Monday, October 29, 2012

Taking Care of the Dead On D-Day and the German Quest for its Missing Sons, All Day Every Day.

There was a large transportation system in Saigon during the Vietnam War that moved the many administrative troops who lived in hotels and barracks across the city to their jobs.  Mostly, the transportation was provided by dark green school buses that lumbered through the impossible traffic of the impossible city to their destinations at the television station, various command centers, the Post Exchange, the Embassy and other spots that lent a kind of administrative normalcy to the incredible events that were taking place around us. 

Soldiers would wait for their buses in the small lobbies of their hotels because waiting outside was discouraged.  Usually there was a name in the slot above the windshield or a cardboard sign in the lower right corner of the front window that indicated the destination although some of the buses had no markings at all and somehow, people knew which to get on.  Those soldiers who worked at the mortuary had a bus with a sign that said “San Francisco/Oakland.” 

For a time I thought it was kind of funny, one of those ironic realities that help people keep moving through a tough time.  And, when someone changed the bus name from “San Francisco/Oakland” to “Mortuary” I was a little miffed, thinking that a bit of human scale sentiment had been taken away.  At the end of a year, however, I realized that there was nothing funny at all, nothing ironic at all, nothing worth being miffed about and it was probably a good idea to change out the sign.  Dead is dead and there is nothing clever or little about it.

I had no idea why I came to feel that way until I read Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust’s “Republic of Death,” her Civil War history about the problems dealing with impossibly large numbers of people killed in war.  The book shows how the Civil War's slaughter changed the way we thought about caring for our dead soldiers and their grieving families.   
United States Park Service

After the first battle of that war, a body remaining on the field would have as good a chance of being dragged off by an animal or dug up by someone looking for good boots than their family being notified and the body registered, the contents in its clothing stored and catalogued and a good idea of where it was going to be buried temporarily along with plans for a more permanent resting place.  Frequently, families never found the body of their child.  The system in place was a system that had no respect or compassion, just lists published in the papers or the good will of a comrade or a farmer returning to his ruined field.  People hired individuals to go look for their child in the ruins of past battles.  Bodies decomposed half in and half out of a field with nothing more than a penciled note on their tunic.

While having coffee with a friend the other day we got to talking about how moved we had been walking through the battlefield sites in Normandy. He had just returned and his emotions were still fresh. I asked if he had gone to the German cemetery near St. Mere Eglise and he said he had not, that the last day kind of slipped away and he regretted not going. It got me thinking about that cemetery, Orglandes, the name of the town nearby, and the trip to it down a monument-rich stretch of country lane. At the cemetery, there is a tiny turnout for a handful of cars and a Norman tower forming the entrance.  It is a quiet and peaceful place where over 10,000 German soldiers lay who happened to be stationed in Normandy in the Spring of 1944.

It is a simple and understated place, one of six German cemeteries in Normandy.  Each headstone announces the names of six people, their birth dates and the month and day they died, three names on each side of the cross.  It does not take long to get a feel for the nature of the German forces buried in Orglandes.  They were disproportionately younger and older than the German Army generally was at that time.  The best troops in the Wehrmacht were in the east, trying to alter the grim Soviet momentum after Stalingrad.

For some reason I know that the German Memorial Day is in mid-November, so after coffee, I spent some time reading up on how Germany is caring for its war dead and found the astounding knowledge that nearly 70 years after the end of the war, Germany is still collecting nearly 40,000 bodies a year and reburying them in Germany or in German war cemeteries across Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, Germany has found, identified and re-interred nearly 716,000 of its World War II era soldiers, many from unmarked, mass graves that chronicle the retreat of the Wehrmacht from its near victory in Russia to its complete defeat in the suburbs of Berlin. 
Orglandes Cemetery

German war dead are cared for by a volunteer organization called the German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge), the Volksbund, for short.  Its job is to register, maintain and care for the graves of Germany’s World War I and World War II dead around the world.  The Volksbund was formed after World War I, but when World War II began, the Nazi Wehrmacht took over the job of caring for the dead and disbanded the Volksbund.  Two years after the war, the Volksbund was reconstituted and focused, early on, within the boundaries of Germany.  Soon it had established 400 war cemeteries inside the country.  After bi-lateral agreements between Germany and other countries were signed, the Volksbund went to work abroad.  Sometimes these agreements were a long time coming.  France and Germany signed a treaty in 1966, 21 years after the war, that allowed Germany to have direct access to its war dead and operate cemeteries in France.

Today, the Volksbund has 9,000 volunteers and 560 full time employees. It maintains 824 war cemeteries in 45 countries, containing a total of 2.4 million dead. Since the early 1990s, the commission has restored or built more than 300 cemeteries from World War II and 190 from World War I across Central and Eastern Europe and in Russia.

Earlier this year, the Volksbund released an on-line data base that includes the names of over 4 million World War II soldiers who either are known to be dead or are 
missing.  They hope, through contact with the families using the site, they will find letters, diaries and other sources that lead them to sites where other soldiers are buried.  Because of the expense, the Volksbund concentrates on larger grave sites, usually containing 50 or more bodies, since retrieval and reburial of individual graves is beyond the current capacity and likely future capacity, of the organization.  Because of the cruelty of the Nazi Wehrmacht in Eastern Europe, the Volksbund search teams in Eastern Europe are frequently met with considerable hostility.  More than 20 million civilians in the Soviet Union and 6 million in Poland died during World War II. The British Newspaper “The Sun” reported in September of this year that grave robbing in Russia of German cemeteries for Nazi memorabilia was becoming a significant problem.

In Czechoslovakia, a dispute about plans to bury the exhumed bodies of 2,000 German soldiers in a new cemetery went on for years, demonstrating how complex reburial can be. Some of the bodies were those of Waffen SS troops and some Czechs made a distinction between the appropriateness of burying regular army soldiers versus soldiers from the hated SS.  The bodies were finally taken from an old warehouse and buried in 2005. During World War II, 170,000 German troops were stationed in Czechoslovakia. More than 60,000 are unaccounted for.

Bodies from both wars are frequently found across Europe today, unearthed by transportation projects, new buildings, farmers, souvenir hunters.  The
discovery of these sites demonstrates just how difficult it is to make identifications. A site in the south of France near Nice was found in 2006 by a local medical student and, at a depth of three feet, the remains of 14 German soldiers. They had died in August of 1944 in a firefight and the burial site was soon forgotten. Students from the medical school as well as archeologists worked with Volksbund to help identify not only who the soldiers were but find their cause of death and see what kind of historical evidence could survive over 62 years. Among the pieces of evidence was that of the fourteen soldiers, only one had shoes on his feet.  A universal truth about war is the value of shoes.

Only 7 of the 14 had dog tags, the Germans use oval discs, were discovered at the site and led to identification of six bodies. The information on one was destroyed by shrapnel.  For each tag there is a file in a Berlin agency that has the tag information along with other clues to finding a soldier’s identity such as wedding rings, medals or samples of handwriting. Two others in the group were identified by cross checking this additional centralized information that is maintained on 18 million German soldiers. The bodies were buried a year later at the German military cemetery in Berneuil, France. There was enough individual information gathered over the year of research that sixty German relatives attended the burial ceremony.
Staff Sergeant Elbert Legg
US Army Quartermaster Corps

Early this year, a World War I trench complex was found in France with 21 bodies of German soldiers in it. It had apparently collapsed all at once when it suffered a direct hit by a powerful artillery round. Bits of newspaper, clothing and other materials survived. The bodies were identified and returned to Germany.

Among the finds of my research is an account by a young sergeant from the Quartermaster Corps Graves Registration Company, Elbert Legg. Arriving on one of the nearly 1000 gliders landing in Normandy during the invasion, he hit the ground between St. Mere Eglise and Orglandes on the afternoon of June 6.  Soon, he is in a field nearby where wounded and dead have been brought and he begins to organize a respectful place for the dead.

He will learn on the job. He has never touched a dead person before. He will also redeem in our time the new values Drew Gilpin Faust described as evolving in the Civil War.

“Four dead paratroopers already lay in the corner by the crossroads. Five gliders were in the hedgerows that surrounded the field. As I examined the site, two jeeps with trailers loaded with bodies drove in, and were directed to the corner of the field where the other bodies lay. The drivers made it clear they were delivering but not unloading. I sized up the situation and decided the time had come for me to be, and to act like, the graves registration representative that I was. For the first time in my life I touched a dead man. I grabbed the leg of one of the bodies and rolled it off onto the ground. As I struggled, the drivers gave in and assisted me with the remainder of the bodies. There were now 14 dead lying in a row and more loaded vehicles were driving into the field.”

Normandy, 1944
US Quartermaster Corps

“After studying the surrounding terrain, I went to one corner of the field and stuck my heel in the ground. This would be the upper left corner of the first grave. I found an empty K-ration carton and split it into wooden stakes. I paced off the graves in rows of 20 and marked them with the stakes. I had no transit, tape measure, shovels, picks or any other equipment needed to establish a properly laid out cemetery. I also lacked burial bags (mattress covers), grave registration forms and personal effects bags. The situation rapidly exceeded what had originally been planned for the one-man graves registration unit, and this was still the first day.”

“There were plenty of parachutes in the field, so nylon parachute panels 
served as personal effects bags and body bags. Each body was searched and all personal effects were secured, but no inventory was taken. A ruled tablet served as Graves Registration Form No. 1. Both identification tags were left with the body until it was ready to be placed into a grave. One tag stayed with the body after burial and the other was attached to the stake that served as a grave marker. The personal effects and Form No. 1 were kept together and wrapped in a parachute that served as a "filing cabinet" for the first days of the invasion. About 50 bodies were interred on D+1. More were arriving all the time.”

While Sergeant Legg was inland near a town called Blosville opening a cemetery and dealing with the growing rush of bodies in the first hours of D-Day, other temporary cemeteries were going up on the beaches, first at Omaha and then at Utah.   By the end of the week, Legg’s cemetery outside of Blosville held 350 dead.  By the end of the month there were 6,000 people buried there.   

American Cemetery Above Omaha Beach
Google Earth
By June 10, the temporary cemetery on Omaha Beach closed and the bodies moved up on the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, near the site of the present, American cemetery, a lovely place that amazes.  By June 20, the field near Orglandes opened for both German and American dead, who are buried in different areas of the field.  Soon, a decision is made by the Quartermaster Corps to make Orglandes a German cemetery and move the American bodies to the Omaha Beach bluff site.

About 2,500 American soldiers were killed on the ground on D-Day along with 1,500 allied troops and several hundred airmen.  It is not known exactly how many Germans were killed in action that day.  What we do know is that there are nearly 80,000 German troops buried in Normandy, along with 10,000 Americans, 18,000 British, 5,000 Canadians and 650 Poles.  The reason that there are so many British burials in Normandy is that it is a British custom to bury their dead near where they fall.  There are 18 British cemeteries in Normandy, only two American. 

French Women Placing Flowers on Temporary Graves
 St.  Mere Eglise Cemetery
June, 1944
At the beginning of 1947, American families of fallen soldiers received letters giving them a choice.  For the 233,181 Americans killed in action, the government told their families that they would repatriate the bodies of their loved ones.  However, they also could choose to leave their loved ones where they were buried or in permanent cemeteries abroad.  The families of 80,000 war dead had no choice.  The bodies of their sons, daughters and loved ones could not be found and were listed as missing. 

About 140,000 bodies were brought home, at a cost of some $200,000,000, well over $2 Billion today.  Nearly 95,000 families chose to have their relatives buried in American cemeteries abroad, like the one on the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach.

On October 26, 1947, sixty five years ago this month, in a ceremony hardly anyone remembers, the Liberty Ship Joseph V.  Connelly arrived at the foot of 21st Street in Manhattan with 6,248 coffins below decks and one flag-draped coffin on deck, the first of those who had fallen, were buried and reburied abroad and who were finally coming home.  The man in the coffin on the deck was killed during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 and was a posthumous Medal of Honor winner.  His name or home town was never revealed. At 12:45, the coffin is taken off the ship and placed on a caisson attached to an armored car.  The USS Missouri, in the harbor and escorting the Connolly, fires a salute, and a largely silent contingent of 6,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen, cadets from the military academies, police and firemen began walking behind the caisson heading uptown past silent crowds along the sidewalks.  Later, the Connolly sails to Brooklyn where it unloads the caskets to trains that will take them to destinations all over America. 

About 400,000 people on the New York sidewalks watch the parade as it passes by, silent except for occasional music from the Army Band, “Onward Christian Soldiers” was one piece of music, “Nearer My God to Thee” another. David P.  Colley, an author who wrote about this parade, reported that at 63rd and Fifth Avenue, “a diminutive street sweeper raised his broom with his left hand in a present arms and snapped a salute with his right hand as the coffin went by.”

The procession turned into Central Park at 72nd Avenue and assembled for a ceremony at the Sheep Meadow.

In San Francisco that same day, a similar ceremony was going on, with the caskets of six soldiers from all the service branches placed in San Francisco City Hall that morning, the people walking past them until late at night.  The boat in San Francisco Bay, the Honda Knott, had over 3,000 caskets on board, waiting for the trains that would ultimately find the hometowns that had to be found.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Cleaning Up the Mess at Hanford

Hanford From Space
Google Earth

The last several weeks we’ve been talking and reading about nuclear waste storage in preparation for a forum Gallatin hosted in late September that included several different points of view on the Hanford cleanup, in my mind the country’s most important environmental project.

Gallatin has a special resource on nuclear waste, John Kotek, the new head of our Boise office.  For the previous two years, John was staff director for the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future where he worked with some top people who are struggling with the complexities of finding a place to store the high-level detritus of the country’s nuclear programs, nearly 70 years after they began.  John, a nuclear engineer, also brings the experience of administering the Federal Department of Energy contract for the programs of the Idaho National Laboratory.

The panel at the forum included our man Kotek as well as Jane Hedges, the Washington State Department of Ecology manager who runs the state’s nuclear waste program and represents the state’s interest at the Hanford cleanup site.  Our third expert was Ward Sproat, who came out of the civilian nuclear power industry in Pennsylvania and was appointed by President George W. Bush to oversee the license application for the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.  Sproat is widely known within the industry to have turned that project around, though Yucca Mountain has since been taken off the table by President Obama at the urging of Harry Reid, Senator from Nevada and a staunch opponent.  Sproat has joined the Bechtel National team working on the Waste Treatment Plant at Hanford, which will stabilize nuclear waste and other contaminants there by fusing the waste into glass logs.

Single-wall tanks under construction, 1944
Department of Energy
We asked each panelist to give a status report from their unique point of view.  Hedges reported that the state sees considerable progress in Hanford cleanup.  She cited as a key risk-reducing accomplishment the fact that most of the liquids residing in the old single-wall waste storage tanks, have had their liquids pumped into newer, double-wall tanks.  What remains in the old tanks is a semi-solid, dry cake-like substance that contains a great deal of radioactivity but is far less likely to leak.  She pointed out, however, that the double-wall tanks are also getting older and recently a leak was detected in one of them – into the space between the two walls.

Cocooned C Reactor
Department of Energy
Hedges also said that the process of cocooning the plutonium producing reactors was continuing with six of the nine nuclear reactors sealed in cement and steel that will isolate the hot reactor core for up to 75 years.  Once sealed, the facilities are monitored remotely for heat and moisture. Every five years, workers enter the structure to evaluate its condition and to ensure there are no avenues for intrusion by animals or the elements. 

Making plutonium at Hanford was a messy process that required nuclear reactors to irradiate uranium fuel assemblies.  Some of the uranium in the fuel assemblies was converted to plutonium. The plutonium was separated from the uranium using a caustic chemical slurry that created a great deal of waste in the process.  The result is weapons-grade plutonium that is 93-94% pure and, when suddenly compressed inside a weapon, initiates a chain reaction explosion of considerable force. The bomb at Trinity, New Mexico was made with Hanford plutonium as was the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

During World War II and the Cold War that followed, many different reactors were constructed and several different extraction processes used.  The result creates huge technical challenges to clean-up because the character of the waste varied from process to process. 

Hedges said that the vitrification process that has been chosen for Hanford is the right technology, but because of the complexity of the waste, still faces technical challenges to the mission of incorporating waste into glass logs for permanent storage.  

Sproat said that the plant is now more than 60% complete.  The glass log technology has been successfully used in the US and in France, but the combination of the wastes and chemicals at Hanford, the different sizes of individual parts of the waste and other evolving information about the character of the waste make it difficult to complete design and finish construction of the vitrification plant.  Sproat’s company is involved in successfully decommissioning tanks and vitrifying the waste at the Savannah River complex in South Carolina, although the waste there is less complicated than the Hanford waste.

A third component of the discussion was what to do with the waste after it is processed.  For now, and for the foreseeable future, Kotek said high-level waste and commercial nuclear fuel rods will have to stay in place.  He said the Blue Ribbon Commission had come to the conclusion that a top down, federally mandated site solution would be riskier and more expensive and Kotek said that the commission was recommending a consent-based approach.  He said that recent successful public processes in Finland, Sweden and Spain led the commission to believe that there may be a better way to talk to communities about hosting nuclear waste storage.

Kotek said the Commission also recommended a change of governance for nuclear waste storage, from the federal Department of Energy to a new, single-purpose government corporation with responsibilities to “site, license, build, and operate facilities for the safe consolidated storage and final disposal of spent fuel and high-level nuclear waste at a reasonable cost and within a reasonable time frame.”

Legislation to accomplish this task has been introduced in the current session of the Congress and will spark a long-needed conversation about United States’ goals for its nuclear waste programs.
We tend to think of Hanford as focused on turning highly radioactive waste into glass logs, but the cleanup is an enormous undertaking with many components and a cost of two billion dollars/year.
Hanford B Reactor, the First Plutonium Reactor
Department of Energy

Good and convenient sources allow the lay person to get a grasp on the history of waste at Hanford. In 2003, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory wrote a short history of waste at Hanford and set out just what kind of materials were put into the 1600 disposal sites that served nine nuclear power plants and five plutonium processing facilities. Used in tandem with the Department of Energy’s Hanford website, it is possible to update and enrich this remarkable history.

“From 1944 through the late 1980s, Hanford generated nearly 525 million gallons of high-level tank waste.  Liquid evaporation, discharge to the ground, chemical treatment and tank leakage reduced this volume by 90%— to 54 million gallons.  This is about 60% of the tank waste existing across all U.S. Department of Energy nuclear activities. Today, this waste contains about 195 million curies of radioactivity and 220,000 metric tons of chemicals,” the PNNL report says.

Hanford Tank Complex, About 1953
The report says that much of this waste, generated between 1944 and the late 1980s, is stored in 177 tanks on site of which 149 are single-shell tanks built between 1943 and 1964 with a useful life expectancy of 20 years.  Sixty-seven of these tanks have leaked or are suspected to have leaked one million gallons of liquid into the underlying sediment, beginning in 1956.  Here’s how the Department of Energy’s Hanford website describes how this waste got out and into the ground.  

“Even with 149 tanks, the volume of chemical wastes generated through the plutonium production mission far exceeded the capacity of the tanks. Some of the liquid waste did end up being put into holding facilities and some was poured into open trenches. Some of the wastes that were put into the tanks didn’t stay there, as the heat generated by the waste and the composition of the waste caused an estimated 67 of these tanks to leak some of their contents into the ground. Some of this liquid waste migrated through the ground and has reached the groundwater.”

With the shutdown of the N Reactor in 1987, no more plutonium has been made there.  Over the years the double-wall tanks have received liquids originally put into the single-wall tanks, providing better protection.   PNNL’s 2003 history reported that no double-wall tank had leaked, though some of those were reaching their design life.  As Jane Hedges reported during the panel discussion, a double-shell tank was recently found to have leaked into the space between the inner shell and the outer shell. 

Spent nuclear fuel was stored on site as well, about 2,100 tons.  The fuel was irradiated in the N Reactor, the dual-purpose reactor that produced plutonium for weapons and steam for electricity.  The fuel was then moved to two aging, water-filled concrete basins and never reprocessed, sitting in the water for years.  The report says that some of this fuel corroded and radionuclides migrated to the local soil and ground water. However, after 2003, that basin water was treated and disposed (Hanford cleanup treats 28,000,000 gallons of water each year) and the fuel assemblies have been taken out and stored in carbon steel tubes.  They reside today in what is called the “Canister Storage Building,” where it and Waste Treatment Plant steel canisters holding vitrified waste will be stored until a national repository is built.

There has also been some progress made in stabilizing the old single-wall tanks.  By the middle of last month, three single-wall waste tanks had been emptied this year, bringing the number of emptied tanks to ten.  Some contain small amounts of material that has hardened on the floors of the tanks and will require additional work before full decommissioning.

Low Level Nuclear Waste Disposal, Hanford 1950
Department of Energy
Best practices in the 1940s and 1950s were not as stringent as today’s.  Many wastes containing radioactive material were landfilled on site in those days.  A nine-acre burial site called 618-11 is one of those sites and clean-up us slated for about two years from now.  However, before moving dirt, a great deal of research must be done to learn what may have been disposed into the burial ground.  Complicating that research is that some of the records do not exist or appear contradictory.  In 1999, the PNNL history says the 9-acre 618-11 burial ground, located not far from the Energy Northwest commercial reactor complex, revealed groundwater samples with elevated levels of tritium—as much as 400 times above drinking water standards.

Handling radioactive materials creates radioactive garbage. Refrigerators, ovens, old clothing, shoes, pumps, equipment, vehicles, railroad cars – all the tools of long-ago experimentation and testing must be buried or put into containers for storage and future disposal. 

Plumes of radioactive and hazardous material are moving toward the Columbia River from land disposal and leaks.  Depending on the contaminants, some move slowly and others move with considerable speed.  The cleanup effort must monitor these plumes and manage their movement.

The PNNL history says that 110 million curies of radioactivity were discharged into the Columbia, a significant number, though a large percentage of the discharge was in elements with short half-lives.  Magnesium, for example, with a half-life of just over two and a half hours, accounts for two-thirds of the curies discharged into the river.   The history says that the largest releases into the Columbia occurred in 1963 when eight reactors were working and plutonium production was at its zenith.  In those days, a typical resident, according to PNNL, would receive one to five millirem/year over normal background radiation, a relatively small amount.  However, a frequent user of the Columbia who worked on the river and has a significant amount of fish in his diet would have experienced a 50-130 millirem dose, 15%-45% above background levels.  The PNNL study says that Native Americans exposed to those 1963 levels and who also consumed a lot of river fish would have been exposed to fifty times more radiation than exists in the natural background.  Today, none of the reactors built for plutonium production are working and two-thirds are cocooned and none of the plutonium reprocessing plants are operating.  Called canyons, because of their length and high walls, these plants remain shut down but still are highly radioactive.

A Hanford cleanup agreement between the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Washington Department of Ecology was agreed to in 1989 with the leadership of then Attorney General Chris Gregoire and was updated in 2009 with a court-supervised consent decree.  The agreement covers many different disposal sites across the reservation.  Most of these materials will have to remain on site until a national nuclear waste repository is found, studied, approved, permitted and built. 

The clean-up at Hanford is a legacy issue, depending on stable funding over many years – the current schedule calls for continued intense efforts along many fronts.  Not all of these fronts have a secure end-date.  Also, future funding for Hanford cleanup and for a new, national repository to store what is removed at Hanford depends on the congressional appropriations process, even though commercial nuclear plants set aside today some $750 million a year for a national repository.  This money is considered revenue by the federal government and is not, as originally contemplated, a fund of its own.  Getting the money requires the appropriations process.  Making funding even more difficult is the fact that the federal government is completing some of its cleanups in other parts of the country.  Twenty-nine states were part of America’s nuclear program and needed various levels of cleanup.  Today, however, 15 of those have moved from cleanup to monitoring, making the issue less urgent to Congressional delegations in those states where the cleanup is finished. 

Seventy years ago, in December 1942, a group of scientists toured the Hanford Site, one of a handful of sites under consideration for the world’s first plutonium factory.  They knew that the science of nuclear energy was widely shared among scientists and academics around the world before World War II and that the Nazis both knew about the atom’s potential as a weapon and had demonstrated great innovation and success making new weapons.  They knew that in December 1942, the Germans appeared to be in command at Stalingrad, owned nearly all of Europe and the Mediterranean Sea and were raining bombs on London.   The scientists were in a hurry to produce an American atomic weapon and left us a shorter war and highly contaminated place in the center of our state next to our great river.

Under the best of circumstances, cleanup will be ongoing well into the middle of this century with the areas under active cleanup becoming smaller and concentrated toward the center of the site, away from the river.  In a way, it is a kind of cathedral.  People working on it today will never see it finished, though it is one of the most significant public works our country will ever do.  It creates amazing and difficult management problems that require a focus on tomorrow’s end game while solving today’s immediate and difficult problems. 

Department of Ecology Waste Program Website 

Short History of Hanford Project

Department of Energy Hanford Cleanup Website

Vitrification Plant Summary

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Farm in a Day and WPA Golf

In mid-September we went on a driving trip across the state to Spokane, stopping in Moses Lake one night for a great meal with a friend and then heading out the next day to Spokane.  But we meandered some, off the freeway to the south, for breakfast in Othello, near the center of the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project.  The first part of that trip led to a posting last week about the origins of that amazing water project. Read the post.

Vernetta and Don on the right
Bureau of Reclamation
One of the people we learned about while researching the Bureau of Reclamation was Donald Dunn, whose family was the recipient of a promotion cooked up by the bureau to create a farm in a day.  For 24 hours 300 or more people built a farm house, outbuildings – chicken coop, chickens included, shop and the equipment to go with it.  The swarming workmen planted crops, herded the cows and horses onto the site and filled up the refrigerator and cupboards.  There was a cat and a dog, though the dog, Skipper, ran off with the coyotes.  Additionally, the Dunns got a gift from each state and territory.  Texas airlifted a special heifer.  The governor of Guam sent a case of coconuts. 

Dunn was the winner of a competition conducted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars for the Bureau of Reclamation who the VFW called “the most deserving World War II veteran with a farm background.” 

Columbia Basin land before irrigation.
Courtesy Bureau of Reclamation
In addition, the Bureau made it known that veterans who wanted could submit their names to a drawing that would give them a chance to buy property that was now desert but scheduled to be irrigated.  Four such drawings were held throughout 1952.  The last, held in Othello, selected 42 individuals.  I’ve been in contact with the daughter of one of those veterans who won the land lottery and she said her parents dashed to the Columbia Basin land once they had won to see the property they would buy, the plans for their new home in the car.  The wife took one look at the desert country, returned to Oregon City where they lived out their days.  Their daughter has the plans still. 

I’ve spent the last week finding out more about Donald Dunn and what happened to him after his new place was built on the day of May 29, 1952 and a little man-made finger of the Columbia River flowed right up to his 122 acre farm a few miles outside of Ephrata and made the crops the bureau planted bloom. 

First hole at Indian Canyon, 1935
Spokesman Review
The reason for our trip was to play golf at some of Spokane’s terrific public golf courses, including Indian Canyon, one of 103 golf courses built during the Great Depression by the Works Progress Administration, part of a stimulus strategy that provided work for millions of out-of-work Americans.  It seems odd that one focus of the WPA was the construction of golf courses, but it makes sense.  So many of the WPA workers did not have top shelf job skills and what was needed for a golf course --  moving rocks, trees, dirt – was muscle power, the one thing within reach of people who’d never had much access to education.  Also, the game of golf was turning from a rich man’s game to a game for everyman and, in the twenties, public courses were springing up everywhere.

Chandler Egan
Waverley Country Club
Indian Canyon is a lovely piece of work on a tough, hilly site.  What caught my eye was that it was designed by H. Chandler Egan, a golf course designer whom I knew designed courses I had played in Puget Sound and in Portland and who also was one of the greatest amateur players of his time.  He had a significant hand in the design of one of the temples of American golf, Pebble Beach, when he was hired to make it better for the 1929 US Amateur Championship, which he also played in and damned near won at 45 years of age.  He paid the price of staying an amateur, disappearing from the game for many years so he could make some money, a game he wasn’t very good at.  An international class golfer, he left his home in golf crazy Chicago in mid-career and started raising pears in Jackson County, near Medford, Oregon – 300 miles from the nearest competitive golf course.  Along with Don Dunn, I thought I’d learn a bit more about Chan, as his friends called him.

Let’s start with Dunn, driving a tank through France and into Germany in 1944 and, in the dark, pushing over the border into Germany, past several German towns, racing toward his objective without resistance, thinking that the bulky shapes behind him were American tanks like his, but he was wrong about that.  And soon the shapes closed in so close that the men got out of their tanks and tried to kill one another on the ground.  It was the third longest night of his life.

The second was seven years later when the flood hit his successful farm in Marion, Kansas, on land next to the family farm he had quit school to run at 14 after his Dad got sick.  Twelve inches of rain fell that day in 1951 and Cottonwood Creek put six feet of water in his house, even though the building  was on the highest point on the land.  The death of a twin son, at three months in 1947, was the first.

Donald Dunn Testifies in Washington, DC
At left is Congressman Henry M. Jackson
Bureau of Reclamation
After the flood, he and his wife sold everything that they could salvage and headed out to the Northwest, renting land in Yakima, Washington, starting up again where they felt it didn’t flood so bad and where, after five or so years, they hoped to have enough money to buy their own farm.  He saw about the contest for ‘the most deserving veteran’ and felt the bumps in his life were big enough and rough enough to make him at least competitive and he wrote the excellent winning essay.  He knew there was something up when he got a call from one of his brothers in Kansas telling him that the FBI was asking questions about him there. Then he got the call.

Egan had an easier row to hoe.  Born in 1884, his parents were wealthy, lived in a fine Chicago suburb, Highland Park, home today to many Frank Lloyd Wright homes and an eclectic group of A and B list names -- Michael Jordan, basketball player, Gary Sinise, actor, Billy Corgan, lead guitar of Smashing Pumpkins.
National Amateur Champion, 1904

When he was twelve, his uncle introduced him to golf while on a family vacation in Wisconsin and he must have been a fantastic teacher.  Egan’s cousin, Walter, his Uncle’s son, also played golf and for years they traded first and second place in the Western Amateur, a big tournament then.  Later, his family joined Exmoor County Club in Highland Park and Egan became the best player there.  As the Scots say, “he could golf his ball.”  On to Harvard where he is captain of golf team that won three Intercollegiate golf championships in a row, Egan becoming the individual champ as a sophomore.  At 20, in 1904, he wins his first US Amateur championship and then finishes with a silver medal in the Olympic Games in St.  Louis.  He repeats as champ at the 1905 US Amateur, something only a handful of players have done – Tiger Woods, Bobby Jones (twice), Lawson Little among them. 

When Egan was playing the US Amateur, it was considered a major championship and drew the best players.  There were professional golfers then, but the purses were ridiculously low.  The professional Willie Anderson won four US Opens between 1901 and 1905 and earned $800 – for all four wins!  Egan, with his Harvard education and Chicago country club relationships, tried selling insurance as a way to earn a living and keep his golf skills, but he didn’t do well and both his golf and finances suffered.  His daughter put Egan’s dilemma this way:

“He was torn between duty and pleasure.”

He moved to Louisville, Kentucky and started work in the railroad business but was not ultimately happy there.  In 1911, with his new wife Nina McNally -- yes, those Rand-McNallys -- they took a train to Medford, Oregon where he had purchased an apple and pear orchard.  Egan would not enter another national class golf tournament until 1929. 

Jackson County Historical Society
There was a fruit boom going on in Jackson County.  Refrigerated railroad cars made possible the movement of fresh fruit over long distances.  New irrigation projects allowed more orchard land to come into play.  Land owners and speculators reached out across the country for investors and what was happening in southern Oregon caught Egan’s eye.  The population of Jackson County would double between 1900 and 1910 but Egan’s timing was poor.  The fruit bust followed the fruit boom and the gentleman farmer idea didn't quite pan out. 

Egan's home in Medford, now on the
US Register of Historic Places
Jackson County Historical Society
Egan’s house was not far from a small nine hole track, owned by the Medford Country Club, an organization that formed about the same time as Egan was moving in.  In 1912, members asked him to work with them on improving the course. He designed a second nine and helped improve the first, but the club was on and off broke.  That same year he was asked to help design the back nine at Tualatin Golf Club.  He began playing regional golf, entering the Pacific Northwest Golf Association Amateur Tournament first in 1914, a kind of Cincinnatus bringing out the old weapons once again.  He completely dominated golf in the Northwest, winning the tournament five times over 18 years, finishing second twice.

Golf is exploding across the American landscape now, courses going up everywhere for both recreation and real estate.  In 1917, Egan designs Eastmoreland in Southeast Portland and, for the first time, gets paid for his design work.  As a thirteen year old, I remember teeing off on Eastmoreland’s first hole, unable to get my breath, as older players looked on and wouldn’t shut up. 

University of Washington Libraries
Don’s wife, Vernetta is pregnant and uncomfortable and has no idea what to do with the visitor in their new living room, Congressman Henry Jackson of Washington’s Second District, who is running for the Senate and on an eastern Washington swing. 

Thankfully, Don has the ability to talk with anyone and the girls love all the attention and try to sit still and be completely normal while the photographer stalks around them.  Barefoot, they’ve never seen a pair of shoes like the Congressman is wearing.  Dunn, Vernetta and the kids will appear in a campaign ad printed in most dailies across the state on October 26, 1952.

The Congressman is telling Don that the United States Department of Agriculture is telling him that the cash crops in the ground -- potatoes, beans and corn -- will likely gross about $12,500, a good start, while other crops will help build the soil for the future.  Don doesn’t quite believe him but, as the harvest plays out, the USDA experts are right.  He’s just a couple of hundred dollars under that estimate.  Soon he’s talking to another farmer, President Harry Truman, who is in Ephrata campaigning for Adlai Stevenson.  Dunn gives him a bag of beans from his by now completely famous ‘farm in a day.’  As Dwight Eisenhower’s campaign train pauses in Ephrata on October 6, 1952, Dunn presents the general with a sack of potatoes from his first crop, receiving a thank you letter from Ike later that week. 
While a modest man, he likes the attention and can handle it.  By now he’s getting pretty good on his feet and makes a report to the Wenatchee Chamber of Commerce summing up his experiences on the new farm.  He testifies in Congress.  He said, in a visit to the farm in 2002, that he was speaking twice a week.
Later, in an interview after he died, one of his sons says what Don would never mention outside the family.  There were some problems.  Much of the equipment gifted to Dunn was antiquated stuff farm implement companies wanted to get rid of.  Dunn had to buy a lot of new gear.  And that irrigation water was expensive, even though it was deeply subsidized.  And something else was going on.  Clearly, Don was a good communicator.  His essay on why he should be ‘most deserving’ is extremely well done.  All the attention made him more confident and outgoing, and the lure of the farm less strong. 

 "The farm helped me hone skills for my second career, selling farm implements," he told the Wenatchee World. Blaine Hardin's book, "River Lost," says that three others failed to make a go of the farm after Dunn left. When Dunn visited in 2002, it was primarily a dairy operation. 

"I was a PR Man, not a moneymaker," is how Dunn described it in 2002.
He had created some new horizons that extended beyond the land.  So, he sold the farm after four years, erased $60,000 in debt, clearing $10,000.  He and Vernetta moved to Rifle, Colorado to run a farming cooperative.  Later, he went back home to Kansas, first to be a top salesman for the Carey Salt Company and later the best sales performer for the Hesston Farm Machinery Company.  He made real money and needed it.  Over the years, he and Vernetta added seven more children to their family for a total of nine.  His son says he won every sales incentive the company offered and that he and Vernetta travelled frequently and well, sometimes with the kids and sometimes not.

Vernetta died in 1999 and Don in 2005.  She was 77 and he was 83.  They had 21 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. 

A young man who caddied for Egan at Rogue Valley Country Club said that Egan rarely played with anyone, but would go out alone, playing three or four balls, hitting some shots over and over again.  He would put down his ever present pipe close to the ball before hitting his shot and the young man feared many times that the club would strike the pipe, but of course it never did.

Egan had a wide stance and didn’t get cheated on his swing.  His caddy said he had tremendously powerful wrists which he battled all his career.  Strong wrists are a friend of the snap hook.

In 1916, Nina and their daughter go back to life in Chicago ending what was likely an unhappy five years.  He sells the orchard but continues living in the house they built when they arrived.  A bit less encumbered, he now remakes himself as a golf course architect and a competitive golfer.

During the twenties, Egan is a very busy man, playing excellent golf as the premier amateur player in the Northwest and its busiest golf course architect.  From 1920 to 1925 he was working on the designs for courses in Hood River, the Eugene Country Club, Reames Country Club in Klamath Falls, Watson Golf Ranch south of Coos Bay, Seaside.  He also maintained informal relationships with Waverley Country Club in Portland, where members described him as ‘guiding Waverly’s hand’ as the club made changes to its layout.  The golf club in Medford had gone broke again and the organizers of the new Rogue Valley Country Club asked him to help shape the course in a way that would attract new members.  He did the Rogue Valley project for free. 

Seventh Hole at Pebble Beach with the sand dune
design created by Chandler Egan
In 1926 Egan played in the California Amateur Championship, winning at the old Pebble Beach layout.  He was completely smitten by the Monterey Peninsula, bought a house in Del Monte and began his work on the remodel of Pebble Beach with famed designer Alister Mackenzie, the designer of Augusta National and Cypress Point.   

The management at Pebble Beach wanted to make the course attractive to the professional tour that had been growing in importance throughout the decade and who would be passing through the peninsula on its way to the second Los Angeles Open in 1927.  A second objective was to make the course a showcase for its biggest tournament yet, the upcoming 1929 US Amateur.

Seventh at Pebble today
Wikipedia Commons
They would be deeply disappointed when the biggest golfing star in the country, Bobby Jones, got beat in the first round.  But they were thrilled when Egan marched through the preliminaries, though he lost his semi-final match.  He was on the map as a golfer once again.  On the basis of this performance, he was invited to be a member of the Walker Cup Team -- the best amateurs in the US against the best in Great Britain -- chosen by team captain Francis Ouimet.  He also received an invitation to and played in the first Masters Tournament. 

In between, he was designing courses in northern California, Oregon (helping with improvements to Gearhart by the Sea) and in Washington state, often working with Alister Mackenzie.  Frequently, he worked with swarms of WPA workmen at West Seattle, Indian Canyon and Legion Park in Everett.
In the spring of 1936 he caught pneumonia while working on Legion Park.  He had just finished clay renderings of the greens for West Seattle and checked himself into the hospital after a wet day on the Everett site.  He died a few days later on day three of the third Masters Golf Tournament.  He was just 51.  Perhaps the pipe he had in his hand or in his mouth for hours each day played a role in his inability to clear his lungs of the infection.

The Spokane Parks Department has done a good job with Indian Canyon.  It feels lush, even after the dry summer.  What I like about Indian Canyon is that the drive on the first hole takes you into the canyon and you don't come out until 18.  All the golf, its comedy and magic, takes place on the undulating, distant canyon floor.  On this day, the course wins.  Trudging up the hill on 18, my knee hurting, I give the match and the day to Chandler Egan.  

Compared to today's sports culture -- professional, select, heavyweight, international, big ticket -- Egan is an anomaly, the gifted amateur, someone for whom the game is just that, even when played at the highest level. 

Bobby Jones, who also aspired to be and was a gifted amateur golfer and who admired Egan, invited him to his first golf tournament, then called, less pompously, the Augusta National Invitational.  Egan begged off, saying it was just too expensive to get there.  However, Jones was a big supporter of the WPA and had serious stroke with WPA Administrator Harry Hopkins.  He knew that the WPA was about to start a project in North Atlanta and figured out a way to have Egan supply a design.  North Fulton is the only Chandler Egan design east of the Rockies. 

 Donald Dunn's story, in his own words

Chandler Egan's Golf Courses

Bobby Jones and others at Medford, Oregon memorial to Chandler Egan

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Columbia Basin Reclamation Project

We were way-bored with I-90 and looking for a good Mexican breakfast so we turned south off the Interstate on Highway 17 and headed toward Othello, Washington.  Our destination was Spokane, still 100 miles away, but we had time, it was a lovely day and if we ate half an hour later in the morning we could probably justify a beer with our huevos rancheros.

Othello is the biggest town in sparsely populated Adams County -- 19,000 -- a county that was carved out of Whitman County in 1883.  The county has a curious look to it, as if it were Nebraska upside down and Othello is splat dab in the center of the panhandle.  It is also at the center of the state’s potato country with some dry land wheat and apple orchards thrown in and is one of two Washington state counties with a majority Hispanic population. 

We found the Benavidez on the southern end of Main Street.  It was in an old, large building that looked like it might have served as a grocery store one day, but today it looked like it was feeling its weight and gravity was giving it a hard time.  It appeared to be just getting up, slowly and a bit unsteadily. 

Four or five farmhands sat at the dark bar drinking coffee.  The number never went below three or above five, but the personnel changed frequently, new people walking past us in the otherwise empty tables to the bar, others getting up and passing us going the other way.  Greetings and goodbyes were mostly in Spanish.  A Fox News channel jabbered away behind the bar, the men sometimes turning toward the glow, but the sound mercifully fell to the floor before it got to our table.  

All the wall and shelf space in the Benevidez was full of photographs, knick-knacks and paintings.  President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez were surrounded by many people we didn’t know at all, some in large painted renderings, many of them in business suits, others in traditional garb with a big sombrero.  I thought of Sandburg’s “Sky Pieces,” wishing I could read it right then with classic Sandburg drama, but recited it silently, so as not to make a fuss.


Proudly the fedoras march on the heads of the somewhat careless men.
Proudly the slouches march on the heads of the still more careless men.
Proudly the panamas perch on the noggins of dapper debonair men.
Comically somber the derbies gloom on the earnest solemn noodles.
And the sombrero, most proud, most careless, most dapper and debonair of all, Somberly the sombrero marches on the heads of important men who know
what they want.

Hats are sky-pieces; hats have a destiny; wish your hat slowly; your hat is you.

There is an old woman, easily 80, maybe even in her 90s, serving coffee to the evolving chorus in front of her, silently dropping menus on our table and, without asking, setting up coffee cups and filling them.  She is alone.  I imagine that her help went home after breakfast rush – around here that is most likely at 6AM – and would return at 11:00 or so.  At least I hoped that.

We ordered the eggs and she came by with refills of coffee.  Precisely at 10:00 AM, we ordered our beers and the plates came minutes later.  Good.  Not great, but authentic for sure.  As we ate, she polished, one by one, apples that she lifted from a box behind the bar.  We paid and tipped well and she brought back an apple for each of us which, as we headed up to Spokane, we decided was probably the best apple we'd eaten in the past decade. 

City of Othello
Our trip had started in Moses Lake which, compared to Othello, looked a quart low.  Othello looked good, if not prosperous.  The streets were clean, there was a new city hall, Pioneer Park’s T-33 Trainer was still shiny on its post, banking slowly, gliding home. 

Othello is in the middle of the Columbia Basin Project, a mammoth irrigation project that we usually attribute to the wrong Roosevelt, Franklin and his New Deal.  In fact, it rises from the Progressive Era and one of its creators, Theodore Roosevelt, whose signature is on the Reclamation Act of 1902, the bill that formed the United States Reclamation Service and placed it in the USGS, the United States Geologic Survey.  It was placed there because John Wesley Powell had set out a strategy in his book, Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, written in 1878, three years before he took over the USGS.

John Wesley Powell About 1871
Arguably our most able westerner, Powell led the expedition that filled in the blanks on the map of America that was the Grand Canyon in 1869.  It was not only a great adventure, but a scientific triumph as well.  They frequently risked their lives for science on the Powell Expedition.  After one of their three boats is wrecked in a bad section of the river and is strewn over an island in the middle of the river, they discover that the wreckage contains all of the expedition’s barometers, key to measuring the altitude profile of the canyon.  They decide, after much conversation, that it is worth the risk to get to the wreckage.  After a harrowing trip to the island, they bring back the barometers.  A footnote to good science is that they also had the good sense to regain possession of a three gallon barrel of whiskey.

Later, Powell climbs to the canyon rim and takes readings with the barometers that show that he is standing 8,000 feet above sea level and 4,000 feet above the river.  Seven years earlier, Powell lost his right arm at Shiloh. 

Like many westerners, Powell was bothered by both the geology and the politics of water.  It was deeply frustrating to watch all that water flowing by knowing that the soil chemistry of much of the desert US would produce excellent crops.  Also frustrating were the clumsy attempts by local farmers to divert water to crops or cattle.  He was frustrated by the laws that grew up around water in the west, and how they favored individuals, often to the disadvantage of the larger community.   He watched in disgust as eastern jurisdictions tapped into the federal treasury for rivers and harbors improvements while western states went begging with their irrigation ideas.  He hated the speculation that was tying up lands in the west and the lack of community development that federal inaction meant.  He saw the ideals of the Homestead Act perverted by the fact that so much of the homesteading land in the west was not worth a damn without water. 

Powell’s USGS estimated that 30 million acres could be farmed if there was water yet, in 1890, four years before he would leave the USGS, only 3.5 million acres of arid land were actively farmed.

The aptly named Francis Newlands, the only member of the House of Representatives from the new state of Nevada, shared those ideas and frustrations and brought them effectively to Congress.  Newlands soon won over the Vice-President, Teddy Roosevelt, though President McKinley thought it best to go slow on irrigation.  Six months after McKinley died and Roosevelt became the President, Roosevelt signed Newlands’ Reclamation Act, in 1902.

The legislation committed the proceeds from the sales of federal lands to irrigation projects in several states and territories: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.  Some of these states were still territories in 1902 and Texas had no federally owned land, but was added as a reclamation state in 1906.  The legislation had a strict ‘user pays’ idea, requiring the beneficiaries of projects to pay their share of the costs. 

The first five projects were soon underway.  They were carefully selected for their good politics, for the kinds of problems they presented that needed to be solved and for their prospects of success.  Another criterion was whether there was a good possibility that towns and communities would follow after the irrigation came in.  In March of 1903, just eleven months after the bill became law, the US Geological Survey recommended to the Secretary of the Interior that water projects be started on the Sweetwater/North Platte in Wyoming and Nebraska, the Milk River in Montana, the Truckee in Nevada, the Gunnison in Colorado, and the Salt River in Central Arizona.  A week later, Interior Secretary Ethan A. Hitchcock concurred with the suggestions and authorized the Reclamation Service to do what was necessary to get underway. 

Bureau of Reclamation
Teddy Roosevelt was soon doing what he liked best, travelling across the west, hunting big game animals and dedicating water projects, including this one, Roosevelt Dam on Arizona’s Salt River, the first increment of what has become the enormous Salt River Project.

Soon, the Reclamation Service was the largest developer of water projects on the globe, building far too many projects too quickly and running into a lot of trouble.  In 1923, an investigatory body, The Fact Finder’s Commission, showed that despite investing $135 million in water projects, repayment of just $10 million was in the bank.  There had been cost overruns and a number of other unmet expectations. 

As part of the reform, payback provisions in loans were doubled from twenty to forty years, but even then, several projects were abandoned, even when the money came without interest.  Electricity production was allowed to became a major part of project economics.  Other events intervened.  The great Mississippi flood set out a host of flood control projects on that river and those concepts soon transferred to the Colorado River and Hoover Dam and would find their way later to the Columbia.

During this time of rethinking reclamation, the Columbia Basin Project had settled into an argument between the pumpers, those who saw irrigation accomplished by building a high dam at Grand Coulee and pumping water out of the impoundment behind the dam and into a distribution system.  The other protagonists here were the ditchers.  They were largely private interests, led by Washington Water Power, who would divert water from lakes in Idaho and the Pend Oreille River in northeastern Washington into irrigation canals and send it by gravity, south and west.  It was also a cultural fight.  The ditchers were wealthy businessmen who thought of the pumpers as hayseeds.  The hayseeds won.

President Hoover authorized a study of the Columbia River Project and the resulting report advocated ten dams, some in British Columbia.  Grand Coulee, the largest, was at an elevation of 550 feet that would create a volume of water for both power and irrigation.  While the report was a defeat for the ditchers, it was also a tremendous disappointment for the pumpers.  Franklin Roosevelt was president by now and recommended a lower dam, similar in size to the Bonneville Dam down river that would provide for power generation only. 

There was a compromise, however.  The federal government would provide the wherewithal to build the foundations of the dam in such a way that additional height could be added if it seemed wise.  The wisdom came early for Roosevelt.  In three years he had reversed himself, deciding that the higher dam was not only a good idea but among the most important ideas in front of the country, so he federalized Grand Coulee and it was managed by the Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes. 

It is easy to wonder if FDR did this two-step dance as a political move because he needed to deflect criticism of spending so much on one project – more than the Panama Canal! – or because he was a guy who had the guts to look at information and change his mind.

Engine next to ice house
Wade Stevenson
At the time the reclamation service got started, there were just 15 or so homesteaders in the Othello area and a couple of thousand people countywide.  A year after the reclamation service opened its doors they told the Columbia Valley farmers that any project there was infeasible.  They were dry land farmers, mostly farming winter wheat and they had a small stream, Crab Creek, that supplied some water.  The railroads were good to Othello and assorted business grew up loading wheat and shipping other products, some of which required cooling.  An ice plant sprung up, a hotel, a big switch yard.  The Great Northern was first in Othello, but pulled out when they fell behind other competitors.  But the first linkage between the Great Lakes and Puget Sound came about when the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific railroad took over the Great Northern properties and completed the linkage to Tacoma in 1909.  The town did well, growing to 650 people.

Asahel Curtis
Depending on how you look at it, the completion of the Panama Canal in 1915 and what they call ‘the end of the wet era’ in 1919 was where Othello topped out.  The canal reduced the need for as much transcontinental rail shipping and, after 1919, the weather got drier and drier.  People needed huge amounts of land to grow wheat and then some farmes could only crop it every other year.  The 1928-1931 drought was particularly brutal, with many farmers unable to feed the thousands of horses used to work a wheat crop.   And, by 1928, the Milwaukee Road went into receivership.  From its peak of 650 people in 1920 to its nadir in 1940 of 332 souls, Othello had sunk. 

Moses Lake Chamber
Even with the completion of Grand Coulee in 1942, it would be years before the water works would find their way to Othello and the rest of Adams County.  However, the Bureau of Reclamation arrived anyway, five years before the water, and established a district office there of the Columbia Basin Project.  It helped make the modern town.  Mayor Victor Bjorkland of Ephrata, a town just up the road to the North, summed up the optimism people felt in 1947:

"If Ephrata wants to taste the dust again, they'll have to import the stuff!"

East Adams Museum and Art Center

Rita and Martin Seedorf, Eastern Washington historians, wrote in Columbia Magazine in 1994 about this booming optimism:

“The "Farm-in-a-Day" event began at 12:01 A.M. and continued until 11:30 P.M. on May 29, 1952. During that period 300 people worked to clear and level the land, build a house and out-buildings, and plant crops. The day became a full-blown media event covered by all major wire services, magazines, newspapers and newsreels of the day.

The completed farm was presented to Donald D. Dunn, "the nation's most worthy World War II veteran," who had been selected in a Veterans of Foreign Wars drawing.”

In 1952, the Bureau of Reclamation held several drawings in which thousands of veterans were entered.  In Othello, the last of the drawings, 7,000 veterans were entered. Just 42 names were picked but they had the opportunity to buy the public properties that used to be desert. 

Most of the irrigated land was private with the water managed and delivered by Irrigation Districts and other special purpose governments. The project kept growing through the sixties and Othello was well-positioned to not only grow crops, but add value through processing. 

In 1961, Othello’s first frozen food packer, Othello Packers, begins processing peas, carrots and corn. The farmer commitment to potatoes pays off with another processor, Chef Ready French Fries in 1964. Soon Simplot is moving in, then Nestle, the Canadian processor, McClain.

Largely because of the Columbia Reclamation Project, Washington state provides 20% of all the potatoes grown in the country and is a very large processor of French fries.  A large percentage of French fries eaten in America started on their way to the hot oil from Adams County. Nine of ten potatoes grown in Adams County and the state are used elsewhere with 75% of them in the form of French fries. If you eat a French fry in America, there is a high probability it will carry an Othello terroir.

The Columbia Basin Reclamation is an amazing infrastructure. Besides Grand Coulee there are seven small hydroelectric plants, three major reservoirs holding 11 and a half million acre feet of water, twelve pumping facilities – six at 65,000 horsepower and 9600 cubic feet per second -- and six at 67,500 horsepower – 10,200 cubic feet/second. There are 2360 miles of canals and laterals and 3438 miles of drains and wasteways irrigating 670,000 acres. It cost $531 million and $73 million has been paid by water users. About $458 million has been paid by Grand Coulee power sales.

The project is only half finished and some projects and facilities are on hold. The state gave water rights to additional users based on the assumption that the project would ultimately be completed, so the regional aquifer has and continues to be used faster than it can recharge. 

The future issues close in and become uncomfortable, but I prefer to think about the here and now, the apple in my hand, the day ahead of us, playing golf in the afternoon at Indian Canyon, Spokane’s lovely golf course, the best ever built by the Works Progress Administration. I think with those who lived here, as they walked to their cars, as they contemplated the world after World War II, the irrigation coming closer and closer, that recovery is just around the corner.