It Happened Here: Richard Nixon dedicates The Dalles Dam in 1959


Vice President Richard Nixon came to Washington 62 years ago to dedicate The Dalles Dam.

While Nixon and other dignitaries praised the dam and its powerhouse as a technological wonder, there was only brief mention of the cost the Yakama Nation and other tribes paid in the loss of Celilo Falls, submerged under the Columbia River’s water held back by the dam.

Roughly 2 miles east of The Dalles, the dam is part of the Bonneville Power Administration’s hydroelectric power system. Along with harnessing the river’s waterpower, the dam also helped make the Columbia more navigable for shipping, further opening the interior of the Pacific Northwest to trade.

Prior to the dam’s construction, Celilo Falls and rapids downstream made the river virtually impassible to large boats, while canoes could be portaged.

While white settlers saw the falls as an obstacle, the Yakama, Lummi and other Natives saw them as a source of sustenance, a trading center and a spiritual site where they could offer thanks for the land and the fish that sustained them.

Archaeological evidence at the site shows that Native people fished and traded goods 11,000 years ago. The Upper Chinookan Wasco, who lived on the southern bank near The Dalles, and Sk’in-a-ma, who lived near what is today Wishram, lived by the falls year-round.

Yakama would travel there during salmon runs to fish, using dip nets from scaffolds along the cliffs to catch salmon as they navigated the fall’s cataracts. The nets were made by the women of the tribe, who kept their weaving technique a closely-guarded secret to regulate the men’s fishing.

When the Corps of Discovery passed through the area in early 1800s, William Clark estimated that between 7,400 and 10,400 people were at what he described as the region’s “great mart,” trading animals, hides and beads for fish and other commodities.

As Europeans settled in the area, the river was a way to more easily access the interior of both Washington and Oregon without the hassle of navigating the mountain passes. But they first needed to find better ways around the rough spots in the river.

The Cascade Locks and Canal were built in 1896 about 40 miles west of The Dalles, opening the area to boat traffic as far as The Dalles. Nineteen years later, The Dalles-Celilo Canal allowed for boat passage as far as the head of Celilo Falls, allowing boats to go as far as Lewiston, Idaho.

But in the 1920s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was tasked with looking at damming the river, which would provide irrigation, flood control, hydroelectricity and improved navigation for the basin. The corps’ plan called for eight dams on the Columbia, including one at The Dalles that was envisioned as large enough to create a lake stretching back 154 miles to the Snake River.

That plan was shelved as there was no demand for the power it would generate, and the proposed dam would be scaled back to a more modest size.

Flooding in 1948, however, spurred the Corps to dust off the plans for a dam at The Dalles, and in 1950 Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1950 that authorized funding for the project. Construction began March 13, 1952, with much fanfare as six tons of dynamite blasted off the rock on the Washington side of the river for the dam’s north abutment, throwing water and dirt more than 100 feet into the air.

In addition to the dam and powerhouse, it also featured a lock system that would allow ships to pass the dam.

The dam’s construction cost $250 million — $2.3 billion when adjusted for inflation — while 16 workers lost their lives in construction accidents. But for the Yakama and others, the cost was even greater: Celilo Falls was lost.

At 10 a.m. March 10, 1957, the dam’s gates shut, and in less than five hours the roar of Celilo Falls was silenced as the river rose above the falls. Many tearful Native people sang traditional songs as the cliffs disappeared, mourning the loss of the falls and a major piece of their culture.

The federal government provided a $26.5 million settlement — $247.4 million in today’s currency — that worked out to $3,700 for each citizen of the Warm Springs, Nez Perce, Umatilla and Yakama nations. More than a few of them considered the money a slap in the face when compared to what they had lost.

While the dam had been generating power for two years, Nixon, who was then Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president, was invited in 1959 to formally dedicate the dam, as well as to commemorate the installation of the dam’s 10th power turbine.

The original plan was to conduct the ceremony on Sept. 26, but Nixon couldn’t make it then, so it was moved to Oct. 10 to accommodate his schedule.

Nixon and his wife, Pat, arrived in Portland after an overnight commercial flight from Dallas. He went to the Washington side of the dam for the ceremony, which was attended by a crowd of 3,500 people who braved the chilly, damp, overcast day.

Nixon told those assembled that the United States could not afford to waste either its natural or human resources. He also used the occasion to take a verbal shot at the Soviet Union, saying the Soviets would never surpass Americans if they remained “true to the principles that have made the United States great” and did not become complacent.

Nixon pressed a button that put the new turbine online, increasing the dam’s power output by 78 megawatts to a total of 1,119 megawatts of electricity.

Other speakers at the event included U.S. Sen. Richard Neuberger, D-Ore.; U.S. Rep. and Yakima native Catherine May, R-Wash.; Oregon Gov. Mark Hatfield; and Washington Gov. Albert Rosellini.

May called the dam “another milestone — one of many — in the long history of the development of the water and land resources of the Columbia River Basin.

Rosellini took issue with those who suggested the dam was a “pork barrel” project that would not benefit the country, but that the economic development it would foster would more than repay the federal government’s investment.

Neuberger did take note of the loss of Celilo Falls and its effect on Native culture. But he said everyone should “hope that the kilowatts from these generators will contribute to the prosperity of Indians and whites alike, through all the decades of the future.”

The Native people who chose to stay in the now-

Celilo Lake area were relegated to a village with substandard housing, separated from the river by a highway and rail line. The village was renovated by the federal government in 2007, with improvements to the water supply, a new longhouse and better homes.

Today, the dam has 22 turbines producing a total of 2,100 megawatts of electricity. Dispelling rumors that the falls were blasted to pieces during the construction of the dam, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did a sonar map of the area in 2008, which showed that the falls were virtually intact.

Celilo Falls lives on in Yakama culture. It is also commemorated in a Toppenish mural and in a display in the main lobby of Legends Casino Hotel.

Yakama and Lummi nations leaders have called for the dam, as well as other dams on the Columbia, to be removed to restore the river and salmon runs.

This story was updated to correct how long ago Vice President Nixon dedicated the dam.

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