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Originally published July 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 25, 2008 at 10:35 AM


Only in Washington

Grand Coulee Dam's immensity dominates Columbia River Basin

The Coulee Dam area is a little-developed recreational paradise, where the bars, burger joints and bait shops have yet to be replaced by bistros, breweries and bookstores.

Seattle Times staff reporter


is about 230 miles from Seattle. Head east on Interstate 90. Turn left onto Highway 283 and go north through Ephrata; continue into Soap Lake and Highway 17. Travel north from Coulee City on Highway 155 and on to Grand Coulee and Coulee Dam.

What to do around Grand Coulee Dam

The dam turns 75: Grand Coulee Dam is 75 years old this month, and on Friday and Saturday its birthday will be celebrated with special speakers, tours and musicians playing Woody Guthrie's Columbia River songs. Visitors will be able to walk across the top of the dam. The celebration runs from 4:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday. As usual, every night ends in a laser light show at the dam. Films about the flood that shaped the Channeled Scablands are shown throughout the day at the visitors center.

Take the Keller Ferry: Go southeast on State Route 174 and turn left on Highway 21, heading north to the Keller Ferry, a small open ferry that transports a few cars across the Columbia for free. On the other side of the river, take the first left on Manilla Creek Road. Drive 24 miles west to Highway 155 and turn south, following the road back to Grand Coulee Dam.

Go to the beach: There are 630 miles of shoreline on the more than 150-mile-long Lake Roosevelt, just one of the dam's reservoirs. It's a paradise for swimming, boating, kayaking or quietly soaking up the sun on uncrowded beaches.

More information: Go to the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Reclamation page on Grand Coulee Dam at

Nancy Bartley

In the early days of the century, when there were more cattle than people in the sage- and bunch-grass desert of the Columbia River Basin, homesteaders who scratched out a living here dreamed of ways to turn the dry riverbed into farmland.

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved $63 million to build the Columbia Basin Project as part of the New Deal. Suddenly, workers swarmed the area. Presidents came to call — Roosevelt came twice, as did his successor, Harry Truman, and, many years later, John F. Kennedy.

They came to celebrate an engineering marvel: a dam that still generates more power than any other hydroelectric plant in the United States.

The dam contains enough cement to build a sidewalk that could circle the Earth. Yet it's also a monstrosity, looming over the tiny houses in Coulee Dam and dominating the landscape with its sheer concrete bulk.

Damming the Columbia created a water-sports paradise. Two vast lakes in the desert, Lake Roosevelt and Banks Lake, were formed when the nearby Dry Falls and North dams were built in the 1940s, also part of the project.

Despite 100-degree summer heat and freezing winters, tourists come to tour the dam and the surrounding geological wonders, and to hunt, fish, snowmobile and boat. The region's geology was the result of a catastrophic flood millions of years ago from glacial Lake Missoula, which carved a path in the volcanic basalt in a region called the Channeled Scab-


It is still one of the state's least-developed recreational paradises. The pace is slow, the land is affordable and the bars, burger joints and bait shops have yet to be replaced by bistros, breweries and bookstores.

Children's voices mingle with the sound of splashing water on the pristine, uncrowded white-sand beaches of Lake Roosevelt and Banks Lake. Although the area is considered a motorboaters' paradise, it's quiet enough near the water to hear birds and wind in the trees and get lost in the play of shadows growing long in the drowsy afternoon.

"It can be boring around here," joked Chad Worsham, the 34-year-old "second cheese" at Pepper Jack Bar & Grille in Grand Coulee.

"Even the cops get bored around here. They used to have a saying: 'Come for vacation, leave on probation.' "

But it wasn't always that way.

A worker's playground

More than 70 years ago, the town of Coulee Dam, a cluster of cozy cottages, was created by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as a company town, headquarters for the dam's managers and engineers.

About a mile south, Coulee Dam's ne'er-do-well relative, Grand Coulee, in Grant County, was home to thousands of workers who lived in tar-paper shacks. In the summer the streets were dusty, in the winter there was mud. And there were rattlesnakes, displaced by the dam, to contend with.

From the time the dam's construction began in 1935 to its completion in 1941, Grand Coulee was considered a workman's playground. Well-dressed women, known as taxi dancers, offered dances to the men for $1. Gambling, boxing, moonshine and all vices imaginable were available on B Street.

Grand Coulee was so full of vice and venereal disease so rampant that in the late 1930s, The New York Times referred to it as "the cesspool of the New Deal."

Every morning, the State Patrol escorted women who worked at the dam to their jobs. The state health department threatened to jail the dozens with venereal disease in an effort to curb its spread. And a booth was set up to make condoms available to workers, according to the book, "Behind the By-line Hu: A Feisty Newsman's Memoirs," by The Wenatchee World's managing editor, the late Hu Blonk.

Residents in the dam towns still enjoy talking about the area's bawdy past. There is no longer any trace of the dozens of hotels, rooming houses and saloons that once filled Grand Coulee's B Street. There are one or two newer buildings, along with a sign commemorating the street for its historic significance. Grand Coulee stands in stark contrast to the town of Coulee Dam, where the houses once used by dam engineers and managers are now bright homes with flower gardens, and a bridge over the Columbia connects the residential area to the business area and casino.

Bob Pachosa, 66, runs the Gold House Inn Bed & Breakfast and has lived in Grand Coulee all his life. He keeps an old two-town rivalry alive.

Even though Coulee Dam houses are picture-perfect cottages, "you couldn't give me one of those houses in Coulee Dam," he said. Why? "Because it's Coulee Dam," a town, population 1,044, of those who "have" compared with scrappy Grand Coulee, the town of 897 "have-nots."

Pachosa recommends 110 things to do in the Coulee area, which includes visiting the massive town sandpile left over from excavating 15 million cubic yards of earth for the dam, and Gehrke Windmill Garden, built by late local resident Emil Gehrke, with windmills so well-engineered they continue to spin in the wind 50 years after they were built.

And, of course, touring the dam.

The dam is surreal in its immensity — a concrete monster about a mile wide, a work of engineering might and industry.

Inside the dam's visitor's center, John Grant, 77, a member of the Colville Tribe, was selling his own black-and-white scratchboard sketches of tribal members fishing along the Columbia. He remembers family members catching massive salmon in the river, before it was dammed, when he was a child.

Although the dam destroyed the fishery and the tribe's way of making a living, he's philosophical about it.

"There wasn't much we could do about it," he said. "My generation grew up with the dam."

"It's home," said Michelle Price, 42, who sported a crushed straw cowboy hat and a bikini as she reclined in a lawn chair on the beach at Spring Canyon State Park. Price, who grew up in Grand Coulee, moved to the Tri Cities and was back for a visit to what she believes are some of the best beaches anywhere.

The towns are being rediscovered, but that has its downside. Property costs have risen as the "Coasties," people from the West Coast, buy property along the lakes. The asking price for a 2,000-square-foot log home with a view in the Grand Coulee ZIP code of "have-nots" — $750,000.

"There are changes," said longtime resident Darlene Price, 64. In years past, going to the beach meant never seeing a stranger. Today, there are tourists, people you don't know, she said.

As the sun sets over the tawny hills and the water laps quietly at the shore, the locals return to the lakes as they always have, bringing their families, their picnics and their barbecues down to the beach.

The good things go on and on, she said.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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