of the Bureau of Reclamation, as well as numerous public utilities such as telephone, light, water and transportation companies.”[15] Including all other support positions related to the construction of the dam, employment was thought to be as high as 8,800.[16] Due to the large employment numbers, payroll figures were also impressive. In September of 1937, the Kellogg Evening News said, “An average of nearly $800,000 a month was paid this spring to workers employed by the Mason-Walsh-Atkinson-Kier Company, Grand Coulee contractors, the bureau of reclamation has disclosed.”[17] When the employment figures were totaled from 1933–1939, the Bureau of Reclamation Histories put the total man-hours at 37,000,119 and compensation at $34,650,244.[18] Total cost figures for the construction of the dam from the time period of 1933–1986 is estimated at $1,687,000,000.[19]

The Grand Coulee Dam’s positive impact on employment reached much farther than those directly working on the construction of the dam. States besides Washington benefited due to the sheer size and scope of the project. It was estimated that the foundation contract alone included $16,000,000 worth of purchases of materials and equipment from states outside of Washington.[20] Due to the massive labor force needed to build such a massive structure, the local towns thrived with the increased worker population. Engineers and government workers had homes provided for them in the town of Coulee Dam, while other homes for key officials were provided at Mason City.[21] Local and state government played an important role in providing for the rest of the dam workers. As described in the Grand Coulee Dam and a Last Frontier, “The overflow, for lack of any provision for them, sought and built places to live in the towns “on the hill” where schools and churches were provided with state government assistance, and where private capital provided theatres, hotels, fraternal halls, stores, shops, and so forth, for their spiritual and material welfare.”[22] The widespread positive economic effect the Grand Coulee Dam had on the region is truly immeasurable.

Ceremony for the first water delivery from the Grand Coulee Dam for the irrigation of the Columbia Basin, May 7, 1951. (Image courtesy of the University of Washington Library Digital Collection.)

Beyond the employment and economic boon provided by the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam, there have been other lasting legacies. After construction was complete in late 1942, the dam had an immediate impact in helping the United States win World War II. As President Harry Truman said, “Without Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams it would have been almost impossible to win this war.”[23] Specifically, the Grand Coulee Dam provided the electricity needed to produce aluminum, which was crucial for the airplane construction taking place at Boeing in Seattle. With no capacity to produce aluminum in 1940, the Pacific Northwest was producing 36% of the nation’s aluminum output by 1946. It is estimated that one third of the aluminum used in aircraft during World War II came from the power generated by the Grand Coulee Dam.[24] Also, the Grand Coulee Dam provided the power needed for the plutonium production reactors at the nuclear production facilities at the Hanford site.

Today, the Grand Coulee Dam stands as one of the top producers of hydroelectric power in the world and is still the largest concrete structure ever built in the United States. It provides irrigation to more than 2,000 farms and the revenue from hydroelectric power production has more than paid for its cost.[25] The adverse affects of the dam have been numerous as well. The erection of the Grand Coulee Dam blocked the passage of ocean-going salmon, which severely hurt the local Native American tribes. Other problems such as downstream erosion have also negatively affected peoples’ view of the dam.[26]

Today, the United States is faced with many of the same economic challenges as it was during the 1930s. While unemployment today is not nearly as high as it was during the Great Depression, many Americans have lost their jobs and seen their retirement accounts and home values plummet. In a time like this, it is hard not to compare the ascension and election of President Obama to that of President Roosevelt. Both men were elected during times of economic hardship and both were Democrats vowing to take a Keynesian approach to stimulating the economy. While many would expect President Obama’s fiscal stimulus to be similar to President Roosevelt’s New Deal, there are some clear differences.

President Roosevelt’s New Deal authorized the construction of major public works projects such as the Grand Coulee Dam and Bay Bridge, whereas President Obama’s stimulus plan appropriates money for improving existing roads, bridges, sewer lines, and schools.[27] There is nothing in Obama’s plan remotely close to the ambitious scope and nature of the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam. Roosevelt created and approved projects that took many years to complete and provided long-term employment, while Obama is looking to approve projects that can be completed quickly and have an immediate impact. Roosevelt and Obama are similar, however, in their ultimate goal of creating jobs and pumping money into the economy in order to stimulate growth.[28] Both took the Presidency in extraordinarily difficult times and both had the support of a hopeful nation yearning for recovery.

Built more than seventy years ago, the Grand Coulee Dam remains an effective producer of hydroelectric power and irrigation for the Columbia Basin. Without President Roosevelt’s vision for increased employment and economic stimulus, it is probable that the dam would never have been built. Today it stands as a lasting symbol of the New Deal and the public works projects that contributed to the recovery from the Great Depression. Without question, it will continue its desired purpose and have a lasting impact on many decades and generations to come.


 Copyright (c) 2009, Christian McClung
HSTAA 353 Spring 2009

[1]Paul C. Pitzer, Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream (Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, 1994), p. xiii.

[2] Pitzer, Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream, p. xiii.

[3] Rufus Woods, “The Columbia Dam Project,” Wenatchee Daily World, June 7th, 1920.

[4] Pitzer, Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream, p. 10.

[5] Rufus Woods, The 23 Years Battle for Grand Coulee Dam (Wenatchee, WA: Wenatchee Daily World, 1944), p.6.

[6] Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 24th, 1931.

[7] William D. Miner, A History of the Columbia Basin Projects, (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1950), p. 167.

[8] Pitzer, Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream, p. 64.

[9] L. Vaughn Downs, The Mightiest Of Them All: Memories of Grand Coulee Dam (New York: ASCE Press 1993, orig. pub. 1986), p. 19.

[10] Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 24th, 1931.

[11] Pitzer, Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream, p. 75.

[12] Pitzer, Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream, p. 101.

[13] Downs, The Mightiest Of Them All, p. 14.

[14] Pitzer, Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream, p. 72.

[15] Fred M. Weil, A Curb-Side Story of Grand Coulee Dam and a Last Frontier: Slumbering Riches (Grand Coolee, WA: Tepee Information Services, 1938), p. 4.

[16] Downs, The Mightiest Of Them All, p. 47.

[17] “Coulee Dam Payroll is Big,” Kellogg Evening News, September 2 1937.

[18] Downs, The Mightiest Of Them All, p. 47.

[19] Pitzer, Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream, p. xii.

[20] Grand Coulee and the Pacific Northwest Grand Coulee Dam and a last Frontier, 1938, University of Washington Digital Collections, p. 7.

[21] Grand Coulee and the Pacific Northwest Grand Coulee Dam and a last Frontier, 1938, University of Washington Digital Collections, p. 4.

[22] Grand Coulee and the Pacific Northwest Grand Coulee Dam and a last Frontier, 1938, University of Washington Digital Collections, p. 4.

[23] George Sundborg, Hail Columbia: The Thirty-Year Struggle for Grand Coulee Dam (New York: Macmillan Company, 1954), pp. 430–431.

[24] Pitzer, Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream, p. 250.

[25] Pitzer, Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream, p. 363.

[26] Pitzer, Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream, p. 362.

[27] Richard Simon, “Obama Stimulus: More old school fix-ups, less New Deal Grandeur,” Los Angeles Times, February 23rd, 2009.

[28] Simon, “Obama Stimulus.”