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‘8th Wonder of World’ was big, big, big

By on January 28, 2019 in Columnist with 0 Comments
Rod Molzahn

By Rod Molzahn

“Coulee Dam… A Spectacle… Big Cogs, Big Machines… Big, Big, Big… The Biggest Thing On Earth.” 

Hu Blonk, longtime writer and editor for the Wenatchee Daily World, wrote those words in an extended article on the continuing progress at, “The biggest construction site in the world” in a special April 26, 1939 Daily World edition. 

The Saturday Evening Post had just declared the dam, “The eighth wonder of the world.” Everything about it was big.

The gravel and sand pit — conveniently located by nature — was on a hilltop directly above the dam site. It was the world’s biggest open pit gravel excavation. 

The operation included a 70-ton rock crusher that could reduce a five-foot diameter, ice age boulder to pieces. Other crushers broke the pieces down further. Nothing over six inches was allowed in the dam’s concrete mix. 

The rubble was moved down to the dam site on a continuous 10,000 foot long, gravity powered rubber conveyer belt, “The longest in the world.” The belt was four feet wide, moved at 700 feet per minute and delivered 1,500 tons of gravel and sand each hour to the gravel screening and washing plant.

The plant was “The biggest on earth.” It used 20 million gallons of Columbia River water daily. Fourteen million of those gallons were cleaned, filtered, recycled and added to the six million pumped each day from the river. Four sizes of gravel and three sizes of sand were screened and stored for different concrete mixes used throughout the dam. 

A house is burned by WPA to clear area in preparation for inundation by Lake Roosevelt. About 1941 Courtesy UW Special Collections (DAM013)

The concrete mixing plants were, “the biggest ever constructed” and could mix 16,000 cubic yards of concrete in a normal workday. That’s one yard every five or six seconds, a world record. 

It took 10 million yards of concrete to complete the dam. That used 270 million gallons of water, 15 million yards of gravel and sand and 10-and-a-half million barrels of cement. The cement storage silos were “Unheard of in size.”

A high construction trestle, “The largest span of its purpose ever used,” crossed above the dam from end to end. On its deck huge cranes rumbled about, 365 feet in length and 10 stories high with an arm on each side that reached out half the length of a city block. They lifted buckets of concrete weighing 11 tons each from the delivery trains that also ran on the deck surface then delivered the buckets to where ever they were needed.

By the end of construction 21,000 men had a part in building the great dam. 

Three thousand of them, however, never set foot on the dam or had a hand in the construction. They were the crew tasked with clearing the land behind the dam to turn it into the bottom of Lake Roosevelt. Today the bottom is smooth. Not so in 1939.

The lake is 151 miles long with a width varying from one mile to six miles. In all, the reservoir covers 89,000 acres. 

Workers from the federal government’s WPA (Works Progress Administration) took on the largest WPA project in the nation; clearing the basin of anything that could come loose and float to the surface later and any rocks that could become unseen hazards to boats when the water rose. 

It was a long list that included sage brush in the thousands, trees large and small, fruit orchards, huge rocks, over 5,000 houses, barns and business structures, 227 miles of roads, 26 miles of Great Northern railroad track, 14 bridges, numerous native fishing sites and villages, 10 towns large enough to have a post office and multiple grave yards, native and white.

The surface elevation of Lake Roosevelt was set at 1,290 feet above sea level. The federal government acquired all the land in the basin up to the 1,310 feet elevation, 20 feet above the planned lake surface. The land cost the government $10 million. 

Surveyors marked the 1,310-foot line around the basin. If your land and buildings were below that line you had to vacate. If you were above the 1,310-foot line you stayed with the promise of lake front property when the water rose. The average payment to the flooded property owners was $3,000. Total cost to clear the land was $9 million.

Clearing crews started working from Camp Lincoln just above the dam. It was the first of six camps established up the basin, each one built as the previous one was inundated. Men fanned out on both sides of the basin armed with hand tools, fire and dynamite. 

The small town of Peach was the first to go. Most buildings were torn down or burned. Some were relocated to higher ground. The town of Peach was not rebuilt. 

Seven miles above the dam the three-house hamlet of Plum quickly fell to the clearing crew.

The riverbank crews worked along side the free-flowing Columbia until it slowed and crept up the banks towards the men. As dam construction progressed the water level in the growing lake rose several inches a day. 

Most days the men stayed ahead of the slow motion flood but some days they fell behind and were forced to do their work in knee-deep water. 

At many places along the river, steep cliffs made access to the bank impossible for the land based crews. In those places an attack from the river was the only option.

The WPA built a small tugboat christened the Paul Bunyan and four barges. 

Two sleeping barges had room for 75 men each, a mess hall barge and a smaller blacksmith barge for tool making and repair made up the fleet. 

The Paul Bunyan towed the barges to a work site and unloaded the men. At the end of the day they ate in the mess hall barge and slept in the bunkhouse barge. During the night the barges could be towed to the next work site, always racing the rising water. 

Men on all the crews were paid $5 a day with .50 deducted for room and board. They reported the food to be “excellent.”

More small towns fell. The village of Daisy had never been large enough to be included in a census but was relocated to a spot along the new lakeshore. Marcus, population 600, was relocated but saw its population drop below 200 and never recovered. 

Kettle Falls, the most productive salmon fishery on the upper Columbia, disappeared under 30 feet of water as did its native village. The white town of Kettle Falls moved up to join the smaller burg of Meyers Falls.

The town of Keller, at the mouth of the San Poil River, was founded by a native fisherman named “Baby Ray” Peone. At its peak the town boasted a population of 3,500 and a minor league baseball team. After the town was moved to a new location 18 miles north of the Columbia, inside the Colville Reservation, it floundered as the population fell to 234 at the 2010 census.

The clearing was completed as the dam was finished and the great reservoir filled. It was the longest still water in the U.S. west of Lake Superior and the largest manmade lake in the world.

Historian, actor and teacher Rod Molzahn can be reached at shake.speak@nwi.net. His third history CD, Legends & Legacies Vol. III – Stories of Wenatchee and North Central Washington, is now available at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and at other locations throughout the area.

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