Grand Coulee: “Mightiest Thing Ever Built by Man”
Within the discourse around the proposal and construction of Grand Coulee Dam, we can hear the echoes of debates over Boulder. Built just after Boulder Dam (1931-36), Grand
Coulee (1933-41) benefited from public confidence in such projects, a positive governmental climate toward dam building, and technological achievements invented at Boulder. Built on the successful legal foundations of the Colorado River Compact and other enabling decisions, Grand Coulee was also completed by some of the same construction companies and many of the same workers who built Boulder. The continuities are certainly strong, but the contrasts are also important: local boosters were key to the success of Grand Coulee Dam. This chapter explores the discourses and rhetorical strategies of the various players, both local and national, in their “23-year battle for Grand Coulee Dam” (Woods 1944). These opposing camps are analyzed in terms of the competing and overlapping discourses that they used. These discourses are all built on particular constructions of nature-society relationships that enabled human domination of the Columbia River, in Guthrie’s lyrics “that wild and wasted stream.” These discourses about nature were based in an ideology that helped construct the river as something to be dominated by humans. The river was seen as a wild entity, as Guthrie calls it, a river of “wild and windward spray;” but one that could nonetheless be harnessed by human endeavor. High modernist discourses characterized much of these rhetorical styles used at Grand Coulee. The dam was part of an imperialist vision and was to be built by the federal government as part of a plan to settle and build up the West. These typical state building goals were implemented using the scientific and rational engineering techniques that would carry the region, and therefore the nation, along the linear path of progress. As Guthrie labels it in his lyrics to “Roll on Columbia,” Grand Coulee Dam is “The mightiest thing ever built by man.” Ironically it stops the river from rolling.