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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Then and Now: Grand Coulee Dam

In the depths of the Great Depression, Spokane celebrated the start of the largest single-government construction project undertaken in the United States.

A 1934 front -page story published in the Spokane Press said the daunting task of damming the Columbia River would test man’s will to achieve. “The Coulee project is another step in human progress. To attempt such a huge effort dazzles the imagination.”

The dam at Grand Coulee would someday be mentioned with the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China and the Panama Canal as one of humankind’s greatest achievements.

On June 18, 1934, the Spokane kickoff had several events:

  • At 9 a.m. that day, factory whistles across Spokane blew to alert residents to the special day.
  • An air show, with formation flying and acrobatic stunts, was led by famed pilot Nick Mamer.
  • At 10 a.m., at the Spokane Chamber of Commerce building on West Riverside Avenue, bids to build the dam were opened on a stage specially built for the event, surrounded by dignitaries from business, Native tribes and government agencies.
  • At 2:30 p.m., there was a parade with a construction theme and brass bands marched past.
  • At 6:15 p.m., a banquet was organized in the Marie Antoinette room at the Davenport Hotel. The meal was $2 per person with tickets available at the Chamber office.
  • At 8 p.m., there was a band concert at the Chamber building stage.
  • At 9 and 10 p.m., a fireworks display was launched from the north side of the Spokane River.

Eight years from that day in Spokane, the dam would open, becoming the largest man-made object yet built. More than a hundred thousand workers would pour almost 12 million cubic yards of concrete. The Hoover Dam on the Colorado River between Arizona and Nevada, constructed between 1931 and 1936, was slightly taller, but Grand Coulee was more than four times as long. Only the Three Gorges Dam in China, finished in 2009, would be bigger.

The millions of watts generated at Grand Coulee would power the United States to victory World War II by producing aluminum for airplanes and other war materiel. The turbines would generate hydropower future generations and control irrigation to the farm fields of Eastern Washington.