National Geographic : 1941 Jun
The Columbia Turns on the Power BY MAYNARD OWEN WILLIAMS T HE Columbia River inspired early ex ploration by sea. It helped Lewis and Clark cross the continent. It trans ported foot-weary settlers over the last lap to Oregon Territory. It thrust two-ocean great ness upon a nation which once considered Thomas Jefferson a westerner. Now it turns on the power. Around its widespread drainage basin, na tional parks form a diamond horseshoe of lake and snow peak, geyser and glacier. Here is hoarded the boundless energy of rain and snow. Here life-giving water is kept in cold storage until lowland fields turn thirsty under the summer sun. Most of this power has hitherto gone to waste. Through a winding lava canyon, far below the level of the almost rainless land of the Inland Empire east of the Cascades, the Columbia River leaked away to the sea. Biggest of All Masonry Dams Now, about halfway down the river's 1,214 mile course, water is rising in a man-made lake, and the largest of all masonry dams stands ready for 18 generators-each ample for a city-and 12 pumps, any one of which could meet the domestic water requirements of New York City. On March 22, 1941, Grand Coulee Dam turned on the "juice" from two small serv ice generators. In August one of the 150,000 horsepower turbines will start to hum. Soon after that another, and another. When the country called for power, Grand Coulee Dam, seven years in construction, was ready. From the White House, President Roose velt wrote to Supervising Engineer Frank A. Banks: "I want to congratulate the Bureau of Reclamation upon putting the great Grand Coulee Dam to work two years ahead of sched ule. It is a fine job well done. . "A tremendous stream of energy will light homes and stores; it will ease the drudgery around the farmhouses of the Pacific North west... "Water will flow to lands now dry and bar ren but which one day will be made fertile by irrigation. . "Floods will be curtailed and navigation will be improved so that much of the com merce of this new empire may cheaply be waterborne." Last summer, by motorcar, I followed the Columbia from source to sea. Before starting downriver I attended the dedication of two new highways which open hitherto inaccessible areas to casual travel. On June 29, 1940, the forest-bowered road around British Columbia's Big Bend was opened (page 752). Two days later, a motor cade from Victoria semiofficially inaugurated the spectacular Columbia Icefield Highway be tween Jasper and Banff.* At lunch in the delightful new chalet at Sunwapta Pass, between Banff and Jasper National Parks, motorists sat and watched dark moving specks high up on the Athabaska Glacier. They were "dudes" on horseback, riding for fun (page 751). Close to the glacier's dirty snout on this first-of-July stood scores of cars whose pas sengers, some in high-heeled shoes, were tramping on the ice. Lewis R. Freeman rightly called the Co lumbia Icefield the "Mother of Rivers." t From this snowy rooftree of our continent the Columbia flows into the Pacific; the Atha baska into the Slave, thence to the Mackenzie and the Arctic Ocean; and the Saskatchewan into Lake Winnipeg, the Nelson, Hudson Bay, and the Atlantic. Today from this field of "white coal," cul minating in the Snow Dome (11,340 feet), countless tons of frozen water must fall more than two vertical miles to reach the sea. In doing so, this water can be made to produce hydroelectric power. Putting it to work does not lessen the ex tent of the icefields or impair the beauty of the Evergreen Empire. On the contrary, man made lakes as charming as glacier-dug Chelan are superseding ugly lava chasms, and our western dams are themselves feature attrac tions. In 1940 more than 300,000 people visited Grand Coulee Dam (page 776). Most Powerful American River The might of the Columbia, most power ful of American rivers, has many sources. Of ficially, the headwaters are at Canal Flats, about 80 miles north of the Idaho-Montana British Columbia border. Those who wish to see the icefields at their best should temporarily desert the Columbia for a superb detour over the 72-mile Winder mere-Banff Highway, the 192-mile Banff Jasper Highway (Plates I and IV), and the * See Map Supplement "Northwestern United States and Neighboring Canadian Provinces." t See "Mother of Rivers," by Lewis R. Freeman, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, April, 1925.