Grand Coulee Project

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Construction of Grand Coulee Dam, built from 1934 to 1942, began as a New Deal works project. The dam is located on the Columbia River in eastern Washington state north of the semi-arid Columbia Basin. It remains among the world's most productive sites for generating hydroelectric power, irrigates more than one-half million acres (the largest reclamation project in the United States), and creates the 151-mile long Lake Roosevelt. Touted as "the Mightiest thing ever built by a man" by folk-singer Woody Guthrie when he was employed in May 1941 by the Bonneville Power Administration to compose songs about the project, Grand Coulee was smaller, in fact, than the earth-fill Fort Peck dam built at the same time in Montana. Still, at the time of its completion Grand Coulee Dam was the largest concrete structure in the world. The size and scope of the project, combined with its rural isolation, resulted in achievements in technology, innovations in employer-provided health care, and the nation's first completely electric city.

The project was originally proposed in the 1890s as one of two ambitious schemes for irrigating the Big Bend region; the other proposal would have resulted in a canal flowing into the region from the east from near Albeni Falls, Idaho, on the Pend Orielle River. In the battles between advocates of these contrasting visions for agricultural development, and within Congress after the project began, hyperbolic rhetoric characterized the dispute as between socialism on the one hand, and undemocratic control of the government and the economy by under-regulated power companies on the other. The New Deal promoted federal government-funded economic development of the Columbia River and other Western waters in the name of jobs and reclamation. Grand Coulee's power production and irrigation established a strong foundation for economic growth in the Pacific Northwest, but the loss of the salmon fishery devastated tribal economies.

When construction began the Roosevelt administration approved only a low dam, funded through the Public Works Administration—the low dam would provide power, but not irrigation. The MWAK Company began construction in July 1934, contracted to build a dam 350 feet high above bedrock with the proviso that the contract might change prior to completion. In August 1935 plans for a higher dam (550 feet above bedrock) were approved by Congress. After MWAK concluded its work by completing the foundation in February 1938, Consolidated Builders Incorporated built the rest of the structure.

Over 12,000 workers were employed over the course of construction, with as many as 7,400 employed at one time. Wages were good while there was work, but most workers endured frequent layoffs as the project moved through several stages of construction, and as cold winters forced slowdowns. Although a disproportionate number of the workers were white, American Indians from the Colville Reservation (which occupies the north shore of the Columbia where the dam is located) were also hired, as were some African Americans. Clearing the land that would be flooded became the largest single Works Progress Administration project, employing two thousand men by the end of 1939.



Dietrich, William. Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River. 1995.

Guthrie, Woody. Columbia River Collection (sound recording). 1987.

Pitzer, Paul C. Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream. 1994.

White, Richard. The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River. 1995.

Woods, Rufus. The 23 Year Battle for Grand Coulee Dam. 1944.

James Stripes