THE BIGGEST THING THAT MAN HAS EVER DONE
GRAND COULEE, WASHINGTON -- Dams aren't cool anymore. If you wonder why, ask the nearest salmon.
Yet there was a time when dams were symbols of American progress. The great dams of the American West, "turning our darkness to dawn," as Woody Guthrie sang, were hailed as the eighth wonders of the world.
Ask the average citizen to name America's biggest dam and the answer will be quick -- and wrong. Hoover Dam is the most photographed dam in America and its sweeping curves deserve all those selfies. But the biggest dam in America, indeed the "biggest thing that man has ever done" (Guthrie again) is here in central Washington. And now that I've driven across vast stretches of nowhere to see it, I am at a loss to describe it. Words fail, but numbers do some justice to the great Grand Coulee Dam.
Imagine gazing up at a concrete building 50 stories tall stretching for a full mile. Imagine 8,000 men pouring concrete from the Depression to the start of World War II. Imagine a sidewalk, four feet wide, built around the world at the equator, using THREE TIMES the concrete in Hoover Dam. As the sign here says, the Grand Coulee Dam was "the biggest concrete structure in the world when it was finished. And it still is."
With regrets to salmon and the Native-Americans who depended on them, the Grand Coulee Dam made modern America possible. The electricity the dam began to pump out in 1942 helped Boeing, way off in Seattle, make its planes, then and now. All those kilowatts also powered the Hanford Nuclear Lab where our nuclear arsenal, including the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, was fueled.
President Herbert Hoover, a former engineer, had rejected the project but FDR approved it. Despite his polio, the president made two trips to central Washington to view the dam in progress. His wife was skeptical. Upon arriving, Eleanor said, “It was a good salesman who sold this to Franklin." But the president, drawing admirers from hundreds of miles, stood before the dam and held forth: "Superlatives do not count for anything because it is so much bigger than anything ever tried before.”
Shortly before he died, noting how Grand Coulee power had helped win the war, Roosevelt was heard to mutter, "This is providential, this is providential."
But dams aren't cool anymore. Even if salmon now swim upstream from fisheries created above the dam, even if concrete still builds interstates, the wonders of our day are digital. Here, too, the Grand Coulee is providential, supplying much of the energy that drives that new-fangled company back over the mountains in Seattle. Microsoft. Woody Guthrie, hired to write songs about the dam -- how cool was that? - foresaw this, too.
Now in Washington and Oregon you hear the factories hum
Making chrome and making manganese and light aluminum
And there roars a mighty furnace now to fight for Uncle Sam
Spawned upon the King Columbia by the big Grand Coulee Dam