The Wenatchee Daily World first reports on the proposal to dam the Columbia River at Grand Coulee on July 18, 1918.

  • By Eric L. Flom
  • Posted 10/31/2006
  • Essay 7999
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On July 18, 1918, an article by Rufus Woods (1878-1950) appears in The Wenatchee Daily World reporting on a local proposal to dam the Columbia River at Grand Coulee -- an effort to provide power and irrigation throughout the Columbia Basin region. The article is the first public mention of what will become the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project, and marks the beginning of a three-decade odyssey to construct Grand Coulee Dam and irrigation canals throughout the region. The dam -- at the time, the world’s largest -- will open in 1941, and the project’s first irrigation water will flow into Pasco in 1948.

The Trouble with Water

Grant County was created by the Washington state Legislature in 1909, with civic leaders immediately undertaking a promotional campaign to attract settlers to the area. In a pamphlet prepared for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, held in Seattle later that year, Grant County was already being trumpeted as a place with few pests, great weather, and excellent schools and churches. It was also being promoted as a prime area for agriculture. “Farmers in Grant County make more money and make it easier than the farmers of any other section,” the authors boasted (AYP Pamphlet, p. 3).

Truth be told however, by 1909 the Grant County area had been through several years of unusually wet weather, so the pamphlet only represented the area’s more recent history. Generally Grant County has a semi-arid climate, with warm and sunny weather but not enough rainfall to support large-scale farming without help from other water sources. To cultivate lands that did not border on a natural waterway, man-made irrigation systems were required.

According to W. Gale Matthews, a longtime resident and businessman in Ephrata, the idea for what would become the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project came from attorney William M. Clapp. In the spring of 1917, a group of locals gathered in Clapp’s law offices in Ephrata to discuss America’s involvement in World War I and the desire to grow more crops to support the war effort. At some point it was suggested that the Columbia River might be dammed at Grand Coulee, formed some 15,000 years ago as the Vashon glacier retreated at the end of the last ice age. The high rock walls of Grand Coulee allowed for a natural retention area, from which irrigation water could be pumped, using power generated by the dam itself (Matthews).

Knowing that such a proposal would face immediate ridicule, the Ephrata group kept the dam idea close to their vests while conducting preliminary investigations into its feasibility. When an early engineering study suggested that the proposal might have merit, William Clapp’s group began to put some serious effort into promoting their idea. It was clear to all, however, that federal dollars would be needed for such a massive undertaking -- and thus began a publicity campaign to sell the public (and public officials) on the merits of such a large-scale reclamation project.

Enter Mr. Woods

About that time, in the summer of 1918, Rufus Woods (owner of The Wenatchee Daily World) was prospecting for news ideas when it was suggested that he visit William H. Clapp. It was perfect timing -- Woods was on the lookout for a big local story, Clapp and his group were ready to put forth their idea to a larger audience. The resulting article, published in the July 18th edition of Daily World, marked the beginning of a 30-year struggle to first sell, then construct Grand Coulee Dam and its supporting irrigation canals.

“The last, the newest, the most ambitious idea in the way of reclamation and the development of water power ever formulated is now in the process of development,” Woods trumpeted in his opening line. “The idea contemplates turning the Columbia River back into its old bed in Grand Coulee, by the construction of a giant dam, the reclamation of between one and two million acres of land in Grant, Adams, and Franklin counties and the development of a water power approximating Niagara Falls ... Should it develop that the dam could be built at a reasonable cost, there will unfold one of the most interesting development projects ever conceived by man” (Woods).

The Start of Something Big

Although it would be several decades before the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project was fully realized, Rufus Woods’s article in July 1918 was the first public step in this long process. Woods and The Wenatchee Daily World would support that effort all along the way, playing a key media role in selling the project’s merits.

Although born from efforts to support America during World War I, the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project overcame many difficulties during its time -- competition from other reclamation plans, the struggle for federal funding, a worldwide economic depression, and a second world war. And yet the ongoing support given the project by Rufus Woods, among many others, allowed the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project to push forward in the face of these obstacles. The significant growth occurring in Douglas, Adams, and particularly Grant County since the 1950s can be directly traced to the success of the Reclamation Project, which has brought cheap hydroelectric power and much-needed irrigation water to support local farmers and other businesses throughout Central Washington.

Sources: “Grant County, Washington,” promotional pamphlet for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (A.Y.P. Committee, 1909), University of Washington Special Collections; Rufus Woods, “Formulate Brand New Idea for Irrigation [of] Grant, Adams, Franklin Counties, Covering Millions of Acres or More,” The Wenatchee Daily World, July 18, 1918, p. 7; W. Gale Matthews, “Beginnings of the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project,” 1952 typescript, Grant County Historical Society, Ephrata, Washington; The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History “Grand Coulee Dam -- a Snapshot History” (by Cassandra Tate), “Retreating glaciers create Puget Sound and Grand Coulee as the Ice Age ends about 15,000 years ago” (by Priscilla Long), and “First irrigation water reaches Pasco on May 15, 1948” (by Elizabeth Gibson), ( (accessed September 3, 2006); Rufus Woods, "Wenatchee World History," Wenatchee World website accessed October 1, 2006 (

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