Watch previews, scenes and cast interviews from some of your favorite American Experience programs. If you cannot find what you are looking for, please try our video player.

American Experience Programs

American Experience | Grand Coulee Dam

Watch Sunday, February 23, 2014 at 3:30pm on WMHT TV.

During the darkest days of the Depression when construction was started on Grand Coulee Dam, everything about it was described in superlatives. It would be the “Biggest Thing on Earth”, the salvation of the common man, a dam and irrigation project that would make the desert bloom, a source of cheap power that would boost an entire region of the country. Of the many public works projects of the New Deal, Grand Coulee Dam loomed largest in America’s imagination, promising to fulfill President Franklin Roosevelt’s vision for a “planned promised land” where hard-working farm families would finally be free from the drought and dislocation caused by the elements.

Not surprisingly, the reality of Grand Coulee could never live up to its mythic image, the one celebrated by folksinger Woody Guthrie in his famous song, Roll On, Columbia. The dam was controversial from the start, opposed by the power companies in Seattle and Spokane, and by congressmen back East, who called the project a “White Elephant in the Desert” with no market for its power or irrigation.

Its prodigious output of electricity would trigger an astonishing transformation of the Pacific Northwest, fueling the burgeoning cities of Portland and Seattle. A closer look at the Columbia basin, however, would reveal the tragic casualties left in the wake of Grand Coulee’s massive spillway. The dam and reservoir had inundated whole towns, dislocated the tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation, submerged sacred Indian burial grounds and time-honored fishing sites, and obliterated one of the greatest natural fish populations in the world by denying Columbia River salmon access to their spawning grounds in the upper reaches of the river.

Although the waters it captured would, in fact, generate seemingly limitless amounts of clean hydropower, and create one of the largest agricultural irrigation projects in the nation, the dam left a complicated and controversial legacy. In the end, the dam would be seen by many as a monument to noble ideals and unintended consequences.

The Impact of Grand Coulee Dam

The Impact of Grand Coulee Dam

Grand Coulee Dam was dedicated in front of a crowd of 8,000 on March 22, 1941.

Grand Coulee Dam: Engineering Challenges

Grand Coulee Dam: Engineering Challenges

The engineering challenges became apparent as soon as construction got underway.

The monumental building that was supposed to last forever was destroyed after 53 years.

New York NOW: Education & History

Study finds New Yorkers don't want school mergers

Governor Cuomo and the legislature approved a plan in the state budget to encourage local governments and schools to merge and share services over the next few years, in an attempt to lower propert...

POV Documentary Blog

Hot Docs: 10 Documentaries Doc Soup Man Is Eager to See

Toronto's Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival runs April 24 to May 4, 2014.

American Masters

George Plimpton: Watch Excerpt: George Plimpton at the Helm of The Paris Review

"The Paris Review is maybe a spiritual hideout for George," reflects Terry McDonnell of Sports Illustrated. I think it was a place where he could do the highest level of his work in the way he wou...

comments powered by Disqus