President Roosevelt visits construction site of Grand Coulee Dam for second time on October 2, 1937.

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 5/14/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8618

On October 2, 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) visits the construction site of Grand Coulee Dam in North Central Washington for the second time. Marveling at the "wonderful progress" made since his first visit, three years earlier, Roosevelt describes the dam and the related Columbia Basin Reclamation Project as undertakings that will benefit the entire nation -- not just the remote corner of Washington where they are located. He also indirectly promises to secure the federal funds needed to complete the project. "We are building here something that is going to do a great amount of good for this nation through all the years to come," he says ("Remarks at Grand Coulee Dam").

As a newly elected president in 1932, Roosevelt had balked at the scale of the project, which included not only a 550-foot-tall dam at Grand Coulee but a network of reservoirs, pumping stations, and pipelines to irrigate 1.1 million acres of desert. He argued that a smaller, lower dam would ease unemployment, generate low-cost electricity, and could be enlarged later if needed. In July 1933, his Public Works Board appropriated enough money to build a 290-foot dam -- a structure too small to support the massive irrigation system that had been envisioned. However, the dam was assigned to the Bureau of Reclamation, rather than the Corps of Engineers, increasing the probability that at least part of the system would be added at some point.

Construction of what was officially known as "Public Works Project No. 9" began in June 1934. Roosevelt visited just two months later. Supporters of the "high dam" vigorously lobbied the president during his visit. What effect that had, if any, is unknown, but in June 1935, the contractors were authorized to proceed with the foundation of a dam that would top off at 550 feet. Money to complete the dam was appropriated two years later. But authorization for the irrigation project was still pending in October 1937, when Roosevelt returned to Grand Coulee as part of a tour to promote New Deal projects in the West.

The president arrived by special train in Ephrata, where he was greeted by a crowd of about 10,000. He was then transferred to an open yellow Lincoln touring car for an "automobile inspection trip" to the dam site, 60 miles northeast. He traveled at the head of a caravan that included 40 other cars and two squadrons of state highway patrol motorcycles. Washington Governor Clarence D. Martin (1884-1955), U.S. Senator Lewis B. Schwellenbach, and Frank A. Banks, superintendent of construction for the Bureau of Reclamation, rode in the car with the president. Roosevelt’s son-in-law, John Boettiger (publisher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, married to Roosevelt’s daughter Anna), and the Boettigers’ two young children were among those in the caravan.

Grand Transformation

Roosevelt left his car only once, at an observation center at Grand Coulee. Inside the center, Banks showed him a scale model of the dam and explained how it would look and operate when completed. The president then stood briefly at a railing outside, looking out over a scene that was markedly different from what he had seen three years earlier. Then, he had crossed the Columbia River in a ferry. Now, two bridges spanned the river. The Spokane Chronicle summed up the changes by saying that when Roosevelt visited the first time, "the area was still virtually an arid sagebrush waste, infested by rattlesnakes and jackrabbits." On his return, "he found the largest masonry structure in the world spanning the heretofore unfettered Columbia River, from shore to shore, at the dam site" (October 7, 1937).

Several towns had sprouted where once there were only tarpaper shacks. Among them was Engineers’ Town, built to house the 500 engineers working on the dam, described as "a beautiful engineers’ town of modern design, well landscaped and rich in velvety green grass" (Spokane Chronicle, October 2, 1937). On the opposite shore was Mason City, designed to showcase the wonders of electricity and help create a market for the power to be generated by the dam.

Roosevelt gave his only major speech of the day at Mead Park in the center of Mason City. So many people crowded in for the occasion that the only highway into town had to be closed to outsiders. Police estimated that about 6,000 cars had streamed into town before the highway was closed. People sat in their cars and ate lunch as they waited for the president, who was about an hour behind schedule.

"A National Good"

Roosevelt spoke from a special platform in the park, built with a ramp so that his car could be driven directly onto it. Addressing the crowd through loud speakers that were hooked up to his car, he called Grand Coulee Dam "a national undertaking" that was "doing a national good." The dam was not only providing employment to people in the immediate area, but also to "thousands of people" in the factories that were producing steel and other materials for the dam. "We think of this as something that is benefiting this part of the country primarily," he said. "But we must also remember that one half of the total cost of this dam is paid to the factories east of the Mississippi River."

He also implied that the entire Columbia Basin project would be completed as planned. "I look forward to the day when this valley, this basin, is opened up," he said, predicting that "millions of acres of new land" would be irrigated, providing homes and livelihoods for "thousands and thousands" of farmers who had been displaced by drought in the Midwest. "They are a splendid crowd of people, and it is up to us, as a nation, to help them to live better than they are living now" ("Remarks at Grand Coulee Dam"). However, the entry of the United States into World War II in 1941 diverted attention from irrigation. Work on the project did not begin until the late 1940s, and the project area was eventually pared down to 550,000 acres --  half the size originally planned.

After speaking in the park, the president was driven to the Mason City home of Guy F. Atkinson, one of the contractors working on the dam, where he and his party were served an "al fresco luncheon" of cheese and bologna sandwiches, fruit, and pie. He then returned to Ephrata and his private railroad car. He was greeted by enthusiastic crowds all along his route. An estimated 25,000 to 30,000 people saw Roosevelt at some point during his visit to the Grand Coulee area.

From Ephrata the president traveled on to Spokane, arriving at about 6 p.m. He gave a brief "rear platform address" from the back of his railroad car in Spokane before continuing his journey back east to Washington D.C.


Sources: Franklin D. Roosevelt, "Remarks at Grand Coulee Dam," October 2, 1937, American Presidency Project website accessed May 2008  (www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/print.php?pid=15472); "Roosevelt Opposes Delay at Coulee Dam," Spokane Chronicle, February 12, 1937; "$13,000,000 Given to Grand Coulee," Ibid., August 11, 1937; "President’s Eyes Scan Record of Tremendous Development," Ibid., October 2, 1937; "Three Years After," Ibid., October 7, 1937; "F.D.R. Says Coulee Will Be Completed," Spokane Press, October 2, 1937 (all 1937 clippings available online at the Wallis and Marilyn Kimble Northwest History Database, www.wsu.libs.wsu.edu); Paul Pitzer, Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream (Washington State University Press, 1994), 167-68.

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