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American Experience: Grand Coulee Dam

Airs Tuesday, February 18, 2014 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Grand Coulee Dam Construction looking at the spillway east to west.

Grand Coulee was more than a dam — it was a proclamation. In the wake of the Great Depression, America turned from private enterprise to public works — not simply to provide jobs, but to restore faith. The ultimate expression of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, Grand Coulee played a central role in transforming the Northwest; it was the largest hydroelectric power producing facility in the world when it was completed in March 1941.

Aerial view of Grand Coulee Dam and reservoir.
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Above: Aerial view of Grand Coulee Dam and reservoir.

Group of workers lined up on the Grand Coulee Dam construction site with their hardhats on.
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Above: Group of workers lined up on the Grand Coulee Dam construction site with their hardhats on.

Building the Grand Coulee Dam

View a timeline for building the Grand Coulee Dam

After WWII, a vast irrigation project made possible by the dam helped turn the barren deserts of central Washington into rich farmland. But the dam prevented access to one of the greatest salmon rivers in the world. Deprived of the salmon — their most important resource — the native people who lived along the Columbia witnessed a profound cultural decline.

Featuring the men and women who lived and worked at Grand Coulee and the native people whose lives were changed, as well as historians and engineers, this film explores how the tension between technological achievement and environmental impact hangs over the project's legacy.

Not surprisingly, the reality of Grand Coulee could never live up to its mythic image, the one celebrated by folksinger Woody Guthrie in his famous song, "Roll On, Columbia." The dam was controversial from the start, opposed by the power companies in Seattle and Spokane, and by congressmen back East, who called the project a "White Elephant in the Desert" with no market for its power or irrigation.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is on Facebook, and you can follow @AmExperiencePBS on Twitter. Past episodes of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE are available for online viewing.

Video

Trailer: American Experience: Grand Coulee Dam

Above: Featuring the men and women who lived and worked at Grand Coulee and the native people whose lives were changed, as well as historians and engineers, this film explores how the tension between technological achievement and environmental impact hangs over the project's legacy.

Video

Grand Coulee Dam: Closing the Spillway

Above: More than a mile long, the Grand Coulee Dam is the largest concrete structure in the U.S. In the fall of 2011, dam operators agreed to open the spillway just for American Experience. "It was very exciting that they agreed to spill for us for a short period specifically for the film," said Associate Producer Lauren DeFilippo. "We ran to the top and bottom [of the dam] in about 30 minutes to capture all that we could" on film.

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