We know now that Grand Coulee Dam was the biggest economic development tool in the entire history of Eastern Washington. But for a dozen years, Spokane's Chamber of Commerce, its newspapers, its banks, it major businesses and most of the "official" community campaigned relentlessly to persuade the federal government not to build the dam. Instead, they wanted the federal government to irrigate Eastern Washington with a system of river canals that would produce no electricity -- an idea known as the gravity plan.
Had Spokane leaders succeeded in their heroic civic effort, to which they donated more than $100,000 and countless man-hours, they would have deprived Spokane of an economic asset on a par with the soil of the Palouse and the silver of the Coeur d'Alenes. The curious failure to see their real interests explains a lot about how local politics works, and particularly about Spokane's local politics of the time.
WITH US OR AGIN' US
Between 1910 and 1920, drastic changes had come over Spokane. What had been a boomtown built with easy silver money suddenly slowed. At the same time, agriculture, Spokane's other mainstay, settled into a drawn-out recession.
The new "commissioner" form government, installed in 1910 to bring a wild mining town under control, turned out to be ill-suited for economic planning. The commissioners were elected under narrow job titles like "Commissioner of Utilities," and "Commissioner of Public Safety." They stuck to the mundane business of operating the city. "Mayor" was an honorary title bestowed upon one commissioner by vote of the others. No one seriously considered the mayor to be the real leader of the community.
This left a political power vacuum that was filled by a loose partnership of the city's major businesses. They consulted each other as needed, by quick phone calls, at lunch, at church, at civic club meetings, in chance meetings on Riverside, and they took up economic matters. Because they all had a stake in it, and had certain resources to devote to solutions, they worked together to deal with Spokane's ongoing economic problems.
As Spokane's unwritten constitution, the partnership itself was more valuable than issues that came and went. In practical terms, this meant that each important partner in Spokane's business alliance had veto power over plans they could not go along with. It was better to find another plan than offend a "valued business partner."
This principle came into play on the Grand Coulee Dam issue, starting around 1918. To most business interests in Spokane, the building of a great dam on the Columbia was so far-fetched and far into the future as to be almost an abstraction. To the Washington Water Power Company, though, the idea that the federal government would build, with public money, a great dam right in its territory was a mortal threat to its future.
WWP was not the only one hostile to the Grand Coulee idea; other power companies, including publicly held companies in Seattle and elsewhere, worried about a glut in electricity if such a dam were built. And many people who had nothing to do with electrical supply opposed any plan for a government-operated dam on principle. The 1920s were the period of the bitter "public power" campaigns to have governments take over private utilities. The idea of public ownership of energy was popular on the west side of Washington, but anathema in the conservative Spokane region.
One good reason Spokane leaders missed the potential significance of Grand Coulee was that supplying electricity was almost no one's objective in the beginning. The dam was a side product of the real goal, which was to irrigate the rich but water-starved land to the west, the area known as "the Big Bend" for the bend in the Columbia (and soon to be renamed the Columbia Basin). This held the possibility of adding around two million acres of farmland and thousands of farmers banking their money and ordering their supplies through Spokane. The city's leadership was actively looking for plans to accomplish this irrigation in 1918.
But the first idea floated to irrigate the Basin came from the other edge of the central Washington quasi-desert. A small group of citizens in Ephrata looked at existing studies and proposed blocking the Columbia River, backing the water up into the "Grand Coulee" -- a rock basin left behind by the era of glaciers -- and then pumping the water to the lands surrounding it. This idea, trumpeted by the Wenatchee World as the inevitable solution to the region's problems, ignored plenty of important technical problems. One of these was that you would have to build about the largest dam on earth to hold back the Columbia. Another was that water used for irrigation would have to be pumped to the tops of giant bluffs before it could be distributed. On the other hand, the plan did forecast exactly what happened 20 years later.
In Spokane, the Wenatchee-Ephrata idea was regarded as an unlikely scheme to boost central Washington land values. But the Wenatchee group made such a fuss that Spokane leaders felt it was time to dust off an old idea to divert waters from the mountains north of Spokane to central Washington, via gravity. In this plan, the Pend Oreille River would be grabbed at a point between the small towns of Newport and Priest River and steered, via 130 miles of existing water trenches (such as the Little Spokane river), across aqueducts (crossing over the Spokane River at Dishman) and through tunnels (under the Spokane foothills in one instance) to the Basin.
Both the dam and the Pend Oreille plans were rather fanciful propositions in 1918. Either would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and the faith that the federal government would ever pour that kind of money into an isolated corner of the nation was in itself testimony to the optimism of local boosters.
Which plan was best was anyone's guess in 1918; the evidence was yet to be gathered. Here is where Spokane's political organization became a liability: Agreeing from the start to stick together intensifies a community's political power but also limits its view.
PLAN B FROM SPOKANE
The Chamber of Commerce formed a committee to lead the effort, chaired by Nelson Durham, chief editorial writer of the Spokesman-Review. The committee was briefed by WWP's bespectacled engineers, with their mysterious rolls of blueprints and charts. These charts, interpreted by WWP, said Grand Coulee Dam could not work, and this became the truth held by Spokane for a dozen years.
The Spokane Chamber committee persuaded the governor of Washington to establish a task force called the Columbia Basin Survey Commission, a group dominated by believers in the Spokane plan for irrigation. More important, the commission appointed a staff of experts who all had ties to Washington Water Power. Arthur J. Turner, who had worked for WWP for 10 years constructing the Long Lake and Little Falls dams, was appointed chief engineer. The senior consulting engineer, J. C. Ralston, had been a consultant for WWP for several years.
This commission made a hasty survey of the two schemes for irrigation and delivered its report to the governor in July 1920. Its major recommendation was that the Columbia Basin get its water from the Pend Oreille River via a 130-mile aqueduct. Of the Grand Coulee idea it reported: "There is little question but that it is infeasible to place a dam in the Columbia River at the head of the Grand Coulee."
When federal critics pointed out that the conclusions were based on almost no hard evidence, the governor set up another commission to add on-site drilling to the presumed conclusion that the Grand Coulee Dam should not be built. This drilling showed problems with the proposed dam site. The Spokesman-Review reported that the bedrock was "flimsy" and obviously unable to support the dam.
Suspicious, the head of the Portland office of the U.S. Reclamation Service, D.C. Henny, warned that the tests would be crosschecked. Miraculously, the bedrock got more solid.
The state's geological office, which had a fondness for the Pend Oreille plan and was entirely sympathetic to the Spokane group, set out to make an end-run around the critic Henny with a new study. The state geologist commissioned a Seattle-area engineer by the name of Willis Batcheller to do some limited surveys around Grand Coulee. Batcheller had a clear commission to find evidence that Grand Coulee was implausible. But once in the field, he became intrigued with the whole prospect and eventually produced a 400-page report finding that the big dam project was entirely feasible. The state fired Batcheller and locked up his report.
The supporters of the Pend Oreille/gravity plan now had failed twice to get a study that would eliminate the idea for Grand Coulee Dam. So they tried again. Pooling state funds and generous donations from Spokane, they hired a consultant with whom they felt no one could argue -- they hired the engineer who built the Panama Canal. Gen. George W. Goethals, by this time a semi-retired engineering consultant, was drawn to Spokane by a $20,000 consulting fee for two weeks' work. Goethals, who had no expertise in irrigation projects, came to the area, took a quick railroad and automobile swing through the areas, always surrounded by the ex-WWP engineers, glanced at data offered by the Spokane group, and found no reason not to give his sponsors the opinion they clearly wanted to hear. He declared the gravity plan workable and the dam site unworkable.
Again, Henny and other federal engineers doubted the quality of the conclusions. At this point a contract from the Federal Power Commission allowed Henny himself to go into the field and look directly at the geology. His report, released in June 1922, relied upon the long-suppressed report of Willis Batcheller to declare the possibility of a Grand Coulee Dam "unusually favorable."
But no federal reports were going to move Spokane opinion. The ethic of "we must stick together or lose" made questioning the Spokane stance apostasy within the community. Evidence that might have shaken some people's confidence was deflected by the only engineers in the area who knew much about dams: those who worked for Washington Water Power. The mid-level operatives directly in charge of fighting the battle for Spokane were expected to report not what new evidence sustained the enemy's plan, but why they must be wrong. The Spokesman-Review always ridiculed any evidence that suggested a Grand Coulee Dam was workable and often called for the firing of federal officials who produced such evidence.
Spokane had become a sealed capsule of opinion impervious to any information contrary to its aim. The very community spirit Spokane considered its greatest asset left few avenues of escape. Who was going to be the turncoat?
ALIAS DILL AND JONES
One important political figure of the time, U.S. Senator Clarence Dill, was from Spokane and was in favor of the dam. But the Spokane establishment distrusted Dill; and as a Democrat in a strongly Republican territory, Dill was timid about challenging Spokane's power structure.
Washington's other senator, however, was wise old Wesley "Yakima" Jones. Entirely sympathetic to and trusted by Spokane leaders, Jones nevertheless had no agenda other than seeing that the best plan to irrigate the Columbia Basin be funded by the federal government -- which was not likely to spend hundreds of millions of dollars as long as the locals themselves couldn't agree on the best plan.
In 1925, Jones quietly submitted legislation that provided $500,000 to do a definitive study on the matter. He might have been expecting the Wenatchee-Ephrata Grand Coulee bubble to be burst. But he knew the one thing that was necessary for any further progress was an honest study.
Under this legislation, Maj. John S. Butler of the Army Corps of Engineers' Seattle Office arrived at the Columbia River and proceeded with almost two years of study of the alternative proposals. He concluded, as all the independent studies had, that Grand Coulee was an excellent site for a large dam, and that the Pend Oreille plan, though possible, would be extremely costly. Butler also demonstrated that a glut of electricity -- something existing power companies had used as an argument against Grand Coulee -- was unlikely, given projected growth in the Northwest.
When Butler's study was published in September 1931, most people who had watched the protracted dispute accepted it as the final word on Pend Oreille v. Grand Coulee. In Spokane, however, leaders scrambled to find a way to derail this latest endorsement of Grand Coulee.
The head strategist for the Spokane effort, Fred Adams, dispatched lobbyist Roy Gill to see if they could use the Corps of Engineers' old rival, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, to dispute the report. They hoped to bring pressure on the Bureau through Sen. Jones.
From Washington, D.C., Gill wired that the plan looked promising. In the meantime, he wired back, "Please urge our people including newspapers to lay off Butler report and wait for announcement of plan by Reclamation Department at proper time."
The Spokesman-Review delayed printing the Butler story for four days and then downplayed it by running it on an inside page. The Spokesman-Review story portrayed Butler's study as just another indeterminate federal plan. "Army Engineers state in their report that plans they have submitted are not to be considered final in any way," the story read, but rather "are useful only for purposes of outlining the character of the work contemplated and estimating costs."
At this point, Washington's two senators -- Dill, the Democrat, and Jones, the Republican, who both could see the larger picture -- took it upon themselves to break the deadlock. Their coordination in the effort is one of the more inspiring episodes in the politics of Grand Coulee. In his autobiography, Dill -- who would eventually get much of the credit for Grand Coulee Dam -- is effusive in his praise of Jones and his efforts to change the minds of Spokane leaders.
"You know," Dill admitted to Jones, "I can't even approach them on the subject, but they might listen to you." Jones arranged a grim meeting with the Spokane group. Among those present were Frank Post, president of Washington Water Power; William Cowles, owner of the Spokesman-Review, and his top editorial writer, Nelson Durham; and Roy Gill, head of the Chamber of Commerce's anti-dam campaign.
Jones, a revered figure in this group, told them, as Butler and many others had argued, that sale of the dam's electricity was the only thing that made a gargantuan irrigation project feasible. He said if they did not quit opposing Grand Coulee there was not likely to be any federal support for irrigating the Columbia Basin at all. It was probably the first time Spokane leaders had allowed themselves to hear out the case for Grand Coulee Dam.
From that meeting forward, Spokane leaders became as unified for Grand Coulee as they had been against it. Spokane's lobbyists joined Wenatchee lobbyists in working for the dam in the nation's capital.
Senator Dill's celebrated contribution came next. As soon as he learned that the Butler report would endorse the dam, Dill traveled to New York to offer the governor there, Franklin Roosevelt, support for his bid for the presidency if he would promise support for the dam. Roosevelt was a well-known supporter of public power. He told Dill, "You don't want private power profiteers to exploit this wonderful resource for low-cost electricity as they do our oil and gas resources." At the February 1931 meeting, Roosevelt said, "I don't suppose I'll ever be president, but if I am, I'll build that dam." Roosevelt later came to feel he over-promised, but Dill held him to it.
When the dam was financed in 1934, Dill returned to a hero's welcome in Spokane. William Cowles invited him to lunch and told him that if he would run again in 1934, the Spokesman-Review would not oppose him this time. "Dill looked surprised," Cowles said, according to the newspaper's official history, News for an Empire, written by Ralph Dyar. "Then pointing a finger at me, [Dill] said, 'Mr. Cowles, don't you ever allow the Spokesman-Review to support me. I could never convince the people of Spokane I hadn't sold out to you.'"
The story is confirmed in Dill's autobiography, where Dill reports Cowles was taken aback by the rebuff of editorial support. Dyar told Dill that Cowles had remarked, "What can you do with a politician like that?"
Cowles' surprise reflected a certain righteous innocence about the Spokesman-Review's editorial campaigns of this era. The newspaper simply asserted its view and took for granted that anyone who disagreed must have dark motives. Those found innocent later, like Dill, should take no offense; all was forgiven. The official history Dyar wrote portrayed the Spokesman-Review as always in favor of a solution to the Columbia Basin irrigation matter -- which turned out to be Dill's idea. The Review's 12-year campaign against Grand Coulee Dam, however, was forgotten in the book.
But others did remember such campaigns. Grand Coulee was only one of several such Spokesman-Review crusades that scorched segments of the community. The paper also tore into the practices of city and county government, the fire department, the police department, the idea of public sewers, and all Democrats almost no matter what they did. (When one woman who volunteered in local Democratic activities got a call that William Cowles wished to see her, she was so scared of what he might be up to she almost didn't go). The popular mayor through the 1920s, Charles Fleming, who was never known to have done anything illegal or unethical and in fact died poor, spent his time in office deflecting the Review's insinuations that when he differed with the paper it could only be motivated by corruption.
As Dill hinted to Cowles, such battles had made enemies for the Spokesman-Review. The festering resentments no doubt contributed to what the Spokesman-Review editorial page would, decades later, discover and label "naysayerism."
Grand Coulee was completed in the spring of 1941, just in time to produce the electricity needed to make aluminum for airplanes to fight -- and help win -- World War II. Sale of the dam's electricity repaid the cost of building it. The electricity led Kaiser Aluminum and a dozen other businesses to Spokane. The water pumped from the Grand Coulee added about two million acres of productive farmland to Spokane's economic empire area.
Spokane's political efforts never failed so successfully.
William Stimson is a local historian and journalism
professor at Eastern