|This Week in American History
September 26 October 2, 1937
'More Power to You,' Says President Franklin Roosevelt at Bonneville Dam
On Sept. 28, 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt travelled to Oregon to dedicate the massive Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. Bonneville was designed to be part of a coordinated irrigation, navigation, and electric-power project which included the still-under-construction Grand Coulee Dam further up the Columbia. This was the third time that Roosevelt had travelled to the Oregon site, and he had seen the potential of the Columbia River's untapped power on his first visit, when he stumped the area during his 1920 Vice Presidential campaign.
Plans for the Bonneville Dam dated back to 1933, when the National Industrial Recovery Act was passed as a measure to put people back to work on both large and small public works projects. When President Roosevelt signed the legislation on June 16, he said: "In my Inaugural, I laid down the simple proposition that nobody is going to starve in this country. It seems to me to be equally plain that no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country."
One of the ways in which to encourage the growth of modern, high-technology industry, at the same time as providing a better life for America's citizens, was the provision of inexpensive electric power. Roosevelt had invited the World Power Conference to hold its third meeting in Washington, D.C. in September of 1936, and at the end of his speech to the gathering of almost 3,000 delegates from 52 nations, he told them what he was about to do to dramatically increase America's supply of power.
Said the President, "At Boulder Dam on the mighty Colorado the gates were closed months ago; a great lake has come into being behind the dam; generating equipment has been installed in the power plant; and at this moment the powerful turbines are awaiting the relatively tiny impulse of electric current which will flow from the touch of my hand on the button which you see beside me on the desk, to stir them to life, to stir them into creative activityto generate power. Boulder Dam, in the name of the people of the United States, to whom you, Boulder Dam, are a symbol of greater things in the future, and in the honored presence of guests from many Nations, I call you to life!"
In the same speech to the conference, Roosevelt cited a statement by Dr. Charles Steinmetz, a noted electrical engineer and scientist, who said, "electricity is expensive because it is not widely used, and at the same time it is not widely used because it is expensive." Said Roosevelt, "Notwithstanding reductions in rates and increase of consumption since his daywhich, by the way, have demonstrated the truth of his wordshis observation still holds true. There is a vicious circle which must be broken, and a wise public policy will help to break it."
The construction of Boulder Dam had been planned before Roosevelt became President, and he had helped to speedily bring it on line. But Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams were Roosevelt's special projects in the Pacific Northwest, and he signed the allocation of funding for them on Sept. 26, 1933. Ten months later, he visited Oregon and Washington to see what had been accomplished, and told his audience that "It has been my conception, my dream, that while most of us are alive we would see great sea-going vessels come up the Columbia River as far as the Dalles.... And, when we get that done and moving, I hope that we can also make navigation possible from the Dalles up, so we may have barge transportation into the wheat country."
"There is another reason for the expenditure of money in very large amounts on the Columbia. In fact there are a good many reasons. While we are improving navigation we are creating power, more power, and I always believe in the old saying of 'more power to you.' I do not believe that you can have enough power for a long time to come, and the power we shall develop here is going to be power which for all time is going to be controlled by Government."
Senator Dill of Washington State looked up a speech that Roosevelt had made in Spokane during the 1920 campaign, and Roosevelt quoted from it. It began: "Coming through today on the train has made me think pretty deeply. When you cross the Mountain States and that portion of the Coast States that lie well back from the ocean, you are impressed by those great stretches of physical territory, just land, territory now practically unused but destined some day to contain the homes of thousands and hundreds of thousands of citizens like us, a territory to be developed by the Nation and for the Nation."
Roosevelt continued, "I could not help thinking, as everyone does, of all that water running down unchecked to the sea." Fourteen years later, the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam, with its development of irrigation, was expected to take care of the resettlement and employment of 500,000 people, mostly dislocated farm families from the drought-ravaged Great Plains and other areas with poor soil quality.
By early 1937, the Bonneville Dam was nearing completion, and Roosevelt appointed a committee on national power policy to make suggestions for the administration of the Bonneville project. These recommendations were sent to Congress on Feb. 24, and included provisions to ensure that the electric power generated by the Bonneville Dam was used to further the general welfare and not used by small groups of monopolists. The administrator of the dam was authorized to provide electric transmission lines, substations, and other facilities to bring the inexpensive power to the consumers.
Furthermore, "In order to insure that the power development at Bonneville project will be carried out for the benefit of the general public, and particularly of domestic and rural consumers, the administrator should, in disposing of electric energy, give preference and priority to public and cooperative agencies, namely to states, districts, counties, and municipalities, including agencies or subdivisions thereof, and to cooperative organizations of citizens not organized or doing business for profit but primarily for the purpose of supplying electric energy to their members as nearly as possible at cost."
Fifty percent of the electric energy produced was reserved for sale to such public and cooperative agencies, and in case of conflicting or competing applications between public and private agencies, the public or cooperative agencies, such as farm cooperatives, were to be given priority. No application from a public or cooperative agency could be denied on the grounds that a proposed bond issue necessary to enable such an agency to distribute the power had not yet been authorized or marketed.
Finally, in September, Bonneville Dam was ready to come online, and the President wended his way toward the dedication, stopping in various cities and towns of the West as he travelled. In Boise, Idaho, Roosevelt stated that "One reason why a President of the United States ought to travel throughout the country and become familiar with every state is that he has a great obligation to think about the days when he will no longer be President, to think about the next generation and the generation after that."
"I wish," said Roosevelt, "I could physically take the time to spend more days and more weeks going around the country. There was an old mythological character by the name of Antaeus, who was supposed, every time his foot touched the ground, to redouble his strength. When I go about the country after long weeks and months tied up in Washington, which, incidentally, is one of the narrowest places in the world, I feel that I regain strength by just meeting the American people."
On Sept. 28, Franklin Roosevelt dedicated Bonneville Dam, saying that the more Americans studied the water resources of the nation, the more they would realize that their use was of national concern. "If, for example," said Roosevelt, "we had known as much and acted as effectively 20 and 30 and 40 years ago, as we do today, in the development of the use of land in that great semi-arid strip in the center of the country, which runs from the Canadian border to Texas, we could have prevented in great part the abandonment of thousands and thousands of farms in portions of ten states, and thus prevented the migration of thousands of destitute families from those areas into the states of Washington and Oregon and California."
President Roosevelt had stated in many locations that an abundant supply of electrical power meant that industry did not have to be concentrated in any one area. In the days of the heavy steam engine, the workers had to concentrate around the immovable engines, but now, with the possibility of the entire nation being electrified, decentralization was possible. He enlarged upon this theme in his dedication: "It is because I am thinking of the nation and the region 50 years from now that I venture the further prophecy, that as time passes, we will do everything in our power to encourage the building up of the smaller communities of the United States. Today, many people are beginning to realize that there is inherent weakness in cities which become too large for the times, and inherent strength in a wider geographical distribution of population."
"An over-large city inevitably meets problems caused by over-size. Real estate values and rents become too high; the time consumed in going from one's home to one's work and back again becomes excessive; congestion of streets and other transportation problems arise; truck gardens become impossible because the backyard is too small; the cost of living of the average family rises far too high.
"There is doubtless a reasonable balance in all of this, and it is a balance which ought to be given more and more study. No one would suggest, for example, that the great cities of Portland and Tacoma and Seattle and Spokane should stop their growth, but it is a fact that they could grow unhealthily at the expense of all the smaller communities of which they form logical centers. Their healthiest growth actually depends on a simultaneous healthy growth of every smaller community within a radius of hundreds of miles."
Roosevelt concluded his remarks by saying, "As I look upon Bonneville Dam today, I cannot help the thought that instead of spending, as some nations do, half their national income in piling up armaments and more armaments for purposes of war, we in America are wiser in using our wealth on projects like this which will give us more wealth, better living and greater happiness for our children."