A Picnic to End the Dustbowl

Farmers and ranchers and their families mingled with promoters and dignitaries to hear about the progress being made. From the top of the mountain they gazed north on the desert lands that Grand Coulee Dam would make into a garden.

Farmers and ranchers and their families mingled with promoters and dignitaries to hear about the progress being made. From the top of the mountain they gazed north on the desert lands that Grand Coulee Dam would make into a garden.

They gathered on top of Saddle Mountain in the heat of August, 1927, on a patch of sand and basalt at the top of the cliffs that form the western edge of the landmark that gave the mountain its name. Every car and truck that arrived ground the powdery soil in the road into a finer dust that hung in billows over the hillside before drifting slowly away. As they arrived, the cars were directed to a makeshift parking lot, a vacant hillside spotted with small sagebrush. But the passengers were dressed in their finest clothes, as if coming to a wedding. And in a sense, they were.

The State of Washington would look a lot different today if Grand Coulee Dam hadn’t been built…something that probably couldn’t happen today. My purpose here isn’t to debate whether or not it was right to so dramatically alter the environment of the Eastern Washington desert (indeed, because my family has been so closely tied to the enterprise, I’m not exactly sure how I feel about it). To get a brief history of the dam, you can find this excellent, pretty well balanced, article on HistoryLink.org.

It’s hard to imagine what the farmers who attended that picnic on Saddle Mountain were feeling. Over the years many of them had watched their neighbors and friends give up or fail on the lands they had invested so many years of labor to develop. This part of Central Washington had been heavily promoted by the railroads, who owned alternate sections in a checkerboard pattern on either side of their rights-of-way. Several years of unusually damp weather colluded with railroad real estate salesmen to convince hopeful farmers to purchase desert lands for farming. As the weather cycle returned to its normal aridity, the new farms dried up and began to blow away. By the 1930s, clouds of Washington dust were reported enveloping ships bound for Hawaii in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Eastern Washington dustbowl was actually a normal climatic condition: it was dust from the Columbia Basin, deposited by prevailing westerly winds, that created the fertile beauty of the Palouse Hills on the border with Idaho.

Many of the settlers opted for local irrigation projects. Sometimes, as with the Danielson Canal, these were cooperative efforts. Oscar Danielson and his neighbors worked together in the early 1920s to scrape out a channel from Lower Crab Creek. They dammed sections of their canal and pumped water from the reservoirs to irrigate their fields. Oscar had a single-stroke engine mounted on a poured concrete block behind his dam. Water from the pump was directed to his fields through wire-wrapped wooden water pipes he bought from the City of Seattle when the city replaced wooden pipes with more durable metal or concrete.

Settlers in locations less convenient to flowing water sometimes signed on to larger schemes to bring in irrigation water. In the Yakima River basin companies created canals to water orchards and fields. A similar scheme in the area now lying within the Hanford Reservation led to murder and theft of the company funds before any of the investors received a drop of water.

The entire region was subject to schemes for getting rich. As more people realized that water could generate huge profits to farmers, suppliers, shippers and land speculators, rival bands of irrigation scheme promoters began working the political ropes. The major players here were those who promoted a gravity-feed canal from Albeni Falls in Idaho (in spite of the fact that Idaho strongly opposed letting Washington have its water) and those who wanted to pump water out of the Columbia at the site of a supposed Ice Age dam at the head of Grand Coulee. One of the major players in support of Grand Coulee Dam was James O’Sullivan, for whom O’Sullivan Dam at Potholes Reservoir is named.

O’Sullivan was a shifty, imprudent liar. His statements had to be corrected or quashed by other supporters of Grand Coulee on many occasions. Typical of many strong supporters of a Grand Coulee irrigation project, O’Sullivan had invested in too much desert land around Moses Lake, and he was looking for a way to recover a profit. But at least the irrigation scheme he supported wasn’t based on the scanty savings of farmers and ranchers who would get the water. His scheme required government money.

Congress voted to fund a feasibility study by the Army Corps of Engineers, a body who might be considered more objective than previous state-funded efforts that had favored the Albeni Falls project. Perhaps it was this congressional act that inspired the Saddle Mountain Picnic in 1927. My father always told us that the picnic was where the decision to create the dam was announced.  But the Butler Report, produced by this study, wasn’t released until 1932, and it was this report that resulted in the lobbying that led to the decision to build the dam.

For whatever reason, residents of the Crab Creek country were invited to enjoy watermelon and baked potatoes on the top of Saddle Mountain that August of 1927. My thirteen-year-old father was there with his family, including the unknown photographer who documented life at the Danielson homestead. My father recalled seeing Senator C. C. Dill, a man he continued to visit well into the elderly senator’s life.

The view from this site at the western edge of The Saddle is impressive. Below you stretches the last great curve of Lower Crab Creek as it emerges from the Drumheller Scablands. In the distance Frenchman Hill blocks your view of the Quincy Basin, but Moses Lake country is there, and far to the east lies Othello and  golden dryland wheat fields. A celebration of the Grand Coulee picnic occurred during my childhood, as residents of the surrounding communities gathered for baked potatoes and watermelon at the same spot. A paved road approaches the site from the south, courtesy of a NORAD Triton missile emplacement that was constructed nearby during the Cold War. A short hike to the south brings you to an overview of the Hanford Reservation, with shimmering ruins of the WWII reactors that produced plutonium for the first atomic bombs.

All content, including photographs, music and graphics
Copyright 2009, Mark E. Danielson
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