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Bonneville Dam Prepares for 50-Year Celebration

March 01, 1987|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

BONNEVILLE DAM, Ore. — Critics across the nation called it the "Dam of Doubt" and "Roosevelt's White Elephant."

But here on the Columbia River it was the "Dam of Hope" where an unskilled laborer helping to build it could earn 50 cents an hour to feed his family during the Depression years of the 1930s.

Now preparing to celebrate its golden anniversary, Bonneville Lock and Dam is more than the master key to the largest hydroelectric system in the world and the gateway to inland navigation from the Pacific Ocean to Idaho, a waterway that will carry close to $3 billion worth of exports and imports this year.

The dam has also been a vital factor in helping to preserve and enhance a scenic wonder expected to draw more than 3 million visitors for the 50th birthday celebration.

Bonneville, 40 miles east of Portland, joins the spectacular Columbia River Gorge, "Grand Canyon of the Columbia," and the 45-mile-long Lake Bonneville impounded by the dam.

Lake cruises, boating, windsurfing, fishing, camping and the graciousness of historic resort hotels will be supplemented this summer by a schedule of anniversary events. Portland's Rose Festival Queen and her court will arrive on May 4 to launch the celebrations.

A "Lewis & Clark Explore the West" puppet show, July 4-26, will re-create the expedition that reached the Columbia River in 1805. The show will be staged three times every Saturday and Sunday during this period at Bradford Island Visitors Center.

National Historic Site

On July 11, the Indian settlement area discovered by Lewis and Clark in the lower Cascade area of the gorge will be dedicated as a national historic site. A marker will be unveiled where the Oregon Trail and the Lewis & Clark Trail converged.

President Thomas Jefferson had pulled off one of the great diplomatic coups of history when he persuaded Napoleon to sell for a pittance the Louisiana Territory, then considered to be virtually all of the American West between the Mississippi and the Pacific.

Jefferson then persuaded Congress to spend $2,500 for the Lewis and Clark expedition, which he hoped would prove that the Missouri and Columbia rivers were a waterway to the Pacific Ocean. This wasn't quite the case, but the Columbia became a great artery of Western commerce, even when the Cascade rapids still had to be portaged.

Anniversary visitors will also share a poignant chapter in the history of American Indians. Lewis and Clark met in friendship here on the Columbia with leaders of more than 300,000 Indians who had a high standard of living based on salmon fishing.

Meriwether Lewis, 30, was to live for only a few more years, but William Clark spent much of the rest of his life trying to negotiate fairly for the Columbia Gorge Indians. In spite of his efforts, more than 90% of them were eliminated by white men's bullets and diseases during the next half century.

Visitors will also share in other facets of the Northwest culture and recreational opportunities. July 4 will be a Bonneville folk fest and tribute to the music of Woody Guthrie, followed by fireworks. July 25-26 will be a Bluegrass Festival arranged in cooperation with Skamania County.

July 10 to 19, the Columbia Gorge Pro-Am Windsurfing World Class Speed Slalom will be staged in cooperation with Hood River. Set for Aug. 1-2 is the Bonneville Dam 5K Walk and 10K Run, open to everyone.

Those who participated in the building of the dam are being invited to be honored in a Reunion of Builders on Aug. 7. The next day will be the formal rededication ceremony attended by political leaders and featuring the U.S. Army Golden Knights, Army Band and the Air Force Thunderbirds. The rededication has been planned by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration.

Never Imagined

A 50th anniversary celebration could not have been imagined by Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he visited here during his 1932 campaign for his first term in the White House. More than 13 million Americans were out of work. The lumber industry was hard hit. Farmers were burning their orchards for fuel.

F.D.R. pledged that if he became President he would lead the effort to make Columbia River the next federally funded hydroelectric project. The Army Corps of Engineers had conducted a study concluding that 40% of the nation's hydropower potential lay in the Columbia River's 1,210 miles. Bonneville was recommended as the first in a system of 10 dams.

When Roosevelt returned in September 1937 to dedicate the dam, some $83 million had been spent to build it, furnishing work for more than 3,000 and a resurgence of the Northwest economy.

As the new source of electrical energy powered growth in the Northwest, it became apparent that more turbines would be needed. Additions that began in 1939 have continued through the decades with the latest expansion in 1982, more than doubling the output of energy. Next will come a new navigation lock to eliminate shipping delays at Bonneville.

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