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GRAND COULEE DAM and the Planned Promised Land

Jeffrey Syken

It began innocently enough, in the summer of 1918, when America was still entangled in the “War to End All Wars.” Rufus Woods – go-getter editor/publisher of The Wenatchee Daily World, was looking for a story. He had stopped in to see William (“Billy”) Clapp – an activist attorney from Ephrata (in eastern Washington State) to see if he had anything of interest for him. He did. It turned out that Clapp and a group of like-minded citizens of the region were contemplating the building of a dam to harness both the power and, more importantly to them, the water resources of the mighty Columbia River. This they believed would solve once and for all the chronic problem of irrigating the fertile but water-starved lands of the Columbia Basin – an area encompassing over a million acres of potential farmland.

Woods knew a good story when he heard one and from that July day, he and his newspaper became the chief proponent of the scheme, but it wouldn’t be easy – “The Battle of Grand Coulee” had begun. A competing scheme (irrigation only) to bring water from the Pend Oreille River in far-off Idaho via a complex and costly network of canals and tunnels, supported body and soul by the private power interests of the region (who saw cheap, clean and plentiful hydroelectric power provided by the federal government as a direct threat) would delay the dam-irrigation-power scheme through the 1920s. However, by the early 1930s things came to a head when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided in favor of a low dam, ending the debate once and for all (much to the dismay of the power lobby but to the great relief of scores of unemployed men).

With a new POTUS (FDR) and the Great Depression at its worst by 1933, there was a fresh impetus to get things started and, by year’s end, the dam’s foundation was begun. By 1935, the decision was made to make the “Grand Coulee Dam” a high dam in order to fully harness the tremendous power potential of “America’s Greatest Power Stream.” With America’s entry into WWII and the first three generators coming on-line in 1941, the timing was right for satisfying the tremendous power needs of the booming armaments industry (particularly for the huge amounts of electricity required for aluminum refining). After the war, the irrigation project, long delayed, was completed and by the 1980s, six even more powerful generators were on-line in a third power plant designed by master architect Marcel Breuer. The “Planned Promised Land” had been made manifest.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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