“Roll along Columbia,
you can ramble to the sea,
But river while you’re rambling,
you can do some work for me”
Begun with the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in 1933, the Columbia River Basin Project is one of the largest, and most contentious, engineering projects ever completed in the American West. Franklin Roosevelt originally authorized the construction of the dam with the intention of diverting huge portions of the Columbia River to the fertile, though arid, Washington State Interior. With the outbreak of World War II, however, irrigation initiatives were put on hold, and hydroelectric power became the dam's primary function.
This change in use proved important historically. During the war years, the dam provided massive amounts of energy to the burgeoning aluminum and aircraft industries of the Pacific Northwest, contributing to one of the primary factors for the US victory. A significant percentage of that power, it was later revealed, was also diverted to the Hanford Nuclear Site, a crucial component of the Manhattan Project.
But while the dam has helped shape the course of US and world history, it has also had profoundly negative impact on species and people native to the region. The Grand Coulee permanently blocks important fish species, such as salmon and steelhead, from over 1000 miles of spawning ground in the Upper-Columbia River. Consequently, Native American populations that depend on the fish for their way of life have lost traditional fishing grounds. The creation of Lake Roosevelt also eliminated habitats for numerous species, including mule deer.
So, while the Columbia works for us as it rambles to the sea, we must also wonder about the cost of the labor.
Donated to the library by the University of Idaho College of Engineering, the "Dam Construction in the Pacific Northwest Collection" is important for several reasons. First, the extraordinarily thorough descriptive metadata associated with the images gives researchers a special insight into the construction methods, precise locations, and photographers associated with the project. Even the contracting companies responsible for carrying out particular projects are listed in the metadata.
Second, the photographs' artistic quality provides viewers an understanding of the human element (and superhuman scale) involved in the construction of the Grand Coulee. The photographers responsible for the collection perform a superb journalistic balancing act by documenting the technical aspects of the construction while capturing the grand ambitions and accomplishments of the people behind it.
Several photos from this collection were used in the production of the PBS documentary Grand Coulee Dam, which premiered, as part of the American Experience series, on April 3, 2012. View a selection from the documentary in the embedded viewer below. Or view the entire movie, including the parts that include our images, on the PBS website.