Conception of Grand Coulee Dam


Grand Coulee Dam was one of the largest man-made structures on the earth at the time it was completed in 1941. Its electricity was essential for World War II projects.

As early as 1918, settlers in the central Washington area dreamed of a big dam that could be used to irrigate their lands. The Columbia Basin Survey Commission was the first organization to study the conceivability of a dam on the Columbia River. The issue was studied by General George W. Goethals, lead engineer on the Panama Canal and the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. Though it was technologically feasible, deterrents felt there were too few people in the area to use the power to be generated. And there was already a surplus of farm crops, so new irrigated land was not needed. However, the Great Depression spurred a need for putting people back to work. Responsibility for Grand Coulee Dam was placed under the Works Progress Administration, which did just that.

Governor Ernest Lister authorized the Columbia Basin Survey Commission on March 1, 1919. He appointed Marvin Chase, as the hydraulic engineer. Other members were largely engineers of Washington Water Power Company (WWPCo) of Spokane. WWPCo favored a “gravity plan” based off a series of dams and canals off the Pend O’Reille River in northeast Washington. So it figured they would give little attention to the Grand Coulee Dam project (commonly referred to as the “pumping plan”).

The Reclamation Service (later the USBR) thought the Commission was not disclosing all relevant information and ordered a drilling test be done at the dam site. Spokane and other papers initially falsified these drilling reports. They discovered there was granite at the site, contrary to the reports. The state hired General George W. Goethals, who built Panama Canal. His report basically agreed with the commission report; it was suspected the commission influenced him.

The WWPCo and other investors thought they won and pressed ahead for federal funding. But the government wouldn’t provide funds without their own reports. On March 3, 1925, the Rivers and Harbors Act included a study of navigable rivers with potential power sites. Studies would be done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Power Commission from 1927-1929. They looked at irrigation, power, flood control, and navigation on the Columbia above the Snake River, emphasizing power production. Elwood Mead from the Reclamation Service declared that he wanted the dam built no matter what the cost. Ultimately the Grand Coulee dam site was favored because the sale of power could be used to offset cost of irrigation. And the chosen site seemed perfect. The canyon was 4,300 feet wide and 600 feet deep. Upstream canyon walls provided a nearly water tight receptacle for a deep reservoir.

But there was still a question who would pay for construction. President Herbert Hoover would not allow federal money for the dam since he saw no market for the power and figured there was already existing surplus of farm products. The Secretary of Agriculture Arthur M. Hyde agreed. In 1933, state governor Clarence Martin created the Columbia Basin Commission (CBC) to oversee building the dam.

In June 1933, FDR created the Public Works Administration. On July 27, 1933, $63 million was set aside for dam construction. But there was another problem. The state did not own the needed land for construction and getting title(s) could take time. So the federal government took over the project. Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes directed the USBR to build, operate, and maintain the dam. The cost would be repaid by sale of electricity. It was designated Public Works Project No. 9.


  1. “Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream,” Paul C. Pitzer, Washington State University Press, Pullman, Washington, 1994.