American Sabbatical 028: 10/8/96

Roll On Columbia

10/8... Grand Coulee.

When we got up we were in Pomeroy, Washington, a lively farming community on the edge of the fertile Palouse region. One block off the through highway was an islanded broadway filled with flowers, and the town was bookended with big grain elevators. One restaurant did breakfast (all day), while the other stayed closed til noon. That kind of neighborly. As for the floral display, since we struck western Idaho there have been gobs of flowers. Is it the altitude, or the attitude? The higher West was into drab.

Bryce Draws Again
We had pancakes, arguing that it was hard for local chomporia to screw up breakfast, and AM menus are cheaper. Then we drew the west end. Felt good to be playing with colors again as morning ritual.

But where to? The gorgeous Snake, and Walla Walla, lay to the south, and that way would lead down the Columbia to Oregon. Or should we gallop across the Palouse to the north and strike the Columbia at Grand Coulee Dam, arching our shot toward Seattle? When in doubt go sunwise, to the right.

We rose up onto the highground, and were back in the gigantic Iowa of last evening. The contour-plowed dark earth against the wheatstubble blond made a sinuous quilt. The overlapping hills make a frozen seascape with crests of fallow grasses, or stubble. Grant Wood had been at work here with a new palette and a bigger canvas (we even passed through “Davenport” today). Hidden in the hollows were tidy farmsteads with their requisite squat silo-clusters. The native barn appears to be Quonset-dutch, if the ancient ruins we pass are indicative. Sometimes they have a slight peak and flared eaves, like a German helmet from 1919. And some are even red.

But don’t get accustomed to one style of landscape in the Northwest. Like Maine weather, it changes every mile. As our path doglegged north and west we went from Iowa to Wyoming to Dakota to Illinois to Montana, and back again. Rolling wheatland to dry rangeland to badland outcrops to flat farmland to rolling pine prairie, and back into the hilly ranges. The underlying (and erupting) rock is a shattered burnt-sienna volcanic, with no structure or coherence, but rich as the fields of heaven.

Washington Turf

After miles of sweeping grassland, the descent to the Columbia is abrupt, and you are funneled into the gorge with its forest of power pylons. Talk about a company town, this place is Electric City, and hard-wired. And the water-pressure blows you out of the shower. Must be a plumbers’ nightmare.
We discover that tonight will be the last lazer lightshow of the year at Grand Coulee. Just for us. So off we go to get a seat in the canyon.

Pomeroy WA
(Bryce and Peggy)

(Memo #27)


Oct. 8 - Conquering the Waters

Who? FDR and PWA

What? major dam project, largest concrete object in the world

Where? on the Columbia River in central Washington state

When? 1930's (New Deal)

How? import of men and materials

Topics: Dams, Columbia River Project, New Deal, PWA, World War 2.

Questions: Who benefits from major dam projects? Why were dams built during the New Deal? When and how was the GRAND COULEE dam created?

Columbia Gorge

The largest concrete object on earth spans a gorge in north central Washington. Rising 550 feet from the valley floor and running just under a mile in width, the Grand Coulee dam is difficult to believe. The vision needed to wall this river, the scale of the construction, and the engineering problems encountered, are mindboggling! I think of the famous seven wonders of the ancient world; this is one of the seven wonder of modern America.

Eastern Washington has two of North America’s grandest rivers, the Snake and the Columbia. Rising in the Rockies to the east and north, they run through some very dry land in eastern Washington, join, and flow to the sea. The settlers who came to eastern Washington thought the fertile soil and occasional rain would enable them to farm this dry country productively; they were wrong. After bearing a few seasons, the land was exhausted. So early in this century pressure mounted from the farming community for dam projects on the rivers to provide irrigation.

Water in the Dry

The Columbia Basin Project and its many dams were launched by the 1930’s New Deal. As part of the PWA (Public Works Administration), Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal sponsored a number of major dam projects, perhaps the most famous is the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), a series of damn on the Tennessee River. As with most New Deal projects, the dams had multiple purposes. The monumental public works were intended to solve the problem of unemployment in the Depression. The dams would assist farmers, perhaps the poorest group in America, in several ways: providing water for irrigation, controlling flood waters, providing electricity to assist in agriculture (for example, refrigerating milk on dairy farms), and electrifying farms so that farm families could use a variety of household appliances. This would spur consumer industries. Helping larger regions, the dams would create cheap electricity for cities, and offer cheap electricity and labor to lure industries into poor agricultural regions (again providing longterm employment). [People always wonder about the funding - FDR also started the modern national deficit.] In 1941 the project gained a new and much more crucial function.

Work began on the Grand Coulee in 1933. The practical problems were huge. Grand Coulee is far from population centers. We drove from the nearest small city (Spokane) and it is a LONG dry drive through semidesert. A new highway and railroad brought materials in. The dam area had no major town or pool of workers for the huge project . The PWA built a town, with housing and services, for the 7000 workers it brought in. Actually, two towns, one for the engineers on one side of the canyon, and another for the workers on the other side (class segregation). I couldn’t help wondering if they located the housing BELOW the dam to inspire attentive workmanship by the people who lived there. The original stark rows of identical houses remain, but over the past sixty years the owners have personalized them with plantings and fancy entries and architectural details. The dam obviously provides lots of water for the lawns and gardens. (And the water pressure here is amazing; turn on a faucet too far and a geyser erupts! ) As in many places in the west, the people places are green oases. Look up and you see barren rock hills; at the edge of town the brown desert begins.

Electric Suburb
The main part of town is located up on a plateau, with more recent housing developments strung along the shelves of land on the canyon walls. There are amazing views of the canyon walls and the lake behind the dam. The roadways snake down and around the canyon walls in great loops. You can cross the river on the two lane road on top of the dam, or on a bridge that links the two housing areas below it.

Other people were displaced by the dam. Thirteen small towns up river were drowned by the lake, and the people relocated. The salmon runs which were a central part of Native American cultures in the Northwest were disrupted. The engineers tried to provide salmon ladders to maintain the fishery.

The organization of construction was a major engineering feat in itself. How did they bring in, mix, pour this much concrete (the spillway area cover thirteen acres!)? Thousands of bags of cement, huge mixing areas, buckets to haul the wet mix, cranes to haul the buckets. Where do you start? They basically walled off half the river to start construction on the dam. (I find it hard to write that, since it takes such vision and such belief in modern construction). They “anchored” the dam to the canyon floor after it had been “smoothed”.

Back of the Dam

The dam was poured in stages, with three shifts working around the clock. The literature gives the numbing statistics. “ By the end of 1936, a million yards of concrete were in place,” and, “On May 25 (1939) the CBI Company set a new world record which still stands, when they placed 20, 685 cubic yards of concrete in one 24-hour period.” The walls climbed and they built the water intakes, spillway gates, generators and power plants, the pumping station to raise the water 1571 feet to the feeder canal.

In 1939 World War 2 began. We entered the war in late 194l after Pearl harbor, and the Grand Coulee became a crucial part of the American war effort. Construction was speeded up. The dam to provide electricity for wartime munitions plants. In particular, the Grand Coulee provided the huge amount of electricity required to manufacture aluminum The Pacific northwest became, and still remains, a central part of the airplane and munition industry.

Roll On
The statistics are amazing. Grand Coulee is the largest producer of electricity in the USA, third in the world. It is not as high as the Hoover dam, but is wider, and produces about five times the electricity. The spillway is the same area as Niagara Falls (although narrow and higher). Its total generating capacity is 6,494,000kW.

How do you evaluate the human cost? At least 77 people died in the construction. Native Americans and other area people had their cultures transformed.

The Grand Coulee is an awe-inspiring sight, stark and massive and quite beautiful. Its beauty inspired the graphic artists that produced the laser light show that uses the spillway area as a canvas.We saw the last night show of the year. First, they shut off the lights at the dam. Then one by one the spillways opened and a white fall of water blanked the dam. For half an hour lasers sent multicolor pictures across the face of the dam, as a narrator detailed its history. Four story horses galloped across and fifty foot eagles swooped and glided. Music played and lights danced. It was magic.

10/8 continued.

OK, Lennie, Get This. You’ve got the world’s biggest outdoor theater screen. 5223 feet wide by 550 feet tall, with built-in waterworks. It gets dark. You open the 12 overflow gates one by one. It takes 12 seconds for the white water to flow down the face of the screen below each gate. Once the whole screen is a roaring waterfall you project animated linear laser images on the cataract, and along the cliff walls running another mile to left and right, coupled with a soundtrack broadcast on loudspeakers around the canyon. And the whole 30 minute program can tell what a magnificent creation this screen is, and how beneficent we are. Waddya think, Lennie?

Self-promotion by your Department of Reclamation. The multimedia product delivered in a cool Columbia canyon, under blinking stars, is a curious mix of New Age wizardry and prewar propaganda. Pre-WWII. Dramatic baritone renditions of the history of the Columbia and Grand Coulee (with nods to Native Americans, Mother Nature, FDR, and the mighty USofA), are illustrated with rapid linear multicolor animations, sweeping across the full width of the canyon and dam. These uplifts are intercut with uptempo spacemusic and highspeed computer-graphic forms, dancing across the dam. Coiling double-helixes chasing spin-spiral targets as counter-point to outlined stallions galloping to a text of “ billions of horsepower.”

Darkened Screen
Granting the limitations of the laser-projection medium, it’s still interesting that waving flags, Statues of Liberty, the head of Washington, and screaming eagles continue to be the currency of communication about public works. You’d think that such techno-gimmickry would conjure new images, but it’s the same old content. There were some neat effects. Animals seen from below the water, leaning down to drink, and dissolving into other images. Linear waves cresting and breaking across the dam. Five hundred foot long fish swimming a mile in the blink of an eye. Birds soaring, looping, diving. Jellyfish turning insideout over a meandering abstract passage. All the fun you can have with linear forms on a computer splashed across the megascreen in dazzling colors, their paths shining in the air.

Grand Coulee Dam

A BIG WOW, but with lowgrade TV cartoons and boilerplate as the stuff! Is that an American metaphor? Megawatts of sugarplums? And the last message? “We’re not finished with the Columbia yet. We have the capacity to pump a billion gallons a day to make the desert bloom.” Support your Department of Reclamation. (I recommend reading Cadillac Desert before you jump up and cheer.) A nifty spectacle, put on for a crowd of maybe 35. A last waltz just for us. Thanks, Uncle.

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