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Forgotten sacrifices: Grand Coulee Dam memorial found in Colville

Daniel Person Special to The Spokesman-Review

GRAND COULEE – By most accounts, the last life claimed by the Grand Coulee Dam was that of Howard Gumm.

The day he died, July 27, 1984, the Teamster was hauling dirt along Lake Roosevelt in an effort to stabilize shores near the dam when the slope Gumm was working on gave out. He, along with his massive truck and 1.3 million cubic yards of dirt, sloughed into the lake. At his memorial, his son Randy said, his father’s Thermos, hardhat and lunchbox stood in proxy of the body. Those possessions had floated to the surface of the lake following the disaster, but his body has never been found.

Before Gumm, there had been 81 men killed while working on one of the most massive public works projects this nation has ever seen, which began in New Deal earnest in 1933. Heralded as the Eighth Wonder of the World, the dam turned 670,000 acres of desert shrub-steppe into fertile farmland and provided the electricity that turned the state of Washington into a vital industrial center during World War II.

Yet a modern traveler to the dam would be hard pressed to find any evidence of the sacrifices made to see it completed. No monument or plaque exists to honor the men who died creating it; until recently, no comprehensive list even existed of the men’s names and how they died.

That by itself may register as a simple if unfortunate oversight. But in fact, the lack of a memorial at Grand Coulee is the result of a strange chapter in the dam’s history: In 1938, a monument did exist with names of those who’d died up to that point, standing along what was then the main thoroughfare through Grand Coulee. It was 10 feet of Georgia granite, with room for 75 names, and commissioned by the local American Legion. A beautiful tribute, by all accounts.

But the monument stood there for only two years. In June 1940, the people of Grand Coulee found the granite pillar, all seven tons of it, gone, the concrete pedestal all that was left to indicate it was ever there to begin with.

Susan Dechant, 69, has become an expert on the men who died building Grand Coulee Dam. Who they were, what they did, how they were killed. Now when people come to the dam with questions about a relative they think died at the job site, they’re often told to call Dechant.

“It was the laborers that were pretty much the ones being killed,” Dechant said, “knocked off the dam, crushed by equipment.”

“I’ve got a file of what they were dying of and it was nasty,” she adds.

Along with the falls and run-ins with equipment, men died in explosions, were drowned, buried in slides, and electrocuted. One man died of heat exhaustion.

Seventy-eight men died working on the original dam. Three more died building the third powerhouse, where work started in the late 1960s. Howard Gumm would make number 82.

Lynne Brougher, public information officer at the dam, said it’s important to put the deadly conditions “back into the context of the 1930s.”

“You didn’t have OSHA (Occupational Safety and Heath Administration), the workers didn’t have hardhats. A lot of times they didn’t have safety lines,” she said. “It was just a whole different mindset back then than it is today.”

She also points out that at the height of construction, 8,000 men may have been on the worksite on a given day.

The deadliest years were 1936 and 1937, according to data collected by Dechant. Each of those years, 17 men died, or about one every 21 days. Dechant said most of the deaths got a line or two in the local papers, if that. “So-and-so was killed doing such-and-such. That was it.”

George Hunter, a jackhammerman, had his back broken by a chunk of clay. Gerald F. Coble, a 32-year-old signalman, was struck by a heavy steel bucket.

Ronald H. Tegmeier’s death in 1938 got a little more attention, given his notable background.

Tegmeier, a former nationally known marathon swimmer from Tacoma whom the Wenatchee Daily World described as “200 pounds of young Tarzan,” was working as a lifeguard at the dam, ready to rescue anyone who fell into the river while working. Tegmeier, the paper said, had no fear of the “surging, swirling” waters of the Columbia at Grand Coulee. He’d gained a name for himself on the work site when he swam from Keller Ferry to the dam site in three hours, a distance of 25 miles. He’d fallen into the rapid river twice before while working, and both times had “come out smiling.” But his final day, as he was patrolling the waters below a cofferdam on a motor boat, his motor gave out and his boat was sucked into whitewater. That day, he never emerged.

“Yesterday that giant river was angry,” the Daily World concluded.

Modern historians have cast doubt on the most hyperbolic statements made about the dam – during the 1948 presidential campaign, Grand Coulee was all but credited for giving America the atom bomb before Germany.

But there’s no doubt the dam’s electricity was instrumental in the burst of production the Northwest saw over the course of World War II.

While initially the dam’s primary goal was to irrigate the Columbia Basin Project, the war forced operators to switch gears and focus on producing power.

“When WWII hit, in December (1941), it was pretty obvious that Grand Coulee could support the war effort. Power was going to be needed and there was a concerted effort to get generators in place at the dam to support the effort,” said Brougher, the dam’s spokeswoman.

The first power started flowing in 1941, and by 1942 the dam was slaking the thirst of aluminum plants across the Northwest. Along with shipyards, the aluminum was sent to Boeing to produce planes like its Flying Fortress, the B-17 bomber. According to historian William Joe Simonds, in 1940 the Northwest had no aluminum production capacity. By the end of the war it was producing a third of the nation’s supply, nearly all on Grand Coulee juice.

But planners had grander plans yet for the dam. In 1943, a generator that was slated to be installed at the Shasta Dam in California was diverted and sent to Grand Coulee. While it wasn’t publicized then, the reason for the switch was because of the huge amount of energy that would be needed to produce plutonium at Hanford.

“People who died building the Grand Coulee Dam were serving their country,” said Randy Gumm, who still lives in Grand Coulee. “That dam helped fight a war.”

So where’s the monument honoring the sacrifice of those who died? As it turns out, Colville.

Dechant said she just can’t let the story of the monument go, which she’s slowly uncovered by wading through newspaper records and interviewing the last of the generation that remembers what happened to that huge chunk of granite.

For Dechant, it all started six years ago with her first passion, genealogy.

Living on an old homestead along Sherman Creek in Kettle Falls, she began researching the families who’d first settled there. In doing so, she came to respect the huge impact the Grand Coulee Dam had on the area, as the Columbia River backed up and flooded properties near the river. Pulling on that string, she came across a curious story in the Colville Examiner about a dispute between a monument maker in Colville and the folks in Grand Coulee over payment for a large tribute made for those who died.

It was the kind of story that stuck in the historian’s mind, but she didn’t look into it further. She had too many other projects to pursue.

Then, in 2006, she took a tour of the Grand Coulee Dam’s third powerhouse.

At the end of the tour, someone in her group – not at Dechant’s prodding – asked the guide if there was any sort of tribute to the people who died building the dam. The tour guide said there was not.

Afterward, Dechant pulled the man aside to tell him he was correct, of course, but …

“They didn’t know anything about the monument,” she recalls. “He was very interested.”

That got Dechant thinking it might be worth uncovering more of the story. Six years and counting, here’s what she’s figured out so far:

In April 1938, the Grand Coulee American Legion commissioned Colville monument maker John Citkovich to build the monument. They wanted it ready to be unveiled on Memorial Day, and Citkovich had the granite shipped to Spokane by train from Georgia. Working around the clock, he finished the piece, 10 and a half feet tall and six feet wide at the base, in less than a week. The names of the dead were cast onto small bronze plates and screwed into the rock.

He delivered the monument, “shrouded in secrecy” according to news accounts, on May 25, 1938. He also had a bill: $1,725. In today’s dollars, that works out to about $29,000. No small amount, especially during the Depression, but there’s no evidence that the price tag caused sticker shock.

It certainly didn’t dampen the Memorial Day party thrown that year at Grand Coulee, which featured an appearance by the governor and free barbecue, along with the unveiling of the monument. As the Spokane Daily Chronicle noted, construction on the dam didn’t stop for the holiday; rather, visitors were invited to marvel as men holding jackhammers dangled against the cliffs, loosening rock to make way for more dam. By that weekend, 49 men had died on the project.

But after the food was gone and the governor headed back to Olympia, things quickly soured between Citkovich and the Grand Coulee American Legion. The Legion had paid the monument-maker a $200 retainer, but by June the next year, Citkovich hadn’t received a dollar more.

The city and civic organizations begged Citkovich for more time, and he obliged. He believed in the cause, he said, and wanted to help honor “the heroism of those who have given their lives to make possible the largest structure ever built by man.”

Another year passed. Still no money had been paid. Finally, the Legion offered to settle with Citkovich for $500. No dice, Citkovich said. If he was going to sell the thing for a bargain, he’d rather have it in his own community.

Citkovich’s son, Jack Citkovich, died in 2010, but before he did he told Dechant about the daytime raid he got to tag along with as a boy. His father brought the 14-year-old, two other men, and a big hoist on a flatbed truck. And some guns.

“We expected trouble so we took rifles along, but no one challenged us and we drove up to the monument, loaded it up and just drove off with it,” he remembered.

It was taken back to Colville and dropped where it stands today: In front of the Stevens County Courthouse.

The plaques with the names of those killed at the dam were removed and probably donated to a metal drive for the war. New names were attached, those of Stevens County residents who’d died fighting for the country.

To this day, a plaque that states the monument is dedicated to the men who died at Grand Coulee remains on the monument, but is covered up by a smaller plaque saying it was dedicated to Stevens County’s war veterans.

Dechant, who’s also done extensive research into the men now listed on the monument in Colville, said she doesn’t judge Citkovich for taking back the monument, nor Stevens County. The country was just coming out of the Depression, after all, and he had a right to be paid. But there may still be a villain in this tale.

While it’s not certain why the American Legion wasn’t able to come up with the money to pay for the monument, the most likely scenario seems to be embezzlement. Around the same time the payment problems came to light, the commander of the Legion disappeared.

“The money disappeared about the same time he did,” Dechant said. “The assumption is he took it.”

Now that she knows the full story, Dechant is willing to tell anyone who will listen about the “Grand Coulee Mystery.” Earlier this year, she led a field trip of civic leaders from the Grand Coulee area to Colville to see the monument that once stood near the dam, and has given lectures in the area about it.

Her motive, she said, is to add another, happier, chapter to the saga of the Grand Coulee monument.

“It needs a better ending,” she said.

“I feel strongly they need to be remembered for what they did. It’s a huge sacrifice that benefited millions of people. Still does.”

And while nothing has been decided, there are now people living near the dam on board with the idea of doing something to honor the dead.

“There’s nothing by the government or otherwise to celebrate their lives,” Coulee Dam Mayor Greg Wilder said from his office that faces the dam. “Nothing.”

However, it’s an open question where the money for a monument might come from.

Brougher said the federal Bureau of Reclamation supports Dechant’s efforts, but has strict rules regarding what it can spend money on.

The bureau “generally does not construct monuments and that sort of thing,” she said. “While we’re very interested in (Dechant’s) work … I’m not sure we could actually contribute to erecting the monument. But it would be nice to see in the community here.”

Wilder is often outspoken in the area about what he sees as misuse of hotel tax dollars in the area. Those taxes are meant to go to projects that will attract more tourism to the area, and he sees a monument as having that sort of potential.

“It’s the kind of project that people will come to see, if it’s done right,” he said. “More than just a piece of stone. Wrap it around something that people will really care about.”

Wilder says when the city begins writing its budget for next year, he’s going to ask the council to see if there’s money that could be put toward something.

However, that’s no sure thing at this point. And one thing’s for sure: folks around here are done buying monuments on credit.

View a slideshow of photos from our archives of the construction of Grand Coulee Dam, here.
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