Columbia Basin Reclamation Project, The Beginnings: A Reminiscence by W. Gale Matthews

  • By W. Gale Matthews
  • Posted 10/28/2006
  • Essay 7963

In early 1952, W. Gale Matthews -- a resident of Grant County since 1890 and, at the time of this account, President of the Grant County Title Abstract Company -- provided his memories of the beginning of the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project. This project to irrigate large parts of the Columbia Basin in Eastern Washington famously gave birth to Grand Coulee Dam, which opened in 1941. Matthews account was transcribed from a speech he gave to the Grant County Historical Society in early 1952, and was edited by Eric L. Flom. Matthews tells of the early ridicule facing this proposal and the war of ideas waged between dam proponents and others advocating a rival irrigation scheme.

The Columbia Basin Reclamation Project

How, when and where did the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project start? Probably the full story will never be written for there is no one who really knows all of the details which lead to the inception of this tremendous project. It certainly did not get its start from the report of Lieutenant Thomas W. Symons of the Corps of Engineers of the United States Army, who was in charge of this whole northwest area for The Army up to and including 1879. In his official report for that year the Lieutenant, in speaking of that area which we now know as the Columbia Basin Project, described it as follows: “All in all, it is a desolation where even the most hopeful can find nothing in its future prospects to cheer.”

One of the earliest attempts to irrigate any sizable part of this area occurred following 1897 when the last James J. Hill [1838-1916], President of the Great Northern Railway Company, was contacted by one J.B. McIntyre, who lived in the Puget Sound Country.

McIntryre had visions of irrigating from Brook Lake, now known as Stratford Lake, a considerable area, in fact, approximately half a township of land between Stratford and Ephrata quite generally in the area south and east of Soap Lake.

McIntyre had contracted to buy a large number of the odd numbered sections in that area from the Northern Pacific Railway Company and he formed a corporation known as the Co-operative Irrigation Company and assigned his land contract to that corporation.

In 1898 Mr. Hill and the Great Northern Railway Company entered into a contract with the Co-operative Irrigation Company to furnish funds to build an irrigation ditch which would, when completed, take water from Brook Lake and irrigate the area. The ditch was started but the Company got into financial difficulties and after one or two reorganizations a ditch was constructed and a large aqueduct was built across the swamp west of [the town of] Adrian and water was actually delivered to some of the land.

However, the program was not a success and was ultimately abandoned.

By 1910, the Columbia Basin area had been quite completely settled, as relates to the even numbered sections, by homesteaders and of course the odd numbered sections were ... Northern Pacific Railway land under an act of Congress. These homesteaders [were] encouraged by the lush growth of bunch grass and sagebrush [and] endeavored to farm it by dry land methods but their crops had from year to year grown less and less, due to lack of rainfall.

It was around 1907 when a group of homesteaders in the south Quincy area got together and formed an association known as the Quincy Valley Water Users Association. The purpose of this organization was to levy voluntary assessments on themselves and to secure what other financial assistance they could and have studies made looking to the reclamation of the great Quincy Valley. One Joseph Jacobs, a consulting engineer of Seattle, did some studies looking to the watering of the Quincy Valley from Lake Wenatchee. The result of his studies was so encouraging to the homesteaders in the Quincy Valley that around 1910 the Quincy Valley Irrigation District was organized under State law and detailed plans and studies were made and paid for by assessments levied on the land by that irrigation district.

In 1914 there was submitted to the State of Washington a proposition to bond the State for several million dollars to irrigate the Quincy flats. The bond issue did not carry and the plan failed and little that was tangible was done for several years following.

In all probability the actual beginning of the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project, based upon the building of Grand Coulee Dam, can be traced to an incident which happened in Ephrata in the last spring or possibly early summer of 1917.

At that time the nations of the world, including our own country, were engaged in World War I and it was the patriotic duty of everyone to give their best efforts to the production of more foodstuffs in order that our own armies and the armies of our allies might be fed. This idea was frequently the subject of conversation.

On that particular spring day in 1917 there were gathered in the office of Mr. William M. Clapp, an attorney in Ephrata, Washington, several people living in Ephrata and the subjects of the day were being discussed and among them the matter of raising more grain and bringing more land into production. Someone remarked that it would have been a good idea had the State of Washington in 1914 approved the bond issue and the Quincy flats could be producing large tonnages of grain and other foodstuffs. Someone said that the water could be pumped from the Columbia River at Rock Island by building a dam at Rock Island to produce the power.

Among those present in the office that afternoon were A. A. Goldsmith of Soap Lake, Mr. Clapp, of course, Mr. Paul D. Donaldson, and possibly there was present the Honorable Sam B. Hill, who was then Judge of our Superior Court and [the author] W. Gale Matthews. Sam B. Hill later was elected to Congress from the Fifth Washington District and contributed materially to the ultimate consummation of this Project.

When the subject of the dam at Rock Island was mentioned, Mr. Donaldson spoke up. He had recently been on a geological trip with the late Dr. Landis of the University of Washington, and their trip had taken them along the Columbia River and around Grand Coulee. Dr. Landis apparently had been discussing with Mr. Donaldson on that trip the theory of the glaciers which came down across the Okanogan highlands and dammed the Columbia River at a point below the present site of the Grand Coulee Dam, and which resulted in a division of the flow of the Columbia River and as the ages passed the excavating of Grand Coulee.

Mr. Donaldson said, “Speaking of Dams,” and then went on to relate to those present the theory and the story which Dr. Landis had related to him on the trip. When Mr. Donaldson had completed that recitation, Mr. Clapp spoke up and suggested that if nature had at one time dammed the Columbia River near the head or rather below the head of Grand Coulee with ice why could it not again be dammed with concrete and the flow of the river diverted again down through Grand Coulee and the water used to irrigate the great Columbia River Basin extending down through Grant County, Adams County, Franklin County clear down to the Snake River.

Of course, general discussion was had on the subject and in their entire ignorance of the engineering features involved, those present conceded that it might be a good idea. No one, however, had the courage to go out and say very much about the idea, fearing the “kidding” which would result.

However, that group and others from time to time frequently met in Mr. Clapp’s office and other offices around Ephrata and the subject of the dam in the Columbia River would always come up until the few in Ephrata had succeeded in selling themselves on the feasibility of the idea.

As the summer of 1917 passed and the fall came on, the little group in Ephrata took into their confidence Mr. Norval Enger who at that time was the Deputy County Engineer of Grant County. He was a very able engineer and at the present time is engaged in work for the Bureau of Reclamation on one of the projects in the Dakotas. Mr. Enger listened very attentively to the ideas of the group and when asked if he would run a preliminary set of levels to determine the difference in elevation between the river and the floor of the Coulee and make some investigation as to the side walls and so forth, he agree to do so if the County Commissioners would consent to it.

With some hesitation Mr. Clapp, Mr. Donaldson, Mr. Goldsmith and Mr. Matthews appeared before the Board of County Commissioners and “propositioned them on the matter.” The County Commissioners consisting of Mr. D. C. Thiemens, of Ephrata and Mr. J. C. White of Moses Lake were not very enthusiastic about the deal. The third member of the board, Mr. Thomas H. Twining of Coulee City, was not present, he at that time being in the armed forces. However, the County Commissioners agreed that Mr. Enger could make something of a reconnaissance survey of the area provided the petitioners did not say anything about the matter publicly and the facts of the case are that nothing appears on the Commissioners’ records about it.

Mr. Enger did during the winter of 1917-1918 run a set of levels from the river up to Grand Coulee and did take a look at the general situation. He reported to the Commissioners and to the group in Ephrata that the proposition might have merit but it would require a great deal of engineering study and the costs would be beyond the financial ability of the County.

Little else of importance happened in connection with the project except the conversations of the Ephrata group continued and grew more frequent and the convictions of those in on the proposed project became more fixed each day that the project not only could, but definitely should, be built. However, they met with a considerable discouragement for whenever the subject was mentioned to others around town, the net result was generally ridicule.

It was shortly [before] the eighteenth of July 1918, when Rufus Woods [1878-1950], publisher of the Wenatchee Daily World, dropped by the office of Mr. Matthews one afternoon and inquired a to the possibility of a story about the Ephrata area to be published in the Wenatchee Daily World. It was quite the custom of Mr. Woods to cover the Central Washington area and pick up stories for his paper. Mr. Matthews informed Mr. Woods that at the moment he was a little bit busy but that there was a story which merited some study and suggested that Mr. Woods go to see Mr. Clapp and ask him to relate the story about a proposed dam in the Columbia Basin area. Mr. Woods saw Mr. Clapp, heard the story and received it with that enthusiasm which characterized Mr. Woods whenever he ran onto a good local story that would attract attention.

Mr. Woods wrote the story and published it in the Wenatchee Daily World on July 18, 1918. The story was spread out all over the front page with giant headlines and it certainly did attract attention. [Woods’s story actually appeared on page 7, crowded off the front page by news of the war in Europe.]

The late Judge R. S. Steiner wrote Mr. Woods a letter ridiculing the story and the idea and he concluded his letter with these words “Baron Munchausen, thou wert a piker.”

The story was copied in whole or in part by newspapers all over the state and the general comment of the papers was quite in line with the comment of Judge Steiner.

Shortly after the publication of the “Munchausen” article by Rufus Woods in the Daily World on July 18, 1918, an engineer by the name of Ralston who had been employed by Washington Water Power Company, advocated a scheme of reclamation of the Columbia Basin Lands by bringing water from the Idaho lakes [and] which plan thereafter became referred to as the Pend Oreille or Gravity Project. Little was said about Mr. Ralston’s idea until after a speech by Governor Ernest Lister [1870-1919] when a great deal of publicity was given both to the Governor’s speech and to the Ralston plan, whey having been along the same line.

Shortly, after this, along in the fall of 1918, a meeting was held in Pasco which resulted in the organization of the Columbia Basin Irrigation League.

The net result of the “Munchausen” article in the Wenatchee Daily World and the organization of the Columbia Basin Irrigation League was that from that time there were two camps each advocating the reclamation of the Columbia Basin Project, the Ephrata group with the Grand Coulee Dam as its proposed source and the Irrigation League with the Idaho lakes as its proposed source.

It is not necessary or proper to go into a discussion of the various arguments in favor of and against the two proposed sources or the many things which were said and done in connection with the matter. It is sufficient to say that the “Ephrata Group” became a “Speaking Bureau” and appeared before gatherings all over the State, spreading the gospel of the Grand Coulee Dam-Columbia Basin Reclamation idea. The late Hon. J. P. Simpson dedicated his Grant County Journal to the project and thus the “Dam Group” had two newspapers for educational purposes. Neither the Gravity nor the Dam proponents pulled any punches. It was a great fight.

In 1918 Mr. Frank T. Bell was elected County Treasurer of Grant County and after he took office [in] January 1919, became actively associated with the little group in Ephrata which was sponsoring the Grand Coulee Dam.

As time passed such men as the late Arthur P. Davis who was then Commissioner of Reclamation and the late Colonel Hugh Cooper, a very eminent engineer and dam builder took occasion to view the proposed Grand Coulee Dam site and the comments which they made at the time gave encouragement to the Ephrata group. There were many humorous instances connected with those visits by those engineers and others whom the Ephrata group induced to view the Project.

It was in 1919 that James O’Sullivan of Port Huron, Michigan, and who formerly lived in Ephrata made a trip west and became interested in the Grand Coulee Dam. He again returned to Ephrata in 1920 and from that time on did little else but devote his entire time and all of his energy to the Columbia Basin Project. Unfortunately he did not live to see water run through the canals which he had so vividly described from the platform and in newspaper articles.

As time went on all the people of Ephrata, Grant County, and ultimately the state of Washington and the Northwest became cognizant of, and many of them became active supporters of, the Grand Coulee Dam.

In 1922 Mr. Clarence C. Dill [1884-1978] was elected United States Senator from the State of Washington. He took office in 1923 and Mr. Frank T. Bell who had managed his campaign became his private secretary. Mr. Bell made it a point immediately to become as well acquainted as possible with the secretaries of the other senators and to become acquainted with the senators themselves, looking forward to the time when he would open his campaign to sell the senators individually on the Grand Coulee Dam.

Incidentally, one of the first jobs of selling that Mr. Bell had was to sell his boss, Senator Dill. This he accomplished and Senator Dill became and active proponent of the Grand Coulee Dam.

The Senior Senator from the State of Washington was the Honorable Wesley L. Jones [1863-1932]. He was one of the most prominent men in the Senate and was Chairman of the Senate Appropriation Committee, a most important and strategic position. Senator Jones had, of course, heard of the Grand Coulee Dam proposal for irrigation of the Columbia Basin Project, but by reason of the many duties confronting him as one of the leaders in the Senate, he had not become as familiar with the idea as had Senator Dill.

Senator Dill undertook the project of convincing Senator Jones that the Grand Coulee Dam idea merited a full and complete investigation. Senator Jones became convinced that the project did merit complete investigation and in the appropriation passed in the year 1927, first session of the 69th Congress, dated January 21, 1927, succeeded in having included an item of $600,000 in the Rivers and Harbors part of the appropriation earmarked for an investigation of the Columbia River from the British boundary to the mouth of the river for power, navigation, flood control and reclamation. This appropriation was passed.

The Corps of Engineers of the United States Army undertook that study. That part of the work involving the river from the British boundary, that is the Canadian boundary, to the Snake River was handled under the direction of the late Major John S. Butler. The results of his investigations were embodied in what is known as the “308 Report,” which settled the controversy over the source of water for the Project. This report was the basis upon which further and more complete investigations of the Grand Coulee Dam and Columbia Basin Project were made, and the result of that appropriation, that investigation, that report, is well known. The Dam was built and the Reclamation Project has now reached the stage where water will in 1952 be delivered to the arid lands of the great Columbia Basin Project.

A few names have been mentioned in this short article. It must be understood that the persons named are not the only ones who took an active part in the promotion of this great project. The number of those engaged in the work is [in the] thousands. It became a great community, county, state and Northwest Project and through the significant work of the people in the entire Northwest, the Project is no longer the dream of a few timid souls in Ephrata but it is a reality. For generations to come, it will be a monument to United Community Effort. It will be a memorial to those hardy individuals who braved the uncertainties and hardships of a pioneer existence to homestead this area at the turn of the century and pave the way for a new empire.

Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, vidoes, and curriculum. 

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