On March 22, 1941, two small service generators at Grand Coulee Dam go online for the first time, sending some 10,000 kilowatts of electricity into the Bonneville Power Administration’s transmission network. The generators were originally intended to produce power only for operations at the dam itself. They were "transformed from stand-ins to heroes" by demands for electricity by defense industries during World War II (The Seattle Times, March 23, 1941). An estimated 10,000 people assemble at the dam for ceremonies marking the symbolic unleashing of the nation’s largest hydroelectric facility. In contrast, there will be no hoopla -- no dignitaries, no bands, no crowds -- when the first of the dam’s 18 main generators goes into service on October 4, 1941, a date that marks the beginning of commercial power production at Grand Coulee.
Grand Coulee Dam, located on the Upper Columbia River in Central Washington, was designed as an irrigation project in the 1920s and financed as a jobs program in the 1930s. The focus shifted to power production after the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, when the United States became what President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) called "the arsenal of democracy." American manufacturers increased their production of planes, ships, and armaments for delivery to overseas Allies as well as for national defense. Engineers rushed to put generating equipment into place at Grand Coulee to meet the needs of Northwest defense industries, particularly the power-hungry aluminum industry. The production of aluminum, which was essential to airplane manufacturing at the time, requires huge quantities of electricity.
The dam was designed to include two power plants, each equipped with nine massive generators, each with a rated capacity of 108,000 kilowatts – enough to turn on all the lights in New York City. The service generators were located in the Left Powerhouse (so-named because it is located on the left side of the dam’s spillway), which was the first to be completed. A reporter thought they looked like toys compared to the behemoths that were lined up nearby. Nonetheless, "They started the horses of electric power galloping out of the Grand Coulee" (The Seattle Times, March 23, 1941).
Thousands of people crowded viewpoints around the damsite to watch the debut of the service generators. Bands played; dignitaries spoke; cameramen jostled for photos, and engineers readied the switches. Roosevelt, who had visited the dam twice before, did not attend but sent a congratulatory telegram. "This project will have served in two emergencies," he said, referring to the construction of Grand Coulee. "It served to provide much useful employment at a time eight years ago when it was important that we find at once a means of avoiding complete economic stagnation, and it will serve now to provide the power to make aluminum for airplanes and otherwise to speed our protective arms" (The New York Times, March 23, 1941).
Chief Jim James, a member of the San Poil tribe on the Colville Reservation, was on hand, wearing buckskins and eagle feathers. James had also participated in groundbreaking ceremonies at Grand Coulee on July 16, 1933. "Pride and humility mingle in our hearts today," he said. "We Red Americans are glad to join the White Americans to celebrate the beginning of generation of power" (The Seattle Times, March 23, 1941).
Governor Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966) told the crowd that the dam would not only help meet defense needs but would give America a new frontier.
The generators were able to operate at only about half their capacity because there was not yet enough water behind the dam. Even so, the excitement was palatable. At 1:30 p.m., a switch was thrown and Units No. 1 and No. 2 began feeding kilowatts into a transmission line stretching 238 miles away to Bonneville Dam, headquarters for the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). From there, the first trickle from Grand Coulee would become part of the stream of electricity flowing from BPA to towns, businesses, and industries around the Northwest. Meanwhile, outside the powerhouse, a band launched into "America the Beautiful."
Power Buckle of the Northwest
There were no bands, no message from the president, and no fanfare seven months later when the dam began producing real power for the outside world. The Seattle Times didn’t even send a reporter to cover the commissioning of the first main generator on October 4, 1941, relying instead on a brief wire service story. The account pointed out that the generator was larger by one-third than any other in service anywhere in the world at that time: 22 feet high, 45 feet in diameter, producing more than 100 megawatts of electricity an hour. An unnamed official from the Bureau of Reclamation was quoted as saying the generator would become "a prime factor in preserving the democratic way of life" (The Seattle Times, October 5, 1941).
But the New York Times gave the story only one paragraph, from the Associated Press, published two days after the generator was activated.
Five more generators were rushed to completion in the Left Powerhouse before the end of the war in 1945. The last of the 18 generators in the two original powerhouses went into service on September 14, 1951, giving Grand Coulee an installed capacity of 1,974,000 kilowatts and making it, for a while, the largest hydroelectric dam in the world.
A third powerhouse was completed in 1974. It was equipped with six generators that together more than doubled the output of the original 18. Newer dams in China, Brazil, Paraguay, and Venezuela have since pushed Grand Coulee to fifth largest in the world (as of 2011), but it continues to generate more electricity than any other dam in the United States.