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When the famous photographer Margaret Bourke-White made her iconic 1936 Life magazine cover shot of the still under construction spillway at Fort Peck Dam – the very first cover of the magazine – the country had no environmental impact statements. A cost-benefit analysis? Huh, what’s that? There was no Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1930s to assess how the massive dam across the Missouri River would impact fish or whether whole species might be endangered by drastically altering habitat. The Fort Peck Tribes weren’t consulted. The states of Montana and North Dakota had little roles beyond having their federal elected officials weigh in on the project. In fact, Fort Peck was constructed with no Congressional authorization whatsoever. Franklin D. Roosevelt simply decided to build the dam after he was lobbied by Montana Sen. Burton K. Wheeler and others. Roosevelt could do that because the Congress had granted him, and him alone, the authority under New Deal-era relief legislation to spend billions of dollars building things and putting thousands of the unemployed back to work. Construction began on Fort Peck late in 1933 and by 1936 more than 10,000 were laboring on the massive project in the far northeastern corner of Montana. They built a town – Fort Peck – as the administrative center of the Corps of Engineers project, but many workers preferred to set up housekeeping in haphazardly constructed shanty town with names like New Deal and Wheeler. The booze ran day and night in these places even though Montana was still legally dry. The prices were sky high but you could buy anything, including certain services in an area known as Happy Hollow. Over the course of construction at Fort Peck, it was largely finished by 1940, it is estimated that 50,000 different people were employed on the dam.

Dam Politics: Could a Project Like Fort Peck Get Built Today?

When the famous photographer Margaret Bourke-White made her iconic 1936 Life magazine cover shot of the still under construction spillway at Fort Peck Dam – the very first cover of the magazine – the country had no environmental impact statements. A cost-benefit analysis? Huh, what’s that?

There was no Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1930s to assess how the massive dam across the Missouri River would impact fish or whether whole species might be endangered by drastically altering habitat. The Fort Peck Tribes weren’t consulted. The states of Montana and North Dakota had little roles beyond having their federal elected officials weigh in on the project.

In fact, Fort Peck was constructed with no Congressional authorization whatsoever. Franklin D. Roosevelt simply decided to build the dam after he was lobbied by Montana Sen. Burton K. Wheeler and others. Roosevelt could do that because the Congress had granted him, and him alone, the authority under New Deal-era relief legislation to spend billions of dollars building things and putting thousands of the unemployed back to work.

Construction began on Fort Peck late in 1933 and by 1936 more than 10,000 were laboring on the massive project in the far northeastern corner of Montana. They built a town – Fort Peck – as the administrative center of the Corps of Engineers project, but many workers preferred to set up housekeeping in haphazardly constructed shanty town with names like New Deal and Wheeler. The booze ran day and night in these places even though Montana was still legally dry. The prices were sky high but you could buy anything, including certain services in an area known as Happy Hollow. Over the course of construction at Fort Peck, it was largely finished by 1940, it is estimated that 50,000 different people were employed on the dam.

All this becomes truly amazing to consider when you also realize that nearly the same level of construction was under way at Grand Coulee Dam on the upper Columbia in Washington and Bonneville Dam downstream in Oregon. Three massive, expensive public works projects under way at the same time. It simply couldn’t happen today. Times and politics and priorities are so much different.

Creating the political consensus alone today to build such a big project would be next to impossible. The permitting and environmental analysis alone would cost more than one of the big dams cost in the 1930s. It’s probably all too the good. We have a different – and mostly better – political and policy-making process now than FDR had to contend with – or was it relish – during the Great Depression.

Barack Obama’s stimulus package is still roundly debated in Washington and across the country and its doubtful if such legislation could be passed at the moment. Yet, what FDR did in 1933 in rural Montana was precisely the idea behind the “stimulus” spending that the country tried in 2009

Fort Peck was enormously popular. Obama’s stimulus not so much. One poll a year ago found nearly two-thirds of Americans thinking the effort had been a failure.

When Sen. Wheeler ran for re-election in 1934, having championed the dam, he won Montana’s Valley County where the dam is located by a rather comfortable margin of 83 percent to 17 percent. He swamped his GOP opponent statewide with 70 percent of the vote. It didn’t hurt Wheeler that his Republican opponent criticized the New Deal and said Fort Peck would be just a “nice duck or fish pond.”

Perhaps the difference from 1933 to 2009, from a long-ago Fort Peck Dam project to a current freeway interchange project, was that Roosevelt’s Depression-era stimulus spending was so very obvious. It’s hard to miss what was then the world’s largest earthen dam under construction or 10,000 workers building tar paper shacks on the plains of Montana and featured on the color cover of a glossy new magazine.

It’s been said, correctly, that the era of the big dams is dead and gone. We’ll likely never see another Fort Peck or Grand Coulee, and that’s probably a good thing for a lot of reasons. Still, those massive, job-producing projects were a godsend at a time when politics and policy were more easily controlled and when we naively believed, given enough dirt and manpower, that we could bend Mother Nature while we cured the economy.

I spoke at a water conference recently in the shadow of Fort Peck Dam and sponsored by the B.K. Wheeler Center at Montana State University. I talked about the remarkable political history of the dam but, before unwinding the tale, I asked the audience for a show of hands. How many thought the dam could be built today? Many in the audience grew up with Fort Peck as a neighbor and not a person raised a hand.

Someone suggested later that it was a good question, but another good one would have been: should it have been built? A more difficult question to answer, I suspect. It was built and it still stands as a monument to a different time. Go see it if you get close. We’re not building them like that anymore.

Marc Johnson is the volunteer president of the Andrus Center for Public Policy as well as the managing partner for the Boise office of Gallatin Public Affairs.

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Comments

  1. bearbait says:

    Inaugurated in 1933, one of the first things FDR did was ask Wendel Wilkie to his Oval Office, for a chat. FDR told Wilkie, who was JP Morgan’s attorney, that the Electric Services Co. monopoly days were numbered. Oregon had Jay Insul of Chicago in chains for his market manipulations in the less than 25% of the western electrical he controlled, and Morgan’s interests controlled most of the rest.

    If you wanted electricity to your farm, you had to build the line from your place to the nearest transmission line, buy the transformer, the poles, cross arms, insulators, wire, and instal the poles, cross arms, insulators, wire, to power company specs. They would then have you sign an easement for the line to your meter box, and deed all the electrical improvements to the power company, and they would then sell you power for anywhere from $0.12 to $0.16 per kilowatt hour. Frigging spendy, and the American West was not well served with power. And Morgan and Insul had the strangle hold on all but municipally owned power companies. Roosevelt was about to change that.

    My recollection was that he had 5 dams on the drafting table: Fort Peck, Grand Coulee, Bonneville, Shasta, and Boulder.
    He then was going to build the transmission lines to distribute that power, and not all to industrial users and power companies. He had Co-ops, PUDs, Municipal, and other not for profit distribution ideas that would originate with the BPA. He was out to break the monopoly of JP Morgan and Jay Insul. And did. By fiat. FDR made vast areas of the West verdant farm land, producing crops in winter and summer, with his electricity that created cheap aluminum (so useful in WWII just around the corner), irrigation canals, and power for rural agrarian areas. Lots of General Land Office controlled land that became irrigable was put in private hands by lottery drawings for veterans before and after the War. My grandpa got 80 acres outside Quincy, WA., in the late ’40s, by lottery drawing, his being a Spanish American War vet.

    We can sit here today, and wish on one hand and look reality in the eye with the other. Second guessing is great American sport. I would have to say that FDR’s “stimulus” did not slow the Great Depression that much, but it sure as hell provided a lot of work and pay checks at a time of paucity in that area. Add to that the CCC, the WPA, and other US Govt programs that used the vast unclaimed public domain and the forest reserves as a training ground for young men without means to an education or a job, and he did stuff that is of lasting importance. My grandkids are going to camp this summer, a YMCA camp that rents an Oregon State Parks owned former CCC camp for youths, that was built by the CCC in 1938. All of it now under strict protection by the Antiquities Act, and nary a hand split shake or screen window can be replaced except under direction of architects using original drawings and methods. No heat, no lights, a common flush toilet and sink area, and one shower for 24 cabins with 8 kids in each one. Kids love it. It is a lasting stimulus gift that has made tens of thousands of kids grin from ear to ear over the last 70 odd years.

    The saddest outcome was the sacking of the three sided shelters with built in bunk bed and iron fire grate over stone fireplaces that were place about every 12 miles on the old Skyline Trail which is now called the Pacific Crest Trail. The 1964 Wilderness Act included much of that trail in designated Wilderness, and the man made structures were all burned and metal removed. We are not better for that act of bureaucratic vandalism.

    My conservative hat is off to FDR for what he did for the New West. Those who would not want to build a Fort Peck dam would bitch if you hung them with a new rope. The entitled fat kids of America haven’t had to scrabble for a meal or a dry place to sleep. We have never hit bottom like those who endured the Great Depression did, and they stayed there until FDR began to find a way to exchange work for a dry place to sleep and three square meals a day. Of course the races were not mixed. Of course there was lots of it that was socially wrong. But the results were much better than what we got from Hope and Change. We actually got stuff built by FDR. Real, tangible stuff. Not a short term pension in unemployment. Not a bailout of big insurance and banking interests. FDR gave us power, lines to carry it, schools (my immigrant grandpa carpenter worked on college buildings, a new high school now demolished for a newer one, and a chapel at Mountain Home Air Base), water and sewer systems, back country roads, and those dams and stock tanks all over public lands in the New West. And cheap power, at that. He broke the electricity monopoly and grew our country. Won a world war. Unconditional surrenders in Europe and Asia. Not bad for a cripple with a penchant for women other than Eleanor. Oh, excuse. Handicapped dude. The press and media never talked about his inability to walk on his own, having lost that ability to polio. Even that has changed over time. But his good works have not.

  2. Inky says:

    Amen, bearbait.
    We badly need another Roosevelt — either Theodore or Franklin would do — to rescue capitalism from its own excesses and put Americans back to work.
    Considering that our infrastructure is badly dated and deteriorating from the post-war Eisenhower era, we could put a lot of folks to work on new bridges, highways and yes, rapid-rail lines, not to mention sewers, water lines, wind and solar energy.
    Then we’d at least have something to show for it, other than lots of unemployment checks.