GRAND COULEE DAM, Wash. -- A half-century ago, the first shovelful of dirt was turned to begin construction of what is still the largest hydroelectric project in the world.
By the time Grand Coulee Dam was finished eight years later, some 10 million cubic yards of concrete had been poured across the Columbia River, creating a reservoir that would one day irrigate more than a half-million acres of desert.
Most of the cast of characters involved in making the monumental project a reality are dead.
But their struggles to harness nature at the height of the Depression will be retold this summer at Grand Coulee's golden anniversary celebration July 16.
The harnessing of the mighty Columbia River is the central event in the development of the Pacific Northwest and an important chapter in U.S. history.
'Without Grand Coulee, we're set back 30 years in time in the development of the Northwest,' said Russell Smith, who started working with the Bureau of Reclamation 35 years ago as the federal agency set out to irrigate the Columbia Basin.
'I think we can say its presence, the Grand Coulee Dam, expedited the termination of World War II tremendously,' Smith said. 'If it hadn't been where it's at, Hanford would not have been developed, we wouldn't have had the atomic bomb and the war would have gone on indefinitely.'
Besides providing a seemingly unlimited supply of electricity for the supersecret Hanford Atomic Works, Grand Coulee also helped power Puget Sound ship and airplane building during the war years.
At last count, the dam had generated 555-billion kilowatt hours of electricity. But to many residents of the arid Columbia Basin, it was the water that made the difference.
'The Grand Coulee developed the desert into a beautiful farming area,' said Lowen Bailie, a longtime Mesa, Wash., farmer and former chairman of one of the three irrigation districts formed to distribute Columbia River water.
'It brought a lot of people to the Northwest who wouldn't live anywhere else now,' Bailie said. 'It created a guaranteed feed basket that can't be beat anywhere in the world.'
Visionaries like James O'Sullivan, Rufus Woods and Billy Clapp more than any other individuals held onto the dream that became the high dam.
Together they battled for 23 years to overcome private power interests and big money opposition to construct what many proclaimed upon completion as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
O'Sullivan, a tall, red-headed engineer and lawyer, sacrificed wealth and his family-owned construction business in Port Huron, Mich., to advance the Grand Coulee cause after visiting the area and realizing its great potential for reclamation.
The Columbia River and its tributaries drain an area larger than the whole of France -- a basin covering 259,000 square miles.
O'Sullivan is credited with beating back unceasing efforts to kill the project.
Opposition came from those supporting an alternative gravity system and from the Washington Water Power Co. which feared a glut of cheap power.
Thousands of young men and women were lured to the project by the promise of a wage of 50 to 75 cents an hour. Seventy-seven died during construction of the largest concrete structure in the world.
The first workers at the remote construction site 80 miles northwest of Spokane lived in packing crates, tents and cars. Some dug culverts in the sides of hills and lived in them until they could afford to buy land and build shacks.
For entertainment, there was the infamous 'B Street,' all that existed of the town of Grand Coulee for the first few years. It consisted of three blocks of storefronts featuring legal beer, honky-tonk piano entertainment and dancing on the street level, and illegal hard liquor and sex upstairs.
Temperatures would reach 30 degrees below zero in the winter and near 100 during the summer.
By 1941, Grand Coulee Dam was capable of producing 3.9 million kilowatts of electricity each hour. With the addition 20 years later of the third powerhouse, which contains the largest hydroelectric generators in the world, the output nearly doubled.
The project and the industries that sprang up to keep it going created 70,000 new jobs in 38 states.
Two-thousand miles of canals and laterals have brought irrigation to 544,000 acres -- desert land that now grows fruit, grain, ensilage crops, dry beans, fruit, sugar beets, potatoes and sweet corn.
The Bureau of Reclamation plans eventually to bring more than 1 million acres under irrigation through a series of siphons and canals, just as O'Sullivan envisioned 60 years ago.