Through August: Exploring hidden cost of Grand Coulee Dam

PULLMAN, Wash. – During the 1930s, proponents of the Grand Coulee Dam were quick to emphasize the progress the dam would bring to the country. Indeed, Grand Coulee provided thousands of jobs during the Great Depression, aided the American World War II effort and irrigated vast areas of central and western Washington. The dam remains the largest energy producer in the United States.

But a Washington State University exhibit that will run through Sept. 1 shows the dam’s hidden costs for those who lived near the construction site: the notorious escapades of dam workers after hours in the town of Grand Coulee; the flooding of the Native American town of Inchelium; and the failed first farming experiments of the Columbia Basin Project.

WSU class of Robert McCoy, front. (Photo by Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries)

“Concrete Dreams: Living with the Grand Coulee Dam” opens today in WSU Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections with a reception at 4:30 p.m. Students of the class, “Interpreting History through Material Culture,” taught by history associate professor Robert McCoy, worked with MASC’s Trevor Bond and WSU Libraries’ Amy Grey to create the study of Grand Coulee Dam’s lesser-known impacts.

“While much has been made about the facts and figures of construction, little has been discussed about the surrounding towns and the Grand Coulee Dam’s impact on them,” according to the exhibit’s introduction. “Mason City, Grand Coulee, Coulee Dam, Inchelium and Moses Lake each provide a different look at the positive and negative consequences of the Grand Coulee Dam for immigrants, laborers, engineers, American Indians and farmers.

“These snapshots will hopefully show the wider impacts of ‘The Biggest Thing on Earth’ on local and regional residents.”

‘Wild West of the 1930s’

Cities sprang up to house dam workers and became bustling, prosperous communities, including Mason City and Engineer’s Town. The cities enforced rules about who could live there: Mason City housed contract workers, Engineer’s Town housed engineers. Both excluded other populations, such as peddlers from nearby communities, women initially, African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans.

Dam workers empty buckets of concrete.

Then there was the town of Grand Coulee and its infamous B Street. Workers flush with payday money flooded the town to partake of any and all entertainment supplied by bars, brothels, restaurants and theaters.

“In Grand Coulee, B Street was the Wild West of the 1930s,” said WSU history graduate student Jason Hogstad, who is taking McCoy’s class. “There were a lot of single men with money to burn, and entrepreneurs seized the opportunity.”

Two of those entrepreneurs were Julian and Mary Reyes of Inchelium, who decided to open a Chinese restaurant on B Street when they learned their home would be flooded by the Grand Coulee Dam. Neither knew how to cook Chinese food; they had tried it during their honeymoon in Spokane and liked it. So they hired a Chinese chef and ran Woo Dip restaurant throughout the dam’s construction.

The Reyeses’ son, Lawney, grew up on B Street and later wrote about his memories in “B Street: The Notorious Playground of Coulee Dam.”

“From the beginning, The Street was the place to play and let off steam for thousands of white workingmen who had faced the hard times of the Depression,” Lawney Reyes wrote.

Lives submerged

McCoy’s students delved into how the dam irrevocably changed not only the landscape but the lives of people who had lived in the region for generations. Inchelium, the town of 250 Colville Indians about 70 miles upriver, was submerged by the rising Columbia River as the dam neared completion.

The town’s citizens were the last to know about its impending destruction. In spring 1934, over a year after the decision to construct the dam was finalized, two young men on a hunting trip were told by a group of U.S. Bureau of Reclamation surveyors that their home would sit well below the new level of the river after the dam’s construction.

Worse, the rise of the river would affect not only those who lived in town but also those who lived upriver and in the surrounding areas. It would cover the graves of those who had been buried there.

The town’s founders, including well-respected elder and local leader Florence Quill, tried to fight the dam’s construction, starting with the Colville Business Council in Nespelem, Wash. They learned that the council had known about the project and its possible location since 1932. Entreaties at the state and national level failed to halt the dam; its construction had been mandated at a federal level and endorsed by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“By the end of 1934, Quill learned what the Colville Business Council had involuntarily come to accept in 1932: there was nothing that could be done to stop the construction of the dam,” the students wrote for the exhibit.


On May 29, 1952, volunteers from Moses Lake, Larson Air Force Base and other locations built a fully equipped and furnished 80-acre farm – complete with planted and fertilized fields – for the “Farm-in-a-Day” initiative, a way to publicize the Columbia Basin Project and the possibilities it held for the Moses Lake area.

“Agriculture had historically proved difficult in the dry Columbia Basin, and the Columbia Basin Project was designed to harness water impounded by the dam and use it for irrigation,” McCoy’s students wrote. “Early planners envisioned an irrigated area of a million acres and as many as a hundred thousand prosperous small farmers.”

“Farm-in-a-Day” was also intended to help a worthy World War II veteran, Donald Dunn, and his family get a fresh start after their Kansas farm was destroyed in a flood. But the Dunns left the farm after only three years – the farm was too small at 80 acres to make any kind of profit.

The Bureau of Reclamation had limited farm sizes on the Columbia Basin Project to between 60 and 120 acres, but with successive failures, the small operations eventually gave rise to larger enterprises, agribusiness and food processing plants.

“The thinking behind the original idea to foster a community of small farmers was 19th-century thinking,” McCoy said. “Farming doesn’t take place in a vacuum. You need infrastructure.”


Robert McCoy, WSU history associate professor, 509-335-3985,
Jason Hogstad, WSU history graduate student, 509-335-5139,
Mickey Dennis, WSU history graduate student, 509-335-5139,
Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries communication coordinator, 509-335-6744,