part 1, 2

Grand Coulee and World War II

Nine months after the Grand Coulee Dam opened, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States entered World War II. Defense plants tapped the Grand Coulee Dam for power. War plane manufacturers needed aluminum, and aluminum plants needed a great deal of electricity.

By 1943, the Saturday Evening Post declared, "We could hardly fight a global air war without the river."

The Post article was called "The White Elephant Comes into its Own." It said the war had "transformed the placid agricultural Pacific Northwest into a booming newborn industrial area." Plants producing ships and planes for the war depended on dams that had once been objects of doubt.

"In fact," the article went on, "the urgent and unforeseen need for aluminum, magnesium, and ferroalloys to bolster our war effort has transformed the whole costly project of harnessing the latent power of the Columbia [River], mightiest power stream on the continent, from a magnificent daydream of 'the imagineers,' as the Bonneville-Coulee engineers flippantly call themselves, into one of the best investments Uncle Sam has ever made."

The article didn't mention another war project that depended on the dams, because at the time that project was a secret.

The Columbia River, it turned out, was a good place to work on an atomic bomb.

Scientists with the Manhattan Project wanted sites near inexpensive electricity, because producing plutonium and uranium required a lot of power. They also needed rivers to cool the reactors. A plutonium plant was built on the Columbia River.

It was called The Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Hanford produced the plutonium that was used in the atom bomb that the United States dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

During the Cold War, the United States continued to use plutonium in its nuclear weapons arsenal, and the Hanford plant was expanded. It was also used to generate nuclear power.

Many local people were glad to have the jobs Hanford provided, and many were proud of the role it played in the war. For a time, a nearby high school team, called The Bombers, used a mushroom cloud as its symbol.

But the development at Hanford came at a cost. Radioactive waste buried in huge, underground tanks leaked into the surrounding soil. The groundwater is now contaminated, and the radioactive waste is moving through the soil toward the river. Today, Hanford is the site of the world's largest environmental cleanup project.

What Was Lost

Grand Coulee Dam led to other losses.

The enormous lake created by the dam now covers land that once belonged to Native Americans. Settlements and burial grounds were inundated. Two tribal towns were forced to relocate.

The dam also prevented salmon from coming upstream to spawn. Many Native Americans depended on those fish for food. Fish hatcheries and stocking programs have not been able to bring salmon numbers back to their pre-dam levels.

The government promised to pay the tribes a share of the revenue from the dam, but it did not make good on that promise. In 1951, members of the Colville Confederated Tribes filed a claim in federal court. A settlement wasn't reached until 1994. The tribe agreed to accept a lump sum of $53 million. It will continue to receive annual payments as long as the Grand Coulee Dam generates electricity.

Some members of the Colville Confederated Tribes do see advantages to the dam. Charlie Moses, a member of the tribe who ranches near the Columbia River, says many members of the tribe learned trades working on the dam. "It did give them an opportunity to work, and to work at pretty good wages," he says.

When Moses was a boy in the 1940s, his family of 13 people lived in a three-room house. "My brother Harvey went to work for the dam and so we had some income coming into the family," he says.

Some local people also say the lakes created by the dam add to the beauty of the area, and to its biological diversity. Campgrounds and boat launches dot the lakeshores. Waterbirds come to the region in large numbers. The water has attracted so many bald eagles that the area now has an annual bald eagle festival.

Still, environmentalists look at the dam as a disaster.

The loss of the salmon wasn't an unforeseen consequence. People knew that the dam would block the river, and that a fish ladder wasn't feasible.

Richard Kirkendall, emeritus history professor at the University of Washington, says at the time, the fish weren't a priority. The priority was making electricity for defense plants.

"The tendency was to think, nothing is more important than winning the war," he says. "Then after war, nothing was more important than doing well in the Cold War."

The Long Reach of the Dam

The Grand Coulee Dam has been expanded since its completion and now is nearly a mile long.
Photo by Catherine Winter

The Pacific Northwest is no longer a region dependent on producing raw materials such as lumber and coal, as it was back in the 1920s and '30s. The growth spurred by defense industries attracted other development.

Now, high tech companies such as Microsoft and Amazon are headquartered in Seattle. And on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, in the agricultural areas irrigated by the Columbia River, there's a new kind of farm, the "server farm." Server farms are not farms at all, but huge buildings full of thousands of computers and networking equipment, processing massive amounts of data. Server farms use a lot of electricity, both to power the computers and to keep them cool.

Microsoft, Yahoo and Intuit have all built server farms in the area to take advantage of the relatively cheap electricity, bringing new jobs to the region.

The infrastructure built during the Depression is doing just what Roosevelt said he wanted it to do: supporting the industry of the future, an industry no one could have imagined at the time.

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