They lined the banks when the river stopped flowing
By Stephen Maher- World staff writer (unknown date)
It was said to be just the second time in the Columbia River’s history that the river’s mighty waters ceased to flow.
But unlike 1872 when a huge cliff gave way during an earthquake, stopping the river near Entiat, the closing of Rock Island Dam’s east-channel spillways was a bit more planned.
It also was witnessed by far more people.
Newspaper accounts of the Feb. 10, 1932, event paint a bizarre picture of more than 1,000 people lining the river bank, waiting for the water to stop flowing, and hundreds more eager to check out the momentarily dry riverbed downstream.
When the flow stopped, federal officials and engineers wearing hip boots and wading through falling water levels checked the dam’s tailrace. They were joined by those searching for other items.
Among the searchers were amateur gold seekers who scurried about the river bed sands. Others came armed with pitchforks and gunnysacks, hoping to locate stranded eels and other fish.
Talk that a safe inside the Great Northern Railway mail car, which plunged into the river years before, could be found brought out even more searchers.
The Wenatchee World reported people “were strung out along the shore for a mile or more downstream” in search of the mail car and safe. But “no reports of the missing fortune car having been found” were ever received.
Curiosity and searchers aside, the dropping of the gate over the spillway was the culmination of years of work and planning for the dam, the first built on the Columbia.
In October 1920, The World printed an article headlined, “Discuss big power project-ask that Rock Island power be held for public.” The article went on to say that James J. O’Sullivan-later of Grand Coulee Dam fame-had completed a feasibility study showing such a project could provide power for Wenatchee and irrigate 20,000 acres “of very high class land” at East Wenatchee and Moses Coulee.
Little was heard of the project again until 1928 when Puget Sound Power and Light Company filed an application with state officials for the construction of a dam. The company estimated construction costs would reach $10 million.
Reaction from government officials, orchardists and businessmen was swift and positive. The chief engineer with the Federal Power Commission called the dam “the first step in the development of waterpower possibilities along the entire river.”
In January 1930, work on the dam began. A month later, the first crib for one of two cofferdams was put into place. In April, both coffer dams were completed and in July the first concrete was poured.
Peak construction occurred during fall 1930 when 2,200 men were employed for work on the powerhouse. The influx of workers also brought about construction of a camp at Rock Island although many of the workers lived elsewhere.
On Nov. 17, 1931, two of the dam’s generators began producing power. The Wenatchee World reporter covering the event wrote the generator rooms’ “tiled walls are clean and spotless as the kitchen of the most fastidious housewife, the only noise is the soft whirr of the revolving machinery.”