It took a quarter-century, engineering never before attempted by man and enough cement to build a highway from Seattle to Miami. But big dreams and big risks paid off in 1942 when the “Eighth Wonder” took the world stage.

Newspapers billed the Grand Coulee Dam “The Biggest Thing on Earth.”

Once decried a boondoggle in the Depression, the dam built a town, revolutionized Washington agriculture and drew the American president to remote farmland.

“A river is the most dynamic thing in nature. To block a river is the most audacious thing a human being can do.”
- William Lang, historian

Thousands flocked to marvel at a piece of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Grand Coulee Dam, one of the largest concrete structures ever built, stands 550 feet high along the Columbia River, in a canyon formed by violent floods during the last Ice Age.

The dam aided in the production of aluminum for Boeing aircraft during World War II, and in the making of Hanford plutonium that fueled the atomic bomb.

Farmland irrigated by the dam created an industry worth billions, heightening the Washington brand abroad.

By war’s end, the dam was touted as the biggest single source of electricity in the world.

Today, the landmark attracts engineers from virtually every nation.

Men in pipe: Courtesy Library of Congress. Main background image: Courtesy United States Bureau of Reclamation.

Click photo to enlarge


The “Eighth Wonder” changed everything for Native Americans. Construction of the dam disturbed burial grounds and destroyed ancient villages on the Colville Reservation, home to a dozen tribes. In 1940, the reservoir overtook 18,000 acres of the reservation, displacing thousands. Homes, schools and towns all moved.

“We were not even asked or consulted about what the effects the dam would have. … That we would lose our way of life did not matter to anyone. ... The federal government had decided to use the Columbia River for their own purpose in one giant step. For them, it was development. For us, it was disaster.” – Lucy Covington, Colville

Indians depended on salmon for sustenance. Since the dam blocked salmon migration, they considered the Grand Coulee an insult to their people and a threat to their very existence. The Bureau of Reclamation briefly trucked salmon around the dam, and built fish hatcheries to mitigate loss. The Bonneville Power Administration spends upwards of $400 million annually to aid fish passage.

In 1994, the Colville approved a $53 million settlement for land destroyed by the Grand Coulee. The tribe receives annual payments from the sale of hydroelectric power.


No greater advocate may exist than Rufus Woods, the famed publisher of The Wenatchee World who dedicated his life to a project unlike any other on the planet. Woods believed the dam would change the world by transforming desert into profitable farmland and a thriving community. Along the way, it would generate the cheapest power in the United States.

“Rufus Woods pitched the dam as a scientific marvel, the answer to all their prayers about the future, as something that God himself wanted done and he just needed to get the federal government to come in, pay for it, and let the locals run with the advantages that would come from it. And that’s the way he sold it.” – Blaine Harden, Writer