Friday, November 24, 2006

Looking for Paintings - Part 7

Grand Coulee Dam

The Great Depression began with a catastrophic collapse of stock-market prices on the New York Stock Exchange in October 1929. By 1932 US manufacturing output had fallen to 54 percent of its 1929 level and unemployment had risen to between 12 and 15 million workers, or 25-30 percent of the work force. Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced a number of major changes in the structure of the American economy, using increased government regulation and massive public-works projects to promote a recovery. As a result, construction on The Grand Coulee Dam began in 1933. My grandfather rode the rails from St. John, New Brunswick, Canada to the US border in Washington, sneaked across the border and stayed briefly in Seattle before heading for Grand Coulee where he found a job as a cook. Several letters and photographs I have in my files show him standing in front of a cook's tent and on a boat with about a dozen other guys looking like they'd just came back from a day of fishing. I don't know too many people who had relatives that worked on the Grand Coulee Dam, so it was interesting to feel as if I was a part of something so big, even though it was a very indirect connection via my grandfather. I was anxious to visit the dam and step back into history. Here are a couple of good links:

The town of Grand Coulee. I don't think I'd be too comfortable living there.

Another shot of the dam prior to taking the tour. See that tubular, vertical shape running down the face of the sunlit section of the dam in the background? That's the "elevator" that takes tourists down inside. It's sort of like one of those rides at Disneyland that holds 30 people, only this is real slow.

The view from inside the "elevator" as we move down inside the dam.

From the bottom of the elevator ride looking up at where we came from.

Off hand I don't know how many turbines there are in the dam, but here's four of them, covered by some blue lid for some reason.

It's difficult to get any sense of scale and this shot of one of the turbines doesn't help. Our tour guide was one of the technical engineers responsible for monitoring the spinning turbine's "wobble" with tolerances in the thousandths of an inch category. This guy was an encyclopedia of information, history and statistics on the dam. If I had tape recorded what he told us, the transcription would probably be about fifty pages of mind-boggling information. And I don't mean just useless trivia. One thing that intrigued me was his reference to Nikola Tesla and the fact that some of Tesla's inventions, theories and discoveries in the field of electricity were proven by the success of the Grand Coulee Dam. He suggested that construction of the dam was an experiment to see if Tesla's theories worked. I guess Tesla was right. For more on Nikola Tesla, try this fascinating link:

I was also fascinated that engineers and construction experts not only had to build a dam, but they had to invent things, design things, and manufacture things to make it all work. By that, I mean all the little parts for all the machinery and equipment that go into the construction of a dam, including switches, electrical wiring, windows, doors, levers, nuts and bolts, internal rooms and connecting hallways, more cement than I can imagine, pipes, valves, guages, meters, and then the turbines themselves with tolerances that are impossible to fathom, especially on something so massive. And getting it all there and housing and feeding and moving all the workers, it's all stuff I never thought about, but when you see it, and it all works, it's impressive.

The tour guide told us that everyone who worked on the dam had to be an experienced construction worker and a citizen of the United States. But due to the Depression lots of those workers, desperate for jobs and with no construction experience, falsified their applications and listed their names as "Smith."

Somewhere out there, 73 years ago, my grandfather fished and cooked and played a small part in the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam. Thanks, Gramps.

Next: South toward Coulee City, Wenatchee and Yakima.


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