Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of 'thirty-three,
For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me,
He said, "Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea,
But river, while you're rambling, you can do some work for me."1
The fulfillment of Progressive era political thought echoed in these Woody Guthrie lyrics was expressed full force by the Bonneville Power Administration with construction of the Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams in the late 1930s. Public utility on a grand scale meant power for the rural Northwest, competition to break the stranglehold that private utilities had on power rates, and industrial development along the Columbia River. Richard Neuberger, journalist and future U.S. Senator, provides a sense of both progressive potential and environmental doom regarding the BPA projects in these excerpts from his 1938 Our Promised Land.
It is still too early to predict accurately the eventual outcome at Bonneville. Undoubtedly power will be made available to farmers and settlers who now live half a century behind the times. Probably the rates charged merchants will be materially reduced. And there likely will be a lot of new factories and manufacturing plants in the Northwest - only they will not be clustered like pup tents around the massive dam. They will be spread out in dozens of small communities...
The peril that Bonneville and Grand Coulee constitutes to the salmon industry has given the opponents of industrial power rates their most effective argument. What will happen to the grandeur and majesty of the West if its rivers are lined with factories? Now the Columbia is crystal-clear and ice cold. Sewage and waste material do not contaminate its rush of white water. Indian fishermen and forest rangers can scoop up its drops and drink them without fear of typhoid or other water-bourne diseases. The river is full of oxygen, and the fish coming upstream have a maximum of energy to thrash their way to their mountain spawning grounds. Sometimes so many of the silvery shapes jam the Columbia that a man might almost venture across the broad river on a pontoon bridge of salmon.
This would not be so if the waterway became a lane of factories. Waste material would be dumped into the river constantly. Sewage would clog its reaches. The stream that now flows as clear as spring water to the Pacific would become a torrent of garbage and pollution. The wildlife of the whole region would be imperiled...
The world's greatest runs of Chinook salmon may use the seven million dollar ladders to pass Bonneville. Conceivably they may even survive the frowning battlements of Grand Coulee. But they will never come up the Columbia again if there are new Pittsburghs where the river penetrates the ramparts of the mountains.
1Woodie Guthrie, "Grand Coulee Dam," , 1941 as found at Woodie Guthrie.
Richard Neuberger, Our Promised Land, (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1938, pp 119,133-134.