Three thousand men labored in back-to-back eight-hour shifts to build Bonneville Dam. They blew through millennia-old volcanic rock to clear enough space for the first dam in history capable of harnessing the potential of the Columbia River.
Dangerous as the work was—one man died during construction—the project was welcome at the height of the Depression. So, too, was the promise of electricity.
Bonneville Power Administration was created to fulfill such a promise. It was September 1932 when Democratic nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt first visited Portland to announce a new age in hydroelectricity.
“We have … the vast possibilities of power development on the Columbia River,” he said. “I state, in definite and certain terms, that the next great hydroelectric development to be undertaken by the federal government must be that on the Columbia River.”
Electricity, he continued, is “no longer a luxury” but rather “a definite necessity” that must be available to all Americans by making more for less.
Offering electricity as a public utility was all part of the “new deal” Roosevelt struck with American voters during his 1932 campaign. The deal worked, and in November he claimed a landslide victory over Republican incumbent and fellow dam man Herbert Hoover.
Roosevelt made good on his Portland promise. In 1933, construction on Bonneville Dam began as a Works Progress Administration project. As the dam neared completion in 1937, Congress created BPA. The agency’s goal: market the vast power now available, giving preference to publicly and cooperatively owned utilities.
To make even more electricity available, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation continued building dams along the Columbia. With each new project, BPA had additional power to market.
Seventy-five years later, the three agencies continue to work together as the Federal Columbia River Power System, overseeing 31 federally owned dams on the Columbia and its tributaries. More than 15,000 miles of transmission line connect 262 substations, lighting homes from Washington to Montana.
The extensive hydroelectric system overseen by BPA even inspired a music album. “Columbia River Collection” features 26 folk songs written by the then-unknown artist Woody Guthrie. Hired by BPA to educate the public about hydroelectricity, Guthrie wrote such hits as “Ramblin’ Blues” with lyrics the likes of “Walk the rocky road and I see your Bonneville Dam; ‘lectricity run th’ fact’ry makin’ planes for Uncle Sam.”
Planes aren’t the only thing BPA-marketed electricity helped create. During World War II, factories powered by BPA dams produced some of the first Boeing airplanes as well as half the nation’s aluminum supply.
BPA also supplied the world’s first nuclear reactors. The plutonium used in the atomic bomb detonated at Nagasaki, Japan, came from a site in Washington.
President Harry Truman even attributed the Allied victory to Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams, saying that without them “it would have been almost impossible to win this war.”
Today, BPA supplies one-third of all electric power used in the Northwest. To celebrate that achievement and others, BPA hosts a celebration at Bonneville Dam on Saturday, September 15.
The free event will run from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and includes performances by the winners of a “Woody and the BPA” songwriter competition. Also planned is a vintage car motorcade featuring a Franklin Roosevelt impersonator.
The real FDR visited Bonneville Dam almost five years to the day of his Portland speech. Then a second-term president, Roosevelt said, “Truly, in the construction of this dam we have had our eyes on the future of the nation.”
His statement echoed the words of BPA’s first administrator, J.D. Ross: “But a great river is a coal mine that never thins out. It is an oil well that never runs dry. The Columbia River will flow through the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams … as long as rain falls and water flows downhill to the sea.”