Spreading His Wings and Struggling with Demons
San Gabriel Dam
Toward the end of 1928, Slocum was hired by Fisher, Ross, McDonald and Kalm as general superintendent to oversee construction of the San Gabriel Dam for the Los Angeles County Flood Control District. As designed, the $25,000,000, 512-foot-high, 2,500-foot-long concrete arch dam would have been, by far, the biggest dam in the world.
By June of 1929, excavation of the dam site was well underway. In order to prepare the foundation and remove everything that wasn’t solid bedrock, Slocum staged a record setting explosion. The Covina Argus covered the story. “Ninety tons, or 180,000 pounds of black powder, the largest ever exploded in California, lifted a mountain into the air at the San Gabriel canyon dam site Wednesday night, with a reverberation that shook the Sierra Madre mountain range for several miles in all directions that brought down 150,000 cubic yards of dirt and rock in the streambed. A dense, billowing, rolling cloud of dirt and smoke was sent hundreds of feet into the air, and choked the great canyon gorge for fifteen minutes after the mighty blast.
Prohibition had ruled the country since 1920, making it illegal to produce, sell and consume alcohol. Of course, that law didn’t stop many from partaking, including Slocum, and it landed him in trouble in the summer of 1929.
In the evening of August 13, Azusa police arrested Slocum on a charge of drunkenness during a liquor raid on a house near the site of the dam. A woman in the house, not Slocum’s wife, was also arrested for possessing over 200 bottles of beer for which she was fined and paid $50. Slocum forfeited his $15 bail when he failed to appear in court a few days later.
It’s not known if Slocum was fired or otherwise reprimanded by his employer for this transgression. It didn’t really matter, because a month later the entire project was shut down. A landslide destroyed a large portion of the dam site, and earthquake faults were discovered in the vicinity. The California State Engineer determined the dam could not be constructed as designed without imposing great risk to life and property.
A lot of men lost their jobs. In October of 1929, the Great Depression sent the country into a spiral of economic disaster and millions more were soon forced out of work.
Slocum landed his first dam project outside the country in 1931. The U.S. had completed the Panama Canal in 1914, but operations were continuously hampered by flooding of the Chagres River. In addition to taming the river, there was also the desire to assure a reliable source of water to maintain the necessary levels in the locks for ships to pass through the canal, as well as supply fresh water and hydroelectric power to the City of Panama.
The solution was the construction of the 250-foot-tall Madden Dam across the Chagres River. Slocum compiled the $4,000,000 cost estimate for the successful bidders, W.E. Callahan Construction and Peterson, Shirley and Gunther, and was put in charge of the project, which commenced in 1931.
However, Harvey did not see the job through to its completion in 1935. He quit, for the second time, in April of 1932. His departure could have been due to frustration with the working conditions as reported in the New York Times. “This is Mr. Slocum’s second resignation, the first, several months ago, having been withdrawn. He said he expects to sail to California next week. The advent of the rainy season resulted in the issuance of hip boots and slickers to construction men. All available trucks were rushed yesterday to repair an important road damaged by heavy rains. The work continues at full blast in the rainy season, although progress will probably be slower.”
His desire to leave could also have been prompted by the lure of Grand Coulee Dam in the State of Washington. Grand Coulee had been in the works for a number of years and, by 1933, construction teams were being formed to bid on the job. There was no chance Slocum would miss an opportunity to get a shot at Grand Coulee. Another reason might have been Slocum’s drinking. During his interview in 1951 with Herndon, Harvey bragged that after completing the Exchequer Dam, “I thought I was the hottest stuff this side of Mamie Kelley’s!”
Mamie Kelley’s Ritz cabaret and bar was the most infamous establishment in Panama City in the 1920’s and 30’s. Its proprietor, Mary Lee Kelley, first came to Panama on a tour with her singing group.
David Wondrich described Mamie and the lure of the Ritz. “A large and brawling Irish girl from Boston, Mamie Kelley found her calling in Panama, where she was touring with “800 Pounds of Harmony,” a singing quartet of similarly proportioned girls. That calling was not singing, but saloon keeping. In 1920, three years after arriving in Panama, she opened her first bar there. By 1925, she had opened Kelley’s Ritz in Panama City. “Kelley’s Ritz was truly notorious, a bar that pushed the bounds of decency, as they were then understood, far past the breaking point. She gave her clientele, composed mostly of sailors and coastal artillery gunners, interspersed with Prohibition-dodgers, transient fortune-hunters, and all the other Tropic-seeking riff-raff, what they wanted: booze, girls, and a floor show to make their jaws drop.”
Slocum was a regular customer while building Madden Dam. Herndon wrote, somewhat tongue in cheek, “He spent so much time in Mamie Kelley’s, one of the wildest cafes on the Isthmus, that it was practically an auxiliary office. There were babes and booze in riotous profusion, and when you got tired of fighting the other customers you could always call the MP’s and demand new blood. Slocum had the job so well deputized that he could keep it going with routine supervision.”
In his later years, Harvey readily admitted that the biggest obstacles he had to overcome weren’t the complexities and challenges of the construction projects; rather, it was himself and his inability to control his drinking. On a visit to Bhakra Dam in India in 1954, Harvey told journalist Keyes Beech, “I’m an ex-drunk. I got fired off every job I had for getting drunk. It seemed I always got drunk when the challenge was gone.”
Grand Coulee Dam was no exception.
Grand Coulee Dam: The Biggest Thing Ever Built By Man
Grand Coulee Dam was mind-bogglingly massive and the largest hydroelectric power and water storage project of its time. Upon its completion in 1942, the concrete gravity dam was 550 feet tall, 500 feet thick at its base, and almost a mile long. It was conceived of and built by the Bureau of Reclamation during the Great Depression and couldn’t have come at a better time for the thousands of unemployed men desperate for a job—any job. This was by far the biggest dam 46-year-old Harvey Slocum had so far undertaken. Some would argue that before Bhakra Dam in India was completed in 1963, Grand Coulee was the biggest dam in the world. Although Shasta and Hoover dams are taller at 602 feet and 726 feet respectively, construction people look at the amount of concrete poured. By that measure, Grand Coulee was without a doubt the biggest.
George Sundborg in his book, Hail Columbia, put the size of the dam in perspective. “The Grand Coulee Dam is three times the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza which for seven thousand years held the title as man’s largest structure. The Dam is so thick that four United States Capitols could be embedded in it.
“The Grand Coulee Dam contains more than ten million cubic yards of concrete, enough to build a sixteen-foot highway from Seattle to Boston and back to Los Angeles.
“The Grand Coulee Dam is the biggest thing all in one piece ever built by man.”
The best location for the dam was identified in the early 1900’s on the Columbia River about 100 miles west of Spokane. However, there was much debate as to how big the dam should be. A “low dam,” 290 feet in height, could generate power, but not produce sufficient water for downstream irrigation. A 550 foot “high dam” would achieve both goals but would be significantly more expensive.
Many didn’t want any dam built, including the residents of ten towns and the many Native Americans whose homes, livelihoods and ancestors’ burial sites would be inundated by the resulting 150-mile-long reservoir extending to the Canadian border. A high dam would also prevent the salmon, the main source of food of the Native Americans, from reaching their historic spawning grounds on tribal lands.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, unemployment in the United States exceeded 25 percent. He foresaw the future need for more hydroelectric power in the northwest, but he, too, was conscious of the cost of a high dam in the depth of the Depression. He pushed through Congress’ approval of the $63 million to fund the low dam.
A groundbreaking ceremony was held at the dam site on July 16, 1933, to commemorate the opening of the first paved road connecting the site to the town of Almira 12 miles away, and the start of engineering. 3,000 enthusiastic folks made their way to the celebration. Governor Clarence D. Martin, with a heavy sledgehammer in his hands, drove an engineering stake into the ground, and U.S. Senator C.C. Dill tossed the first shovelful of dirt. There was a feeling of intense gratitude and optimism the dam was finally getting underway.
The news of these events lured hundreds of job-hungry men to the dam site looking for work that did not yet exist, as well as land speculators and developers. Ramshackle buildings were thrown up seemingly overnight in the area that would become the town of Grand Coulee, including three blocks of cafes, saloons, and other commercial establishments—some law abiding, most not—that was known as “B Street.” Developers sold lots for $250 on favorable terms: $5 down and $5 a month. One developer said, however, “You were lucky to get the $5.”
Hu Blonk was a young journalist from Spokane who covered the construction of the dam from start to finish in hundreds of articles he wrote for the local papers. He reported, “Workers were driving up in their cars or other vehicles and unloading their worldly goods in the sagebrush. There was no housing to be obtained except for 33 cabins…Everyone who came to Grand Coulee was broke, period. So, people would crawl into anything they could get for housing. A couple by the name of Reed, who had a baby, dug a hole into a hillside and put a drum stove inside. Then they hung up a gunny sack across the front of the cave, and that kept them warm…Another couple improvised another way. All of the dance halls on B Street had upright pianos which were shipped in a box. The couple got one of these, added something to the front of it and that was their residence for a while.”
In December of 1933, the Bureau of Reclamation let the first contract to begin excavation and removal of overburden—dirt, loose rock and anything else that wasn’t solid granite bedrock—from the site of the dam’s foundation. David H. Ryan Company of San Diego got the contract to remove the first two-million yards of overburden.
A consortium of three companies came together to bid on the excavation and construction of the low dam: Silas Mason Co. of Louisville, Kentucky and New York; Walsh Construction Co. of Davenport, Iowa; and Atkinson Kier Co. of San Diego and San Francisco. Silas Mason brought aboard Harvey Slocum to prepare the bid on behalf of this joint venture known as MWAK.
The bids were opened on June 18, 1934, in Spokane. The dam site was too small to accommodate the anticipated crowd, and over 1,000 people, including dignitaries, contractors, engineers and interested spectators filled up the Civic Auditorium. In addition to MWAK, there were three other bidders. Mae West, the sexy Hollywood movie star who dominated theater screens, submitted a “bid” in the form of a poem laced with lurid innuendo, including her famous line, “Come up and see me sometime.” An attorney with no construction experience submitted a bid without posting the required bond. Those two bids were rejected out of hand.
Frank A. Banks, the head engineer on the project for the Bureau of Reclamation, read the remaining two bids from MWAK and another joint venture known as Six Companies of Washington, Inc. Slocum’s/MWAK’s bid of $29.4 million was $5 million lower and declared the winner.
At the time, Six Companies was building another massive concrete arch dam on the Colorado River: the 726-foot tall Boulder Dam, later renamed Hoover Dam, that created Lake Mead. Slocum had a finger in that dam, as well. Early in the construction of Boulder, Six Companies was falling behind schedule. Slocum had recently returned from Panama, and a Six Companies’ employee who had worked with him on another dam suggested they send for him. Soon after Slocum arrived, he had them change to a different system of mixing the concrete ingredients and within a short period of time Six Companies was back on schedule.
The day after the bids were opened, a flurry of activity was already underway. Slocum and his bosses, Frank Donaldson, Chief Engineer for MWAK, and H.L. Myer, Vice President of Silas Mason and general manager of construction of the dam, had already moved into the Davenport Hotel in downtown Spokane, where they set up temporary offices. The Davenport would be their home until their quarters were completed at the dam site a few months later.
Slocum started draftsmen to work on plans for Mason City, the workers camp to be built at the dam site to house and serve the thousands of workers and support personnel. Early orders were forecast for the 50 million board feet of lumber—2,000 rail cars full—that would be required for cofferdams, concrete frames, camp construction, warehouses, storage bins, supply stores, and trestles to support the world’s largest conveyor belt system and the bridges to be built across the Columbia River.
Slocum wanted to have 2,000 workers domiciled at Mason City by the end of 1934, and another 1,500 by the end of 1935. In addition, waiters, cooks, clerks, warehouse, and maintenance personnel needed to be hired. The new town would have its own water and sewer system, electric lights, broad streets and well-constructed homes and dormitories. It would have an elementary school and a high school. The business section would be where stores, a movie theatre, hospital, hotels, nurses’ home, guest homes, and other concessions would be separate from the living quarters. The town would become permanent after the dam was completed to house the men and women operating the dam and accommodate the visitors who came to see it.
Slocum and Donaldson set about recruiting a large corps of engineers, superintendents, and foremen for the job. Per an agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation and State of Washington, MWAK gave priority to Washington residents and businesses to work and supply materials at Grand Coulee.
MWAK also began laying the groundwork for the purchase of $6,000,000 of new equipment and machinery for the job. Salesmen and vendors from across the country flooded MWAK’s offices at the Davenport eager for business.
There was good reason for optimism throughout the entire State of Washington. Not only would 2,500 men be put to work within a few months, at least another 2,500 new jobs would be created to support and supply the dam. Cement factories, lumber mills, rock quarries, steel mills, machinery fabrication plants, and transport businesses would need to hire more workers. Demand for food, clothing, furniture, drugs, books, beer, autos and all the innumerable articles that people buy when they have money in their pockets would increase. The dam would raise the economy of the state, just as the waters of the Columbia River would rise behind it.
Superintending a project the size of Grand Coulee isn’t just a job. It’s more like a thousand jobs that all have to be synchronized and performed well and in the right order to keep the project humming and on schedule. Slocum was the conductor of this roughneck symphony, and his team had a lot on their plate. They sifted through hundreds of applications and letters of recommendation for the top jobs, and catalogues for everything from faucet handles to diesel shovels as big as a house.
In addition to Mason City, they prepared plans for their offices at the dam site, the concrete mixing plant, and a conveyor belt system to move millions of cubic yards of rock. They also needed to make plans for a temporary trestle bridge to be thrown across the river until the state’s new bridge was ready to move men and equipment. There were countless decisions to be made up front: do they want “Mr. Jones’ or Mr. Smith’s make of car on the job, and whether ‘X’ or ‘Y’ tractor is the one to buy.”
Where would the cofferdams go to move the river away from the dam’s foundation? How big did they need to be? How many millions bags of cement were to be ordered for concrete and where would it come from? It was Slocum’s job to sweat out the mountains of details.
The enormity of the task ahead would overwhelm many, but Grand Coulee was Slocum’s 16th dam and he had 17 years of experience under his belt. The Spokane Chronicle ran an article as construction was getting underway titled, “SLOCUM IS ‘BIG SHOT’ ON COULEE DAM TASK.”
“Building the Grand Coulee Dam is ‘another job’ to Harvey Slocum. When the City of San Francisco wanted a brand-new water supply, it was Harvey Slocum who build the great Hetch-Hetchy Dam. Panama needed the famous Madden Dam. Again, it was this fellow Slocum who wore the boss’ shoes. The almost fantastically difficult Exchequer Dam at Merced, California rose to completion under the molding Slocum hands. Go on down the list….So it was no surprise when the Silas Mason company came west to win the bidding on the Grand Coulee Dam, that this same Slocum was given the job.”
But, it wasn’t just another job. It was the biggest thing man had ever attempted to build.
One of the first things Slocum did was to bring aboard people he’d worked with on prior jobs; people he knew and trusted. W.W. Hockaday, from Los Angeles, was hired as Slocum’s administrative assistant and secretary. Harvey enlisted the help of Edgar White, also from Los Angeles. Known in contracting circles all over the country as “Harvey Slocum’s little boy,” White had worked with Slocum on all of his dams over the previous 10 years. Edgar’s specialty was overseeing the design and construction of the concrete mixing plants, one of the most critical pieces of infrastructure at a dam project.
In addition to White, Slocum carefully selected a group of specialists. Slocum explained his approach to organizing the job in the Spokane Chronicle. “In order not to waste any time once the job is started, Slocum will pick a man for each phase of the construction. This person will have absolute jurisdiction over his particular assignment. He will handle the labor situation, the material and equipment problem and otherwise be put in sole charge. The various foremen or superintendents will then make reports to Slocum and other officials higher up, giving a unified plan of keeping check on all work under way.
FDR’s Visit and Push for the High Dam
The ink was barely dry on MWAK’s contract when President Roosevelt visited the dam on August 4, 1934. Twenty-five thousand enthusiastic laborers, bosses, engineers, citizens, politicians and other dignitaries greeted him. The low-dam critics remained concerned that the dam could not provide irrigation for farmers and ranchers, and the limited power produced would go unsold. Hu Blonk wrote about the visit and the crowd.
“The President walked up a ramp that had been provided in back of a grandstand so that he could reach the microphone on his own. He had been crippled by polio. All the while the famous Roosevelt smile hardly disappeared and it was obvious the crowd took an instant liking to him. “The President was introduced by Senator C.C. Dill from Washington state. FDR only spoke for a short while but he was impressive with that voice his fireside chats had made famous. Loudest cheers and applause occurred when he said that if his hopes were justified, the high dam would be built upon the 153-foot-high structure now underway. That’s what the local folks and long-time project promoters wanted to hear.”
Shortly after the President returned to Washington D.C., plans and funding for the high dam were pushed through Congress. Instead of building a low dam, MWAK’s contract was modified to build the base for the high dam and $7,000,000 was added to its price.
How to Get Men, Equipment and Supplies to the Middle of Nowhere and Both Sides of a Gigantic River
Although a paved road to the dam site had been recently completed, it could not handle the heavy tonnage and volume of equipment and material required for the dam. Nor could it deal with the challenge of transporting men and equipment across both sides of the Columbia River. David H. Ryan Co. and Crick & Kuney got the contract to build a 30-mile rail line that connected the dam site to the Northern Pacific Railroad in Odair. The only problem was an 800-foot wall of rock was in the way. The original design called for the railroad to make a sharp curve along the outside of the mountain, but Slocum and MWAK believed that was too dangerous. Slocum got his men to work on drilling and blasting a 200-foot tunnel through the mountain.
Train, truck and other vehicle traffic would ultimately cross the river over a bridge being built by the State of Washington meant to be completed in mid-1935. However, MWAK couldn’t wait that long, so they erected a temporary trestle bridge across the river in the astonishingly short time of only a couple of weeks. That bridge carried a steady stream of trucks, workers’ cars and salesmen 24 hours a day. MWAK also built huge barges guided by tugboats operated by the Tuttle Brothers to move equipment, material and men across the Columbia.
The railroad to the dam site was completed and turned over to MWAK on July 29, 1935. With over 500 in attendance, Governor Martin donned an engineer’s cap, manned the throttle and guided the locomotive and a couple of cars of dignitaries on the inaugural run from Odair to the dam site.
Over the course of construction, that rail line delivered eighty-five percent of the imported equipment and material used to build the dam. The Grand Coulee Railroad was retired in 1950, and The Spokesman Review reflected on its value to the project.
“The little railroad helped solve a gargantuan transportation problem for the Bureau of Reclamation which was faced with bringing in many millions of dollars’ worth of materials and equipment from almost every state in the union to build the dam. Through its tireless efforts, countless tons of reinforcing steel, cement, as well as parts for generators, scroll cases and switch gear reached the construction scene.
“Records show that 52,827 cars or approximately 5,000,000 tons of cement were carried. On a normal day, a train of 48 cars made the trip twice daily…at the peak of construction two trains of 105 cars each both hauled 4,500 tons every 24 hours. It was during that time that CBI [the builder of the high dam] set a 24-hour record concrete pour with 20,684 cubic yards and a monthly record of 500,000 cubic yards.”
Everything about the Grand Coulee project was big and done as fast as possible, including building Mason City. The Spokesman Review reported, “Jess Bourgeois and Irwin Horn, carpenter foremen, are racing time and each other. Horn is in charge of the construction of the house of W. E. Kier, head of the Coulee Trading Company. Bourgeois is building the home of Harvey Slocum, general superintendent. The buildings were started at about the same time. The established record, 18 days, was made on the home of H.L. Myers, general manager of MWAK. Kier’s house will have seven rooms and a double garage. Slocum’s will be about the same size. Both are above the family section of town.”
Slocum assigned the task of building Mason City to his assistant, Stan Young. Within only 60 days, 225 houses were constructed and ready for occupancy, including the nicer houses for the MWAK bosses and engineers, and smaller homes and bungalows for the workers who brought wives and kids. Seventeen bunkhouses housed the single men. A pipeline a half mile upstream from the dam site brought fresh water from the Columbia. The water was then filtered and chlorinated. The commissary and mess hall that could feed 1,000 men at a time was ready by the end of 1934.
Anne Donaldson, the wife of MWAK’s top engineer, Frank Donaldson, described the early days of Mason City and its environs for a Wenatchee newspaper in March of 1935. “Less than six months ago the site of the world’s first all-electric town, Mason City, was a desert waste of sagebrush and sand. To a New York tenderfoot, viewing for the first time last August the location of her future hometown, the sight was not inspiring. To be sure, after the monotonous hundred mile drive from Spokane across brown and yellow parched plains, the sudden drop into the magnificent gorge of the Columbia River was a thrilling experience. We seemed to have reached without warning the rim of another world. We looked down a thousand feet and several miles across one coulee to the wildest and finest stretches of the glorious River of the West.
“Dark and towering granite walls form one side of the basin. Through these walls a jagged chasm indicated that there the Columbia once, ages ago the geologists say, cut herself a new course for an unknown period of time, forming that spectacular riverbed with its Dry Falls, known as the Grand Coulee. Within our present view the stream, swift and imposing, makes two wide bends, coming out of the east and turning due north, and at the far end of the gorge, disappearing westward. Undisturbed by man through the ages, ranges of high bare hills of every shape and shade surround these grand sweeps of the river, forming a scene of wild beauty.
“But already the site of the future dam was shown by earthworks just below the first bend. The government engineers had been making preliminary excavations, and everywhere could be seen disfiguring but eloquent signs of the arrival of desperate job hunters. Hideous shanties and houses on wheels were grouped into little settlements here and there, where, according to the optimistic real estate notices, all-electric cities would soon develop.
“The particular spot pointed out as the future Mason City seemed the most remote and desolate in the whole, wild landscape, a high plateau 250 feet above the river, so perpendicular that the road to the top was cut zigzag along the cliff, and the river itself could only be seen from the edge of the plain…Not a tree or shrub in sight on the whole extent of the plateau, not a sign of life except one immense jackrabbit that resented my attempt to share with him the doubtful shelter of sagebrush. As the first woman visitor, I was offered the privilege of turning the first soil of the future city, but the heat of midday, 110 degrees, and the prospect generally did not combine to make me appreciate the honor. I should be proud today to say that I accepted it.”
By March of 1935, Mason City was a full-blown town with 2,500 inhabitants.
The Overburden-Moving a Mountain
By mid-August of 1934, MWAK and Slocum continued the mammoth task of excavating the overburden and, over the next year, hauled away another 22 million cubic yards of material, or “muck.” This job fell on the broad shoulders of the jackhammer men who drilled holes in the solid rock, powder monkeys and primer men who stuffed the holes with dynamite, and tractor, truck and steam shovel jockeys who hauled the blown rock away.
Blonk tried his hand manning a jackhammer and wrote about the harrowing experience.
“This hanging on the edge of the cliff or standing on a narrow ledge, 300 feet from the bedrock below, and holding a rambling, vibrating hammer run by compressed air is no child’s play. Even though a safety belt is fastened to one’s middle and tied to steel fastened in the rock, working on the steep rock wall takes nerve.
“There are three shifts during which 50 men at a time work at this hazardous job. Looking up from the bottom of the pit they appear as mere ants on the high cliffs above. The noise of the drill rigs at work as it echoes through the air is really the voice of Grand Coulee Dam—modern construction at work.
“When you hold one of the big hammers it seems to shake every muscle in your body. If you’re leaning on the hammer and peering down it makes you feel mighty insignificant. In about five minutes you feel like a milk shake and good and tired. Experienced drillers change position to prevent this tiring out. They rest a foot on the hammer or even sit on it.”
The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown, was a best-selling book that came out in 2013. It’s about the University of Washington crew team that traveled to Nazi controlled Germany for the 1936 Olympic Games and triumphantly returned home with the gold medal in the eight-man sculls. I don’t know if the old sculler himself, Harvey Slocum, had anything to do with it, but three young men from that gold medal team spent the summer of 1935 working for MWAK on the dam to earn enough money to go back to school: Joe Rantz, Johnny White, and Chuck Day. Joe Rantz was a jackhammer man and his experience from that summer was shared in Brown’s book.
“Most of the jobs remaining at the dam site, he had been told, were for common laborers, paying fifty cents an hour. But studying the application form, Joe had noticed that there were higher paying grades for certain jobs—especially for the men whose job it was to dangle from cliff faces in harnesses and pound away at the reluctant rock with jackhammers. The jackhammer job paid seventy-five cents an hour, so Joe had put a check next to that box and stepped into the examination room for his physical. Working with a jackhammer under those conditions required enough upper body strength to fight the punishing kick-back of the machine, enough leg strength to keep the body pushed away from the cliff face all day, enough grace and athleticism to clamber around on the cliffs while dodging rocks falling from above, and enough self-assurance to climb over the cliff in the first place. By the time Joe had stripped down to his shorts and told that doctor that he rowed crew at the university, the job was his. …
“The jackhammer work was brutal, but Joe came to enjoy it. For eight hours a day, he dangled on a rope in the furnace-like heat of the canyon, pounding at the wall of rock in front of him. The jackhammer weighed 75 pounds and seemed to have a life and will of its own, endlessly pushing back, trying to wrest itself out of Joe’s grip as he in turn tried to push it into the rock. The continual, rapid-fire chock-chock-chock of his machine and those of the men around him was deafening. Rock dust, gritty and irritating, swirled around him, got in his eyes, his mouth, and his nose. Sharp chips and shards of rock flew up and stung his face. Sweat dripped from his back and fell into the void below.
“But tough as the work was, there was much about it that suited Joe. He learned that summer to work closely with the men dangling on either side of him, each keeping an eye out for rocks falling from above, calling out warnings to those below, searching for better places to find seams in the rock. He liked the easygoing camaraderie of it, the simple stark maleness of it. Most days he worked without a shirt or hat. His muscles quickly grew bronzed and his hair ever blonder under the ardent desert sun. By the end of each day, he was exhausted, parched with thirst, and ravenously hungry. But—much as he sometimes had after a hard row on Lake Washington back home—he also felt cleansed by the work. He felt lithe and limber, full of youth and grace.”
After about 200 holes were drilled, the powder monkeys and primer or cap men were up next. A primer man’s job was to press electric blasting caps into sticks of dynamite to be inserted into the holes by the powder monkeys. The “cap” was the size of a slim fountain pen and the stick of dynamite was about the size of a ten-inch long roll of quarters. The cap was inserted into one end of the stick of dynamite and attached to a long wire. This was done in a shack far away from the dam site. The men felt safe enough so long as there were no electric appliances in the vicinity.
The powder monkeys, wearing backpacks filled with dynamite, were lowered from the face of the cliff in the drillers’ harnesses. They placed five or six sticks into each hole and packed them tightly with a long wood stick called a tamping rod. The stick of dynamite with the blasting cap went in last.
The powder monkeys were then hauled up, holding the long wires attached to the blasting caps. The “fire boss” took the wires and attached them to an electric firing box. By this time all the men working below were ordered to move to safer ground. The fire boss sounded a loud whistle and thirty seconds later threw the firing switch. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Instead of firing all at once and shooting the rock far from the cliff face, the blasting caps were set to explode in a rapid series of concussive booms. An avalanche of rock and material thundered to the ground, throwing up a huge cloud of dust that mingled with fire and smoke that belched from the blown holes.
Usually there were three blasts a day. Over the course of the job, 800,000 holes were drilled—four million feet of holes—and 300 tons of dynamite were used. The tractors, dump trucks, front loaders, steam shovels and hundreds of men with picks and shovels moved in on the pile. One of the steam shovel jockeys, John McDowell, gloated about his job in a letter to a friend. “Oscar, this job is the biggest dam thing in the whole world. I ain’t seen nothing to compare with it. Just take my shovel for instance; it moved 5,000 yards of dirt in one shift. That’s as much as 20,000 wheelbarrows full.
“One day here, that was the record day of them all, we moved 63,900 yards. About 51,000 of that was moved by a conveyor belt system we have, and it sure is some system. It’s a series of rubber belts run by 200-horsepower motors, one belt dumping on the other and so on up a steep grade to a big canyon, one and a half miles away. During the average day of good operations that darn old belt dumped more than a ton a second, or a ton every time your watch ticked. Think of it!
“We’ve moved more than 12 million cubic yards of earth here already and now we’re sure flying into the east side of the river, that is across from where we live in Grand Coulee. We ain’t got the best accommodations but we kinda like Grand Coulee, it’s a lively town, all right.
“The MWAK, that’s the name of the company here, stands for Mason-Walsh-Atkinson-Kier, a bunch of big shots. They get $1 a yard so I guess they don’t feel the Depression.
“The way we move this here dirt is this. I dump my stuff in a trailer which holds 12 yards. It takes about two dippers-full for me to fill one as my shovel is a five-yard one but when heaping full will hold six or seven. Then the cat-man takes the muck to a place where there is sort of a steel grid and dumps it. If there are lumps in the stuff, mostly clay here, a dozer smashes it through. The big belt, 60 inches wide, then picks up the muck from underneath and takes it to Rattlesnake Canyon. That’s where we dump our stuff. I haven’t seen any rattlesnakes yet.
“This belt moves 620 feet per minute or eight miles an hour. I know, Oscar, you were a swell runner in your day, but you sure woulda had to travel to keep up with this belt. They say the conveyor system is the biggest they ever built in the world. There is about 11 miles here in all and the rest of it is being used for moving sand and gravel from the pit to the concrete mixing plants. One section of it is 4,300 feet long or about four-fifths of a mile.
“For several months in a row we moved more than a million yards per month, once more than a million and a quarter. Think of it, will ya? “One reporter last week figured out that it would take about 32,000 men with wheelbarrows and start when Andrew Jackson became president about 107 years ago. That is if the fellow worked eight hours a day.”
The Melting Pot of the West
Hu Blonk described those who flooded into Mason City. “A cross-section of humanity could be seen any day at the dam site. Every type of person, some with a past and many with a future, could be found in the hurriedly gathered together mass of workmen. On the payroll there were former white-collar workers alongside those who prided themselves on having the largest bunch of “cuss words” you could list.” In a likely reference to Harvey Slocum he continued, “A big official of MWAK could supposedly cuss for three minutes straight without repeating himself. He continued, “Grand Coulee was surely the melting pot of the West. All types gathered there. Bootleggers, petty crooks, dope dealers, card and pool sharks, loud mouths and soft-spoken men all mixed with one another.”
This wouldn’t have bothered Slocum. He’d been working side by side with men like these since he was 15 years old in the Barbary Coast. Daniel Brown described the “pot” through Joe Rantz’s eyes in The Boys In the Boat. “Mixed in with all the college students and farm boys and out-of-work loggers, there were grizzled hard-rock miners from all over the West. There were Filipinos, Chinese, Welshmen, South Sea Islanders, African Americans, Mexicans, and Native Americans, most of the last from the adjoining Colville Reservation. Not all of them worked on the dam itself. Many were there to provide various services to the men who did—doing their laundry, cooking their meals at the mess hall, selling them various sundries, disposing of their trash. And there were women too, although almost all the women practiced the same profession.”
How Did They Move the River
Before a dam builder can dig the foundation, he’s got to get rid of the river somehow so he can work on dry land. Blonk explained how they did that at Grand Coulee.
“In order to remove the material on the west side of the river, a 60-acre area of the river was enclosed in a cofferdam. It was formed of timber cribs faced with steel piles and a 3,000-foot chain of cells of steel sheet piling along the river. They averaged 110 feet in height. The cells were approximately cylindrical in shape and about 50 feet in diameter. Seventeen thousand tons—127 miles—of steel piling were used in the west cofferdam. “From the enclosed area, 10,000,000 yards of clay and boulders were removed to expose the bedrock, create a diversion channel, and provide a tailrace for the powerhouse; and within the enclosure, the west end on the foundation of the dam was built.”
The steel piles and cells were driven through the riverbed until reaching bedrock by steam-driven pile drivers (huge hammers) suspended from overhead trestles.
Two additional cofferdams were installed to divert the river on the east side so the overburden could be removed and the foundation of the dam could be completed. Once the dam exceeded the height of the river, the cofferdams were disassembled.
Of constant concern was that the mighty river would break through or under a cofferdam and inundate the protected construction area. In March of 1937, it happened.
The Dreaded Cofferdam Breach
The breach started at one of the clusters of cells of the cofferdam on the east side. Although MWAK had installed pumps to deal with normal seepage, soon the pumps could no longer keep up with the surge of water pouring in. Blonk wrote about the impending disaster for the Wenatchee Daily World. “To stop the flow, which reached a peak of 29,000 gallons a minute compared to normal seepage of 2,000 a minute, all sorts of things were tried. Sand, rock, gravel and clay by the truckloads were dumped into the river at the point where the water was coming through. That didn’t work, nor did adding brush and hay to the mixture. Some workmen even tossed in some mattresses.
“What finally saved the day was forcing Bentonite into the gravel, sand and clay stratas. That material is a volcanic dust that expands to seven times its normal size when it gets wet. Five drill rigs bored holes into the material so the Bentonite could be shot in with high-pressure grouting hoses to form a water-tight curtain.
“Finally, after several days of around-the-clock activities, the leak was plugged and work went on as usual. ‘Mountains of material’ had been forced into the broken cofferdam: 1,250,000 pounds of cement, 150,000 pounds of Bentonite, 4,700 cubic feet of sawdust, 7,000 cubic feet of shavings and large quantities of sand.
“Harvey Slocum, the colorful construction boss for MWAK, was in charge of the cofferdam-saving effort. I was told he came down in his red pajamas at the pre-dawn break to take charge. I cannot personally testify to that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.”
First Concrete Is Poured at Grand Coulee
The first four of almost 12 million cubic yards of concrete were poured on December 6, 1935. Governor Martin once again did the honors armed with a vibrator to move the fresh concrete around in a 50-foot square block. Before a thousand spectators, the Governor worked side by side with the regular working stiffs and their automatic tamping devices. MWAK issued the Governor a laborer’s badge and paid him 75 cents for his hour of work.
The mixing and pouring of concrete were an exacting business and largely done mechanically. Hu Blonk explained the process for his readers.
“Long conveyor belts, like the ones used to move the overburden, conveyed the sand and gravel excavated from pits almost a mile away across the river to storage bins, near where blended cement and water were also stored. More automatic operations delivered the materials to the “House of Magic” as the concrete mixing plant was called, in response to operators pushing buttons.
“The properly proportioned mixture was dumped into a mixing drum. It turned for exactly 2 ½ minutes and automatically dumped the prepared concrete into a bucket waiting on a flatcar nearby. A 10-ton diesel locomotive moved it swiftly along a trestle to the form prepared for the first pour. A huge crane picked the bucket from the flatcar, swung it through the air until it was directly over the form and lowered it several feet to about 18-inches from the surface. Then Governor Martin pulled a steel bar to open it.
“The trestles to be used each will carry three railroad tracks of standard gauge and traveling cranes with a reach of 115 feet. They will lower 4-yard, 11-ton buckets from the cars into the forms and return them empty in the cars.”
Dam Building Is a Dirty, Dusty, Muddy Job-Except When It Comes to Concrete
This is from an article Blonk wrote for the Wenatchee Daily World.
“Mrs. Housewife, when you become a little disappointed and discouraged about cleaning your floors, just take a trip down to the dam site and see what a lot of cleaning the poor male has to do to earn his bread and butter.
“For Grand Coulee has the biggest housekeeping department ever heard of. Some say, and they are undoubtedly correct, that it is the biggest cleaning job in the world. Down on his hands and knees, in the midst of a hundred kindred souls, a poor man is scrubbing and washing harder than any housewife ever thought of. (P.S. This is written by a man.)
“So clean must the granite bedrock be before the concrete can be poured on it, that it is possible, although perhaps not appropriate, to eat one’s meal off the rock without danger of foreign atoms sneaking in. Brushes, sponges, wire brooms, water and air hoses and sand are called into use in this exacting preparation.
“It generally takes a crew of seven men and a foreman three to four hours to clean a block. They pick loose fragments, scrub the surface with a wire brush, sponge out the moisture between the crevices, and do general cleaning by air and water forced through hoses which spout foreign substances in all directions! “The cleaning of the bedrock for the initial pour is only part of the cleaning process. Each concrete block must be thoroughly purified over and over again after each five-foot lift of concrete has been poured. This ablution is no small item in the expense of building the dam.”
Bureau of Reclamation inspectors oversaw all aspects of the construction of the dam, but perhaps nothing was scrutinized more closely than the cleaning of the bedrock and concrete lifts. Much to the chagrin of Slocum and MWAK, the pouring of concrete was often delayed when an inspector found a speck of dirt or cigarette butt.
The Man In Charge of it All
As MWAK’s superintendent of construction, Slocum was in charge of it all: excavation of the 20 million cubic yards of overburden, building Mason City, the cofferdams, mixing and pouring millions of yards of concrete, installing the miles of conveyor belts to move the overburden, sand and gravel, and erecting railroads, bridges and trestles to deliver the men and materials to the dam site. By 1937, almost 8,000 men were working on the Grand Coulee and most of them reported to Slocum. Blonk described the construction boss this way: “If Hollywood were casting for the role of a typical construction stiff, it would have had to change little if it chose Harvey as a model. He was a handsome, hard-drinking guy, stocky in stature, who had quite a vocabulary of cuss words.”
Slocum wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty; far from it, as reflected by an article in the Spokane Chronicle. “An interesting story is being told on Harvey Slocum, general superintendent, by workmen here. On a certain part of the project it was necessary for someone to scale to a high and dangerous position on top of a boom, and no one cared to do it. A young fellow finally volunteered and ascended to the lofty perch.
“After he had climbed to the top it was necessary for another workman to hand him the cable or chain that was to be fastened on. On looking down to reach for the attachment, the workman nearly lost his balance. He was staring into the face of Harvey Slocum. “The general “sup” was formerly, he proudly admits, an old “construction stiff” himself.”
Rivet Tossers and Construction Stiffs
Harvey Slocum was proud of the many construction jobs he mastered as a younger man, including ‘rivet tosser’ on structural steel projects. Rivet tossing is a lost art, but on the Grand Coulee Dam job, white hot rivets were used to connect the pieces of steel erected all over the site. Blonk explained for his readers this unique job and the spectacular acrobatics of the rivet tosser.
“Grimy, sweating steel workers threw and fastened 7,000 of the hard pellets in building just one of the big hammerhead cranes on the high trestle deck. The uncanny accuracy of the heaters aiming at a funnel 50 to 75 feet away was a source of bewilderment to all but the accustomed.
“George Ingle, who had been a steel worker since he was 14, was one of those who heaved the hot rivets to a catcher up on the steel girders of one of the hammerheads. He took the work as a matter of course and appeared surprised when you acted startled at his accuracy.
“’Throwing rivets is nothing on this job,’ he’d say between spells where the rivet gun wasn’t creating a bedlam, ‘the rivets here are only about three-quarter inch thick by two inches long, some 4 inches. Why at the Bay job (San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge) we threw rivets one and one-half inches thick and as long as 14 inches. Most of the men here worked for Bethlehem Steel on the Bay or Golden Gate jobs.
“Ingle would turn the crank of his heating forge to quicken the heating of the rivets imbedded in the hot coals. It took about a minute to turn them white hot. How does a fellow learn this job? ‘Oh, he just practices throwing a short way at first and then farther and farther,’ he’d say.
“Ingle was throwing the rivets about 25 feet from the main trestle deck to the first cross beam. He would point to a fellow heater, up 100 feet in the air, who was throwing his wares through a network of steel beams and crossbeams to a catcher 65 feet away.
“Older, experienced heaters did their work very methodically. The younger ones liked to throw them around girders and through a maze of steel just to show they could.
“The steel worker’s job at the dam and elsewhere appeared scary. To workmen themselves it was ‘nothing.’ They would say, ‘just look where you’re walking, never think of falling because when you do fall it will be your last one.’
“Steel working men didn’t mind height, but they’d cuss when they noticed someone working below them because of the danger of hitting them with the falling hot rivets. The men seemed to have a fatalistic attitude toward life, they were a bunch of loud-talking, swearing men, their faces generally rough appearing, and they liked their beer. When I think of the word ‘construction stiffs,’ the steel workers and rivet tossers come to mind.”
Blonk couldn’t have described Harvey Slocum any better than that.
Prize Spider Fights and Other Fun
It wasn’t all work at Grand Coulee. Mason City had a movie theatre, baseball fields and other recreational activities for the men and families. Of course, there was B Street that enticed the men with just about every conceivable means to part a guy from his hard-earned wages. And then there were spider fights. The men’s barracks at Mason City and Shack Town were infested with poisonous black widow spiders. Joe Rantz described the perils of taking a shower. “Each of the half-dozen gravel streets in Shack Town had a communal shower house, but Joe soon found that, eager as he was to get the rock dust off himself, taking a shower was a far from comfortable experience. Hordes of black widow spiders lurked in the rafters above the showers, and they tended to drop onto the naked men below as soon as the water was turned on and steam rose to meet them. After watching a few of his neighbors leaping out of the showers buck naked, yelping and batting at themselves, Joe finally took to carrying a broom into the shower each evening to clear the rafters of eight-legged intruders before he turned the water on.”
But the hard-working men were resourceful and quickly turned a problem into an opportunity. This was from an article in the Spokane Chronicle, “Black Widow Pets Attract Attention.”
“Black widow spider fighting, which drew considerable attention here last summer, is on the up-and-coming again. Harry Feldhahn of the MWAK camp department and Day Reynolds, railroad representative in the company office, said today they had the dam site’s champion fightin’ spider. They have named it “Harry the Killer.”
“A match with a giant black widow owned by Thomas Walsh Jr., son of the president of MWAK, is in the offing. A smaller but more ferocious creature owned by Harry Bates, first aid man, and another belonging to Karl Briggs, Grand Coulee merchant, who owned last year’s champion, may be pitted against “Harry the Killer.” “Combat between black widow spiders always results in death for one. Briggs had a championship contender several weeks ago, but pitted him against a scorpion, an overweight opponent, and lost his protégé, he said.”
Questionable Halloween Costumes
Guy F. Atkinson and his wife hosted a big Halloween masquerade party at their home in Mason City in 1935. It was attended by many of the bosses at MWAK plus many others from Spokane. Most came in costumes, some of which would be taboo today. “Harvey Slocum, construction boss, was a Chinese; E.L. Kier a tramp; Mrs. Kier a colored mammy; Colonel and Mrs. M.J. Whitson came as acetylene and oxygen tanks; W. E. Kier a court jester; Mrs. R.L. Telford, Mrs. Jack Hargrove, Miss Alcyemarle Page, Miss Maureen Godfrey and Miss Katie Dwyer were the Dionne quintuplets. Other costumes were equally interesting.”
[Note: The Dionne Quintuplets were born in Ontario, Canada in May of 1934 and were the first quintuplets known to survive infancy. All five identical girls lived to adulthood.]
A Fun Swim Nearly Turned Very Bad
Placing a dam across the Columbia River inspired at least one young worker to attempt to swim across the swift body of water both ways in July of 1937. The story was reported by the Spokane Chronicle.
“Robert Neal, 21-year-old dam site worker, came back from the dead Thursday morning, at least as far as Washington State patrolmen, MWAK police and company officials are concerned. He had been given up as drowned Wednesday night by these groups after his clothes were found along the Columbia river near Elmerton, the scene of another drowning early this week, and friends and officers could find no trace of him up until the wee hours of Thursday morning.
“MWAK police chief John McCormack had made preparations to wire his parents in Seattle of his death when Neal, about 5 a.m. Thursday walked into the station. He explained he had swum across the Columbia but had been unsuccessful in two attempts to swim back and had hiked back via Grand Coulee, a distance of 10 miles, in his bare feet.
“’I went swimming about 10 a.m. Wednesday, my day off, Neal told the Chronicle. ‘I swam across leaving my clothes on the shore. I tried twice to swim back, but the current pulled me back to shore and downstream. When I couldn’t hail a boat to bring me back I started hiking in my bare feet. That was about 2 p.m. About 9 it got dark and I laid down and slept. At daybreak I started again and got back to Mason City about 5 a.m. Boy that river sure was strong. I’d only been here a week and I didn’t know anything about the river.’ “Officers searched the river shore most of the night and MWAK staff members, Warren Hockaday, secretary to M. Harvey Slocum, general superintendent, and Jack Murray, personnel manager, were aroused from their sleep for help.”
Slocum Was Even In Charge of the Food
Slocum looked after his men and saw to it they got what they needed in order to survive this brutally hard work and get the job done. Food was at the top of the list. Downs wrote about it in his book, The Mightiest of Them All.
“Since the Depression of the Thirties was still a scourge among us, many of the workers who arrived at the dam site had been ill housed, ill clothed and ill fed. As to the latter, the MWAK mess hall was the answer! The food was of excellent quality, prepared by fine chefs and served family style at tables for eight. Food was brought to the table by clean, attentive attendants called “flunkies.” The utensils, dishes, plates, tables and floors were all clean and sanitary.
“Harvey Slocum, the MWAK superintendent didn’t think he could get a full day’s work from an underfed man and no one who ate at his mess hall could ever say he hadn’t enough to eat. The men worked hard, but they were well fed!
“Slocum had many attributes. He knew good food and he could prepare it himself. Once when he and his guests were dining at the Davenport Hotel in Spokane, he called the waiter to the table and complained. ‘These biscuits are not fit to eat!’ “The waiter relayed the message to the chef, who sent Slocum another serving of biscuits and the reply, ‘If you think you can make better biscuits, just come on back.’ Excusing himself to his guests, Harvey walked back to the kitchen and donned an apron. He reappeared at the table sometime later with a plate of really good, hot biscuits.”
Daniel Brown shared Joe Rantz’s memories of the food at Grand Coulee in The Boys In the Boat. “Three times a day, and sometimes four on weekends, he ate in the large, white clapboard company mess hall in Mason City…Sitting shoulder to shoulder with men arranged in rows at long tables, packed close together, he ate as he had back in his boyhood at the Gold and Ruby Mine—facedown, tucking into mountains of food served on cheap crockery. The food was nothing special, but the servings were prodigious. Each morning the thirty men working in the kitchen prepared three hundred dozen eggs, twenty-five hundred pancakes, five hundred pounds of bacon and sausage, and 180 gallons of coffee. At lunch they went through three hundred two-foot loaves of bread, 150 gallons of milk, and twelve hundred cups of ice cream. At dinner they dished up fifteen hundred pounds of red meat (except on Sunday, when they served twelve hundred pounds of chicken) and 330 pies. Joe never left a scrap on his plate, or anyone else’s within reach.”
Harvey Slocum was a bigger-than-life sort of guy who seemingly could do it all and do no wrong; or at least that’s what most people thought. But he had a big monkey on his back, and it very nearly cost him his career.
Harvey Slocum and the Spirits of B Street
Work started on the dam in December of 1933, and Prohibition ended that same month. The pent-up demand for booze that built up over the previous 13 years only fueled the explosion of card rooms, pool halls, bars, dance emporiums, fleabag hotels and brothels on B Street. Grand Coulee historian, John Kemble, described it well in his article, “Harvey Slocum and the Spirits of B Street.”
“The construction started full time, hiring thousands of workers. Men who had been living day to day on soup lines could now afford such luxuries as new shoes and a haircut from a real barber. They even had money to tip! The rest of the world might have been in the bitter grip of the Great Depression, but in Grand Coulee the party had just begun. Anytime of the day you could drink, and all night. People drank so much bars were giving away ‘free drink tokens’ to people they had over served in hopes of over serving them again the next night.
“If you got a bit too carried away with the gay festivities and kicked out of one establishment, it wasn’t a far stagger to get your next drink or pass out in an alley. Music blared from hidden speakers out in the street trying to draw people into the dance halls and drinking establishments. Live bands played almost every night of the week, and everyone danced.
“At first there wasn’t much in the way of law enforcement, and word on the street was the coppers only raided B Street when their kitty was low and they needed a quick buck.”
B Street didn’t just draw in the customers. It was a magnet for card mechanics, hucksters, pimps, prostitutes, drug pushers, swindlers and the purveyors of just about every other vice, scam or con ever conceived to separate a man from his money.
Friday was payday, and after the men lined up at the MWAK payroll office and picked up their checks, most headed over to B Street to part with, or be parted from, some of their hard-earned wages. Often, they would run into Harvey Slocum. Kemble described this less-than-flattering side of their boss.
“In these hastily constructed old west style wooden buildings you could lose yourself in a haze of drunken debauchery. It was a rough and tumble environment where anything goes, and it did. And Harvey wasn’t alone. He shared the streets and bar stools with men who came from the poverty of the Depression and days of Prohibition, to the Grand Coulee Dam where money seemed to flow free as the soon to be harnessed Columbia River, and most were single or left their families behind to catch up later. Harvey knew some of the men personally, and when he was recognized the men would buy, or Harvey would buy; he was out drinking with the crew.
“Harvey Slocum was a big man, one of the biggest in the building of the dam, yet here he was drinking and slinging cards with the powder monkeys, muckrakers and riggers on B Street. Many thousands of men that made up his crew looked up to him like he brought them jobs in the time of the Great Depression when all had been lost. To the workers he was a true hero and treated with regard and respect not only on the job site but off of it as well. In a couple years Harvey became so comfortable in his new environment that he wasn’t just a casual customer on B Street; he had become a regular, spending unaccounted for time on the infamous street. Sometimes Harvey would miss days of work, lost in this playland old west drunk fantasy.
“When Harvey was needed after hours and he wasn’t home with his wife they would find him at B Street. He had a girl there that he liked to spend time with. She worked upstairs at the Swanee Rooms and he would visit her often, sometimes for days. By 1937 Harvey had not only broken many concrete pouring records but he had also cemented his place on B Street as a prominent figure. He knew the owner of several beer parlors and was treated with the respect and dignity that fed his ego making him feel invulnerable in both his work life and his play life, and the line between the two was starting to blur. “The summer of ’37 was a scorcher. Heatwaves danced in the dry bone dusty streets taunting the patrons of B Street. It seemed there was no relief from the heat, even inside the businesses. From his office at work on the Dam, Harvey sent a small crew of men up to B Street to install a sprinkler system on the roof of the Swanee Rooms in an effort to try to combat the heat. The bar owner jokingly referred to his place as the first ‘air conditioned’ business on B Street and everyone thought it was clever and funny.”
Turns out not everyone was amused.
The Big Boss Gets Fired From the World’s Biggest Job
The region was suffocating in heat and a drought that turned the Columbia River into a trickle. The dam site and Mason City were facing water shortages and Slocum issued the following bulletin in late July.
“We are threatened with a shortage of water that would seriously delay concrete mixing and other operations largely due to continued abuse of water privileges by our Mason City residents. Proper attention has not been paid to previous requests and we now find it necessary to instruct MWAK guards to enforce the rule that all of the roof-sprinkling systems must be shut off each evening at 8 o’clock and not reopened during the night. Guards have also been instructed to report flooding of streets and other waste water due to overirrigating of gardens and lawns. “This action will bring little if any added discomfort to tenants and will provide water that is needed for actual construction operations. Your cooperation is again asked.”
A few days after Slocum issued his edict his wife, Helen, left Mason City for an indefinite stay at their home in California.
On August 5, Slocum announced that an agreement had been reached with the American Federation of Labor that required MWAK’s 5,620 workers to join the AFL union. Another union that represented some of the men, United Dam Construction Workers, filed a complaint with Frank Banks and the Bureau of Reclamation. That union had for some time been demanding the minimum wage of 50 cents per hour be increased to address the 20% cost of living increase in the State. The complaint pointed out that $10.15 was deducted each week from a dam worker’s paycheck to cover his lodging, food and taxes, which left him and his family with only $9.85 a week in take home pay.
Slocum drove his men even harder that month setting new all-time records for concrete pours at the dam. On August 18, Harvey bet his secretary, Warren Hockaday, a new hat if his men failed to pour an average of 14,500 cubic yards each day of the following week. Slocum won the bet easily. 100,000 cubic yards were poured over the six-day work week. It was the biggest effort recorded by any contractor in the history of construction. On August 26, 15,000 cubic yards were poured.
The next day, Slocum was fired. He shared with Herndon more details that didn’t appear in his 1951 article in Collier’s. Harvey was on one of his binges and hadn’t been to work for a few days when, one afternoon, there was a knock on the door of his house at the dam site.
“There stood Guy F. “Uncle Bim” Atkinson of San Francisco, and Tom Walsh of Davenport, two of the world’s most influential contractors representing the combine which had contracted the job. Slocum ushered them in and broke out a fresh bottle. Finally the two contractors told him he was fired. ‘Well, then,’ Slocum is reported to have said, ‘Let’s do some real drinkin’.’”
Someone informed MWAK and the Bureau of Reclamation that Slocum had used company money and manpower to install the roof-sprinkler system at the Swanee Rooms. Maybe it was a disgruntled worker, or an unhappy resident of Mason City. That was a reason for termination, but likely only the last of many reasons. In any event, Slocum’s employment was terminated by MWAK as of August 27, 1937.
News travelled fast and everyone heard the news, including Hu Blonk.
“I asked George Atkinson, the son of Guy F. Atkinson, one of the partners in the MWAK combine of contractors building the dam, what I should write in the paper as the reason for the dismissal. He said, ‘ill health.’
“A day or so later, I wandered into the Continental Café in Grand Coulee Center. Suddenly, I heard someone shouting out my name. I turned and noticed it was Harvey Slocum. He appeared to be angry and to have been imbibing.
“I walked up to Harvey, who was seated at the counter with another man, and said ‘What’s the matter, Harvey?’ “He replied, ‘You put in that goddamn paper of yours that I was canned because of ‘ill health.’ Now you know damn well I got canned because I was a drunk.'”
Almost twenty years later, Harvey reminisced with Herndon about getting fired. “I got fired from the biggest goldang job in the world, and I should have been. I got no kick comin’. I was drinkin’ my fool head off. They should have done it months before. I asked for it, and I got it. But what I didn’t like was when somebody in the business passed around the word that I was through. I wasn’t through—hell, I hadn’t even started drinkin’.’”
MWAK and the newspapers were kind to Slocum. They said he “resigned,” and did not mention the Swanee Rooms incident, his drinking or that he had been fired.
When his men learned that Harvey was leaving the job they were shocked and upset. Thousands signed petitions imploring MWAK to retain Slocum as superintendent for the good of the job and the men. However, MWAK had made up its mind, and that was that.
Helen returned to Grand Coulee on August 31 to pack up their house in Mason City. Her many friends hosted going away parties for her.
As Harvey and Helen were getting ready to leave the dam in early September of 1937, his men surprised him with a gift of a big, brand-new automobile as a token of the fondness and respect they had for the old man. As reported in The Spokesman Review, “thousands of MWAK employees, from lowly muckers to department superintendents, contributed dimes and dollars for the purchase of the gift.”
As the Slocum’s drove back to California, the bulk of the work on the base for the high dam was done. MWAK completed the base a few months later, 18 months ahead of schedule.
Although MWAK dismissed Slocum from the Grand Coulee Dam project, he didn’t stay away for long.
‘He’s Back’-Bidding On the High Dam
After the Slocum’s returned to their home in Los Angeles, Harvey opened an office as a construction consultant. Some of his colleagues believed Slocum had “resigned” from MWAK so he could organize a company or associate with a group to bid on the job to build the high dam at Grand Coulee.
His friends were at least right about Slocum’s desires. By November 1937, groups of contractors were being assembled to bid on the work to take the dam up to its full height of 550 feet. They included MWAK and a group called Interior Construction Company comprised of most of the outfits that were part of Six Companies. It was Six Companies that MWAK edged out for the low dam work. MWAK had a leg up given they already had their men and equipment in place at the dam and were intimately familiar with the site. MWAK also wanted the job because, reportedly, they made little if any profit on their initial contract despite completing the work far ahead of schedule. The Washington State Supreme Court had earlier ruled that MWAK owed the State $1 million dollars in taxes that MWAK had not figured they’d have to pay when they bid the low dam work.
Slocum spent a week at the dam site in mid-November looking over the plans and specifications for the high dam job, although he was mum as to who he might be working with. Just his presence generated a lot of excitement. With bids due by early December, those vying for the work were feeling the pressure, even MWAK. The Spokane Chronicle reported, “Every available architect and engineer has been assigned by MWAK to compute figures needed to make the bid. With December 10 less than three weeks off, the company is admittedly pressed for time. Some engineers have been stationed in Mason City hotel rooms and no phone calls will be sent to them through the MWAK exchange.”
It was projected that completing the high dam would require 6,000,000 cubic yards of concrete in addition to the five million cubic yards poured into the low dam. The high dam would raise the water in the storage reservoir almost 350 feet above the ordinary level of the Columbia River. Pumps would then raise the water an additional 280 feet into a balancing reservoir at Grand Coulee from which it would flow by gravity downstream. It was anticipated this new controlled source of irrigation water would result in the establishment of 25,000 to 40,000 new farms over the next 25 to 50 years. These new farms and the towns to support them were expected to provide homes and employment for between 200,000 and 400,000 people.
The hydroelectric plant was comprised of two powerhouses, each containing nine water-driven turbines rated at 150,000 horsepower each, powering an equal number of generators each capable of producing 120,000 kilowatt hours-amperes. The plant, the largest of its kind in existence at the time, was designed to produce up to 8,320,000 kilowatts of power a year.
There were many good reasons why there was so much excitement and anticipation throughout the entire State of Washington when the bids were opened on December 10. Frank Banks and other officers of the Bureau of Reclamation, Governor Martin, local officials, businessmen and other dignitaries packed the Civic Building in Spokane together with the contractors competing for the work.
There were three bidding groups: MWAK, Interior Construction Company, and a group led by Slocum, called Pacific Constructors, comprised of Hunkin-Conkey Construction based in Cleveland, Metropolitan Construction Company and Griffith Company of Los Angeles, and J.C. Maguire Construction from Butte, Montana.
There was some excitement generated when MWAK and Interior Construction asked for a short delay before the bids were opened. During the break they agreed to join forces as Consolidated Builders Inc. (CBI) and submitted a unified bid of $34,442,240. CBI underbid Slocum’s group by $8 million and easily won the contract.
Six months later, The Spokesman Review revisited the $42,185,802 bid Slocum prepared for Pacific Constructors. “According to unconfirmed reports in engineering circles here, his figures were increased 20 percent by company officials just before the bid was entered. When the bids were opened, Pacific was about $8,000,000 high.”
If that in fact was the case, then Slocum’s bid without the upward adjustment would have been in the neighborhood of $35,000,000, and much closer to CBI’s bid. The same paper reported that around the time the bids were opened there was some concern among the bidders about laborers’ wages. In its specifications for the high dam, the Bureau of Reclamation fixed the minimum wage scale at 60 cents an hour for unskilled labor, 10 cents higher than for the low dam. The AFL union, however, was pressing for 75 cents an hour. That could have been a reason for Pacific Constructors to increase its bid. Nonetheless, CBI won the contract.
But that wasn’t the last time Slocum squared off with and against MWAK, CBI and Pacific Constructors.
Grand Coulee Dam officially opened in March of 1941 and began to generate electricity. Eight months later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States declared war upon Japan and Germany. Practically overnight, the hydroelectric power generated by the dam went from an afterthought to of utmost strategic importance in the war effort. The power generated by the dam ran the factories in Seattle and Portland that churned out the warplanes, warships, tanks, ammunition, and other war material sent all over the world.
The town of Hanford on the Columbia River in southern Washington relied on enormous amounts of the dam’s hydroelectric power beginning in 1943. The population mushroomed to 50,000 and the town was shielded in secrecy. It was in Hanford that the men and women working as part of the Manhattan Project made the plutonium used in the first atomic bombs that, ultimately, ended the war with Japan in 1945.
When President Roosevelt pushed for the initial funding of the Grand Coulee Dam in 1933, he most likely could not have foreseen that the power ultimately generated by the dam would play such a significant role in winning a World War twelve years later.
Notes and References for Part Two
Spreading His Wings and Struggling with Demons
San Gabriel Dam
Upland Man Will Build Dam Plant,” Covina Argus (Covina, California), December 21, 1928, 1
“Blast at Damsite,” Covina Argus, June 30, 1929
“Dam Builder Forfeits Bail,” Los Angeles Times, August 17, 1929, 22
The Long Beach Sun, July 9, 1930
Madden Dam in Panama
Madden Dam,” Wikipedia, 2021 [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org
Xiomara E. Jaen Medianero, “Madden a Vital Dam for the Canal,” July 7, 2021, El Faro [Online]. Available: https://elfarodelcanal.com
“Panama Engineer Resigns,” New York Times, April 23, 1932
Herndon, “Harvey Slocum Builds Our Mighty Dams,” 51
David Wondrich, “Prohibition Was No Match for New Orleans’ Most Famous Bar,” The Daily Beast, July 30, 2019
Herndon, “Harvey Slocum-Dynamic Dam Builder,” 28
“Harvey Slocum, Dam Builder, Dies,” New York Times, November 12, 1961
Keyes Beech, “Best Dam Builder Goes Home: Harvey Slocum’s Laid to Rest,” Chicago Daily News Service, November 22, 1961
Grand Coulee Dam: The Biggest Thing Ever Built by Man
Herndon, “Harvey Slocum Builds Our Mighty Dams,” 51
George Sundborg, Hail Columbia, (MacMillan Co., 1954)
Hu Blonk, Behind the By-Line Hu, (Wenatchee, WA, 1992) 4, 42-43, 121-122
David H. Ryan, “Big Bend Railroad History,” October 24, 2018 [Online]. Available: http://www.bigbendrailroadhistory.com
Hu Blonk, “$29,339,301 Bid for Grand Coulee Dam,” Wenatchee World, June 18, 1934
J.C. May, “7-11-17,” The Daily Standard (Sikeston MO), March 15, 1965
“Harvey Slocum May Build Dam”, June 19, 1934; “Mason Offices Teem With Life,” June 22, 1934; “Mason Camp, Operation Plant and Bridge to Be Underway Soon,” July 14, 1934, Spokesman Review
“2500 On All Coulee Dam Work in Three Months-Entire State to Feel Benefits Before Fall,” Spokesman Review, July 15, 1934,
“Coulee Machine Grinds in Motion,” August 19, 1934; “First Work By the Silas Mason Company Starts On the Grand Coulee,” August 14, 1934, Spokane Chronicle
“Slocum Is ‘Big Shot’ on Coulee Dam Task”
“White Named Designer of Construction Plant,” Spokane Chronicle, August 10, 1934
Contractors To Name Leaders for Each Job,” Spokane Chronicle, July 27, 1934
FDR’s Visit and Push for the High Dam
Blonk, Behind the By-Line Hu, 86-87. See Appendix for text of President Roosevelt’s remarks
How to Get Men, Equipment and Supplies to the Middle of Nowwhere and Both Sides of a Gigantic River
“Plan 200-Foot Tunnel For Dam Site Railway,” Spokane Chronicle, October 29, 1934
“Won’t Be Long Ere Dirt Flies,” Spokesman Review, December 9, 1934
“Start Construction of Big Machine Shop,” Spokane Chronicle, December 27, 1934
“Grand Coulee Railroad Now Under Steam,” Spokane Chronicle, July 29, 1935
“Coulee Railroad to End Career,” Spokesman Review, January 24, 1950
“Builders Race on Home Jobs,” Spokesman Review, March 13, 1935
“Town to Bloom in Sagebrush,” Spokesman Review, August 21, 1934
Wenatchee Daily World, March 1, 1935
The Overburden-Moving a Mountain
Blonk, Behind the By-Line Hu, page 93-95, 100
Daniel James Brown, The Boys In the Boat (Penguin Books, 2013), 194,197,198
This is also based on the author’s personal experience working with jackhammer drills, dynamite and primers on a construction job in Coalwood, WV in 1968.
5,000 cubic yards is the same volume as 135,000 cubic feet. If you woke up one morning and saw this gigantic ice cube out on your front lawn, and it was 51 feet long, 51 feet wide, and 51 feet high (over 3 stories), it would add up to about 5,000 cubic yards of ice, before it melted. Math.answers.com
The Melting Pot of the West
Blonk, Behind the By-Line Hu, 90
Brown, The Boys In the Boat, 202
How Did They Move the River
Blonk, Behind the By-Line Hu, 91
The Dreaded Cofferdam Breach
Blonk, Behind the By-Line Hu, 96-97
First Concrete Is Poured at Grand Coulee
Blonk, Behind the By-Line Hu, 108
Dam Building is a Dirty, Dusty, Muddy Job-Except When It Comes to Concrete
Blonk, Behind the By-Line Hu, 114-115
The Man In Charge of It All-Harvey Slocum
Blonk, Behind the By-Line Hu, 140
“Danger Is No Bar to Harvey Slocum,” Spokane Chronicle, October 15, 1935
Rivet Tossers and Construction Stiffs
Blonk, Behind the By-Line Hu, 98-99
Prize Spider Fights and Other Fun
Brown, The Boys In the Boat, 199
“Black Widow Pets Attract Attention,” Spokane Chronicle, September 18, 1936
Questionable Halloween Costumes
“Mason City Party Novel,” Spokane Chronicle, November 2, 1935
A Fun Swim Nearly Turned Very Bad
“Says Columbia Too Much for Him-Slept Out,” Spokane Chronicle, July 23, 1937
Slocum Was Even in Charge of the Food
Downs, The Mightiest of Them All, 69
Brown, The Boys In the Boat, 198-199
Harvey Slocum and the Spirits of B Street
John Kemble, “Harvey Slocum and the Spirits of B Street,” The Little Virtual Museum in the Coulee, November 11, 2018 [Online]. Available: https://littlevirtualmuseuminthecoulee.com
The Big Boss Gets Fired From the World’s Biggest Job
“Shortage of Water May Delay Work,” Spokane Chronicle, July 26, 1937
Spokane Chronicle, August 4, 1937
“Coulee Dam Becomes A Closed Shop Area,” Medical Lake Examiner, August 5, 1937
“Harvey Slocum Is Betting Again,” Spokane Chronicle, August 18, 1937
“MWAK Betters Concrete Mark,” Spokesman Review, August 25, 1937
Herndon, “Harvey Slocum-Dynamic Dam Builder,” 28
“Slocum Resigns From Coulee Job,” Spokane Chronicle, August 28, 1937
Blonk, Behind the By-Line Hu, 141
Herndon, “Harvey Slocum Builds Our Mighty Dams,” 51
“Workmen Want Harvey Slocum,” Spokane Chronicle, August 30, 1937
Spokane Chronicle, September 1, 1937
“Harvey Slocum Gets Gift Auto,” The Spokesman Review, September 4, 1937
Spokane Press, December 9, 1937
‘He’s Back’—Bidding On the High Dam
“Big Dam May Call Him Back,” The Spokesman Review, October 7, 1937
“High Dam Bids Throng Magnet,” The Spokesman Review, December 10, 1937
“Former MWAK Official Has Been At The Dam This Week,” Spokane Chronicle, November 19, 1937
“Celebration to Mark Opening of Coulee Dam Bids,” Spokane Press, December 9, 1937
“Crowd Is Electrified by Tender Nearly $8,000,000 Below Opponents ” The Spokesman Review, December 11, 1937
“Workers Leave For Shasta Job,” The Spokesman Review, June 4, 1938