The New Deal and Hydroelectric Power in Washington
“Roll on, Columbia, roll on Roll on, Columbia, roll on Your power is turning our darkness to dawn So roll on, Columbia, roll on”1
Thus goes the chorus to the Woody Guthrie song “Roll On, Columbia” (embedded below). In 1941 the United States federal government hired Guthrie, an up-and-coming folk singer, to spend a month traveling the Pacific Northwest and compose songs promoting the construction of large hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River. Guthrie, passionate about his music as well as the welfare of working people, saw an opportunity to get paid doing what he loved while also supporting a cause he believed in. As Jeff Brady with NPR reports, “out of this month of work came some of Guthrie’s best-known songs,” including “Roll On, Columbia,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” and “Pastures of Plenty.”2 In 1987, Washington state recognized “Roll on, Columbia” by Woody Guthrie as the official state folk song. While the Great Depression had crippled the economy of Washington state along with the rest of the nation, Columbia River dams served as an immense boost to the state and the Pacific Northwest region.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt visits the Grand Coulee Dam construction site, October 2, 1937.
The New Deal and Hydroelectric Power
The third line of the song’s chorus captures the primary reasoning behind building the dams. Spurred on by a steadily growing population, increasing expectations of the quality of modern life, and the rapidly swelling power demands of American industry, proponents sought to utilize the natural resources of the nation to generate abundant hydroelectricity that could meet all of those needs. While government involvement in such plans would have been unthinkable before the Great Depression, economic collapse had shaken Americans’ belief in the orthodoxy of free market ideology, with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition generating support for an active government role in recovery. Additionally, New Deal Democrats viewed infrastructure projects as a means of employing millions of jobless Americans while simultaneously creating and modernizing critical infrastructure. As Paul W. Hirt asserts in The Wired Northwest: The History of Electric Power, 1870s – 1970s, the Roosevelt administration’s interest in building dams in the Pacific Northwest was “to provide employment, stimulate the economy, and advance public power in the region.”3The shift in public and political fortunes caused by the Great Depression enabled the federal government to fund and direct projects like those that built the Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams. Displayed in the upper left is a photograph of Roosevelt visiting the Grand Coulee Dam construction site in 1937, witnessing firsthand the work being done to advance his vision of economic recovery and technological advancement.4 However, they still faced fierce opposition, namely from private utility companies and staunch economic conservatives at the federal and state level.
Officials viewing the Grand Coulee Dam construction site, October 14, 1937.
Grand Coulee Dam
The plan for a dam at Grand Coulee on the Columbia originated among the farming community of eastern Washington. Initially a purely agrarian affair, the intention being to dam the river and divert water via irrigation channels to then-arid land, the justification evolved through the 1920s to include rural access to affordable electricity. This played into a heated debate over whether the state should be involved with utilities at all. While public power proponents argued that the government’s at-cost services would greatly benefit poor and rural citizens, opponents gawked at the cost of such programs and raised concerns over their ‘socialist’ nature. This was the public-private power divide, and as Jay Brigham argues in Empowering the West: Electrical Politics Before FDR, “nowhere in the United States did the debate between public and private power reverberate louder than in the Pacific Northwest, particularly… across Washington state.”5 While the federal government had approved a small dam at the Grand Coulee site in 1933, in 1935 the administration adopted a much larger design that would generate far more electricity and provide more efficient water diversion than the original. To the right is displayed a photograph depicting government officials overlooking the larger Grand Coulee site, their relatively small figures juxtaposed with the massive dimensions of the dam.6 Finished in 1939 and operational in 1941, the dam was indeed a monumental project. Standing at 550 feet tall and spanning a mile across the Columbia River, its construction required 12 million cubic yards of concrete. The Seattle Daily Times hailed the facility as “the world’s greatest man-made structure,” standing “a third of a mile wide and the height of a 31-story building.”7 The completion of the dam served to greatly increase power production and set the foundations for an expansion of agricultural prospects and industrial capacity in Washington state.
The south-facing facade of the untanking tower at the Chehalis Substation of the Bonneville Power Administration, Napavine, WA.
While the idea of a dam at Grand Coulee had originally been conceived by Washingtonians, the planning for the Bonneville Dam came directly from the Army Corps of Engineers. As early as 1929 they had recommended constructing a hydroelectric facility at the site, but the political will wasn’t present until the Roosevelt administration swept into Washington. Construction began in 1933 and was completed in 1937, but Gary Murrell in Iron Pants: Oregon’s Anti-New Deal Governor, Charles Henry Martin argues that “throughout that period, Governor [Charles Henry] Martin” of Oregon along with the private power industry “waged a continual war of words with FDR’s administration and public power supporters.”8 Each side disputed how the power produced at Bonneville would be distributed and who would benefit from said distribution. While Martin and private utility companies wished to keep the government out of the industry, New Deal Democrats, joined by rural communities and the State Federation of Labor, pushed for federal management and distribution through Congress. Between 1935 and 1937 bills to create a Columbia Valley Authority (CVA) modeled after the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) were voted down five times. In 1937, the Bonneville Power Act was passed as a compromise between public and private interests, establishing public distribution of electricity from Bonneville while allowing private companies “to maintain their hold on most residential customers” in and around Portland.9 The photograph to the left is of a substation for the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) that distributed power to Lewis County in Washington state after the dam’s completion, demonstrating both the success of the BPA and Roosevelt’s triumph in providing public power to low-income Americans.10
A pamphlet questioning the democratic legitimacy of legislation modeled after that which created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), c. 1950.
The completion of the dams at Grand Coulee and Bonneville vastly increased the availability of electricity in the Pacific Northwest. According to Hirt, in 1935 (before either dam was completed) the region produced approximately 1,112,000 kilowatts of power. Upon completion, Grand Coulee Dam alone generated 1,890,000 kilowatts, with an additional 432,000 kilowatts produced by Bonneville Dam. By 1941 the construction of two major dams had more than tripled the available power in the region. Much of the power generated by Grand Coulee Dam was eventually utilized by aluminum plants in Washington state, fueling economic growth and aiding the war effort in the Second World War.11 Additionally, Grand Coulee Dam allowed for significant improvements in Washington state’s agricultural industry, meeting the needs of the state’s farmers that had been its earliest supporters. However, the push for federal power that had accompanied the dams’ construction heralded significant backlash from local leaders and economic conservatives that has arguably never completely dissipated. Pictured to the right is a document titled “Is CVA-MVA-TVA Legislation Socialistic?” It questions the democratic legitimacy of the level of government control warranted by the TVA, warning that “this issue of encroaching socialism” must be brought “out into the open” and opposed as government overreach.12 In the decade after the Second World War, Idaho Power sought to build government-run hydroelectric dams along the Snake River in Hells Canyon to meet Idaho’s electricity demands. Their efforts sparked public outcry that escalated into a national controversy defined by widespread opposition to New Deal hydroelectric policy. In Public Power, Private Dams: The Hells Canyon High Dam Controversy, Karl Boyd Brooks argues that “New Deal hydropower strategy subordinated regional biology to national economy and state sovereignty to federal primacy,” creating a backlash toward state-driven economic development that may have tarnished hydroelectric power.13
In addition to questions of government overreach, dam construction in Washington state negatively impacted Native Americans. Lawney L. Reyes, an artist, memoirist, and member of the Sinixt tribe based in Seattle, maintains in B Street: The Notorious Playground of Grand Coulee that the dam’s construction was disastrous for the Colville Confederated Tribes, who were relocated from rich farmland, which was given to white settlers, “to the west side of the river, where hardly anything grew.”14 While “the federal government promised the Colville Indians free electricity” after the dam’s completion, they ultimately “ended up paying the highest rates in the state.”15 They had also been deprived of the spiritual richness of the untamed Columbia, along with the critical depletion of the salmon population, a central component of their culture and a vital source of nourishment.16 Despite the severe difficulties the construction of Grand Coulee Dam forced on Native Americans, these effects are largely absent from academic literature that discusses the dam and related issues.
Furthermore, constructing large dams in the region proved detrimental to the environment. David P. Billington and Donald C. Jackson relate in Big Dams of the New Deal Era: A Confluence of Engineering and Politics that dams have been found to be a severe detriment to river ecosystems, “[diminishing] the free flow of sediment, [impeding] fish passage, [inundating] ecologically and historically significant river bottom lands, and [degrading] river habitats by changing water temperatures and oxygen saturation levels.”17 While the sheer scale of the Columbia River and its dams have made them excellent objects of study concerning the effects of dams on river ecosystems, they’ve also been catastrophic to the local salmon populations, making Washington state a flashpoint for environmentalist opposition to hydroelectric power. It’s clear that the implementation of New Deal dam-building on the Columbia River has in some ways been detrimental to the region and to hydroelectric power. Regardless, in addition to the transformative effects they had on life and industry in Washington state, they stand as testaments to the spirit of the New Deal, their power turning the Pacific Northwest’s darkness to dawn.
1. Woody Guthrie, “Roll On, Columbia,” by Woody Guthrie, recorded 1941, part of the Columbia River Collection, Smithsonian Folkways, MP3.
2. Jeff Brady, “Woody Guthrie’s Fertile Month on the Columbia River,” National Public Radio, July 13, 2007.
3. Paul W. Hirt, The Wired Northwest: The History of Electric Power, 1870s – 1970s (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012), 10.
4. Thomas J. Page, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's visit to the Grand Coulee Dam construction site, October 2, 1937, Grand Coulee Dam Collection, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, photograph.
5. Jay Brigham, Empowering the West: Electrical Politics Before FDR (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 96.
6. Thomas J. Page, Officials viewing Grand Coulee Dam site, October 14, 1937, Grand Coulee Dam Collection, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, photograph.
7. For “the world’s greatest man-made structure,” see Associated Press, “Greatest Man-made Cataract Thunders,” Seattle Daily Times, June 2, 1942, accessed October 13, 2016, The Historical Seattle Times. For the dam’s description, see “‘Over the Top’ at the Grand Coulee Dam!” Seattle Sunday Times, June 14, 1942, accessed October 13, 2016, The Historical Seattle Times.
8. Gary Murrell, Iron Pants: Oregon’s Anti-New Deal Governor, Charles Henry Martin (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2000), 150.
9. Ibid, 156-7.
10. Harvey S. Rice, VIEW OF UNTANKING TOWER FACADE, LOOKING SOUTH - Bonneville Power Administration Chehalis Substation, Untanking Tower, State Route 603, West of Interstate 5, Napavine, Lewis County, WA, n.d., Historic American Engineering Record, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., photograph.
11. Hirt, 234.
12. Is CVA-MVA-TVA Legislation Socialistic?, c. 1950, Grand Coulee Dam Collection, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, pamphlet.
13. Karl Boyd Brooks, Public Power, Private Dams: The Hells Canyon High Dam Controversy (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), 4-5.
14. Lawney L. Reyes, B Street: The Notorious Playground of Grand Coulee (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014), 43.
15. Ibid, 169.
16. Ibid, 143-4.
17. David P. Billington and Donald C. Jackson, Big Dams of the New Deal Era: A Confluence of Engineering and Politics (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006), 3.