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Albeni Falls Dam turning 50

Albeni Falls Dam maintenance worker Bill Prater paints the railing near the generators on Wednesday in preparation for the 50th year of operation celebration on June 24. 
 (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Albeni Falls Dam maintenance worker Bill Prater paints the railing near the generators on Wednesday in preparation for the 50th year of operation celebration on June 24. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

OLDTOWN, Idaho – A rocky constriction in the Pend Oreille River marked by an 8-foot drop of rapids was replaced 50 years ago by a 90-foot high wall of concrete and steel called the Albeni Falls Dam.

Construction of the $31 million dam was hastened by a disastrous flood in 1948, which left much of Sandpoint and downstream communities underwater.

The dam would not only save the river communities from such extreme flooding again, but help give the Northwest the distinction of enjoying some of the cheapest power in the nation.

The dedication on June 24, 1955, “marks a major step forward for the whole Pacific Northwest in power generation and stream control of the Columbia River and its tributary, the Pend Oreille River,” stated a brochure from the 1955 dedication.

To celebrate those accomplishments, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and nearby communities are re-creating the dedication ceremony next Friday, the dam’s official 50th anniversary.

Dee Flower, the dam’s park ranger, has been busier than a bride planning an extravagant wedding, lining up dignitaries to speak, ordering fireworks, and coordinating all the events and groups who are participating.

“I’m exhausted,” said Flower, as she showed visitors around the dam complex. “I’ve been working on this since January.”

The Bonneville Power Administration is providing a helicopter to lower a time capsule – a 155 mm military shell from Fort Lewis filled with items selected by students of Idaho Hills Elementary School – into its hole next to the visitors’ center.

The original time capsule, containing old newspapers and photos, is encased in concrete under the generator, “probably never to be found,” Flower said. “We planned to bury one that’s retrievable.”

A U.S. Coast Guard flotilla will transport dignitaries to and from the dam for the formal ceremony. A Sandpoint veteran pilot will fly over the dam in a Thorpe T18 (Flower couldn’t find a B-36 bomber, which flew over the original dedication), a community band will perform patriotic songs, and the Albeni Falls Pipers will escort visitors to the power house for the formal program.

Cars from the 1950s will fill the visitor parking lot, while food vendors will line the lower lot by the power house. A shuttle service will take people from their cars to the festivities.

The last minute touches are under way before the big day. Landscapers were working on the grounds behind the visitor’s center, and the area was mostly dirt, bricks and concrete blocks Wednesday.

Inside the power house, workers were painting newly fashioned railings for the turbines. They built the railings, and brackets to hold them, in the dam’s in-house machine shop.

To equip the interior of a dam, “it’s not like you can go to Home Depot,” said Corps of Engineers spokeswoman Patricia Graesser.

Fifty years ago, the corps didn’t have the same kind of safety standards, and former Gov. Robert E. Smiley and other dignitaries made their remarks atop a giant turbine without any rail to keep them from falling off.

No one fell, and although safety standards may have been different, the dam’s construction was unmarred by any deaths, earning the corps a special safety award from Smiley.

Although Flower is trying to replicate the 1955 dedication, many differences will set the anniversary event apart from the original. For instance, the governor will not be in attendance this time, nor has the corps ever held a rubber ducky race through the dam’s log chute.

“We are the only dam that put in a log chute,” Flower said.

The chute was only used for three years before timber companies found it more cost effective to truck their logs, she said. But the chute will be reopened June 24 to let loose rubber duckies in a light-hearted demonstration of one of the dam’s engineering highlights.

In addition to the ducky race, the day’s events will include wildlife programs, musical performances, power plant tours, interpretive and historical displays, face painting, fireworks and more.

Among the scheduled speakers are William Zimmer, grandson of Albeni Poirier, whose homestead was next to the dam site; Jack Nesbit, author of the David Thompson biography “Sources of the River”; and Colonel Debra Lewis, the Army Corps of Engineers’ Seattle District Commander.

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