Early the next morning ,we sat out on the deck, enjoying the music of the river—across the river a doe and her fawn daintily stepped down the embankment to the river. Bob and I locked up the hot tub we’d used the night before. It hadn’t done its job: the bugs were still with us. We ate a forgettable breakfast in one of the only cafes open early in the morning, packed the car, and drove south out of Winthrop on hwy 20.
Passing through miles of fruit-laden trees in the famous Okanogan Valley, we just had to stop for a large bag of just-picked cherries. Since Connie’s folks once had a huge cherry tree in their yard, every cherry season she yearns for a cherry fix. At Omak, we turned east on hwy 155. As we approached Nespelem, Bob (who was navigating at the time) suggested we stop there in order to learn more about the legendary Nez Percé Indian Chief Joseph (1840-1904). Undoubtedly, his is one of the saddest and darkest stories in American history. His only sin was that he did his best to get Washington to honor its treaties with his people. His was the genius in the Nez Percé War, as he fought and retreated with his 250 warriors over 1,600 miles of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. After a two-day battle at Kamiah, Idaho, he and his people were caught by Gen. Nelson Miles, only 40 miles from the Canadian border. It was then that the broken-hearted chief uttered those famous words, “Hear me, my chiefs; my heart is sick and sad. From where the Sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” In spite of promises made by U.S. authorities, Joseph and his band, in 1878, were sent to a barren reservation in Oklahoma, where many sickened and died. Not until 1885 were he and the remnants of his band permitted to go back to Washington state—but not to the Wallowa Valley. Twice he journeyed to Washington to plead for the return of his people to their beloved valley, once with President Teddy Roosevelt personally. It was in vain.
By asking some of the Native Americans in Nespelem where his grave might be, we learned it was on top of a nearby hill in an old cemetery—under a tree. There we finally found it, graced only by a modest marble statue, with the words etched on it slowly fading out of existence. If there was ever a figure in American history who deserves better historical treatment than this, it has to be Chief Joseph. Even to this day, his people have not been permitted to go home. Their lives are still controlled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the nearby town of Colville. The Grand Coulee Dam flooded their best land and destroyed their salmon-based way of life.
We next moved on to Grand Coulee Dam—long on Bob’s bucket list. I’d known about it all my life but knew little about it. Gradually our road dropped down, following a canyon off to the side. Suddenly, around the corner, there it was, so huge it was difficult to gain perspective—even more difficult to get a photo of. First of all, we drove up to the headquarters so Connie could get her U.S. Parks Passport stamped. Then we stopped at the large visitor center adjacent to the dam. We learned much studying the exhibits and watching the short film—but I’ve learned even more since.
Overcoming daunting odds, the polio-crippled patrician, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been elected President in 1932, in the deepest depths of the Great Depression. He promised a New Deal for the average beaten-down American: to revive farm prosperity (America was still predominantly rural then), to rehabilitate the railroads, to regulate banks and security exchanges, to increase the development of electric power, to embark on a broad program of public works, to tackle unemployment, build roads, and solemnly promised, “No American shall starve.”
Unlike many politicians, Roosevelt determined to deliver on each promise. My maternal grandfather, Herbert Norton Leininger, of Arcata, California, with seven children and a wife to support, had lost his business. In desperation, he wrote FDR a letter, asking—not for dole, for Grandpa was a proud man—but for a job! Within minutes of the letter getting to the White House, it always seemed to Grandpa, a telephone call was made from the White House to the person in charge of federal hiring in Humboldt County, with the directive, Get Herbert Leininger a job! And he got it. Grandpa never forgot!
Before this trip, I had no idea the Columbia River was so significant. It is born high in the Canadian Rockies. Of its 1,214-mile length, 460 miles (or 38% of it) is in Canada; perhaps the most spectacular portion of it in the Columbia Mountains (Cariboo, Monashee, Selkirk, and Purcell Mountain ranges, each range towering over 10,000 feet high). Also in British Columbia the great North and South Arrow Lake the Columbia flows through before it reaches Grand Coulee Dam, where it backs up 151 miles to the Canadian Border in Lake Roosevelt. For 300 miles it separates the states of Oregon and Washington. Its drainage basin is vast (258,000 square miles). It is the largest river in North America in terms of the sheer volume of water flowing into the Pacific. It produces 30% of all the hydroelectric power in the nation. And had it not been for the vision of FDR, it is doubtful the dam would ever have been constructed.
For a long time prior to FDR’s presidency, debate—more often than not heated—had been going on in the Northwest about how it might be possible to harness the tremendous power of the Columbia River for both hydroelectric and irrigation purposes. But there was no consensus: one side (the so-called “pumpers”) wanted to pump water from behind a dam. The pumpers were generally in favor of hydroelectric power. The ditchers, on the other hand, wanted to irrigate the Columbia basin with water from the Pend Oreille River.
Grand Coulee Dam came about because of a promise FDR made to Washington Senator Clarence Dill: that if he was elected president, he’d build a big dam on the Columbia. Initially, Roosevelt balked at the projected price tag: $450,000,000—more than the Panama Canal. Roosevelt said he could, however, support the building of a lower dam: 150 feet high rather than the proposed 550. It was a pragmatic victory as it quieted the critics. Later on, since a high dam would generate eight times the income of the low one, it was decided to go ahead with the original plan.
Construction began in 1933 and was completed on March 12, 1938. It certainly accomplished another Roosevelt objective, as it gave thousands of men jobs, but 77 men died during its construction. The completed dam exhausts superlatives: it is more than twice the height of Niagara Falls. It is 550 feet high, 480 feet wide at the base, and (with the third powerhouse), almost a mile long (5,223 feet). All the pyramids at Giza could fit within the total area of its base. There are over eight and a half miles of corridors inside it. At the time it was constructed, it was the largest masonry structure ever erected by man; other than the Great Wall of China, the only man-made structure in history larger in mass than the Great Pyramid of Khufu. There is enough concrete in it to build a four-inch thick four-lane-highway 60 feet wide, 3,000 miles long, from California to Florida. Even today, with all the other mega dams that have been constructed around the world, it is still the largest all-concrete dam ever built. Its Frank D. Roosevelt Lake is 151 miles long with 600 miles of shoreline.
And the “serendipitous Coincidence?” It is this. As I pointed out in Blog #46 on September 29, we had inadvertently retraced Roosevelt’s steps: Timberline Lodge on September 28, 1937; Crescent Lake Lodge on September 30, and Lake Quinault Lodge on October 1. So you can imagine how I felt when I discovered that the very next day after Roosevelt left Lake Quinault Lodge: on October 2, the President visited Grand Coulee Dam!
SPECIAL NOTE: Next week we visit Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park.
Bottenberg, Ray, Grand Coulee Dam (Charleston, SC: Arcadia publishing, 2008).
Encyclopedia Britannica. 1946 and 1964 editions.
“Grand Coulee Dam Statistics and Facts,” U.S. Department of the Interior document.
“Grand Coulee Dam,” Wikipedia reprint.
“Grand Coulee Dam: History and purpose,” Alpha Index document.
Oregon and Washington Tour Book (Heathrow, Florida: AAA Publishing, 2010).