Lake Roosevelt
Administrative History
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The River Becomes a Lake (continued)

Acquiring Land for the Reservoir Behind Grand Coulee Dam

Most of the 3,000 persons who were forced to move accepted their fate philosophically. . . . Many felt that this forced evacuation released them from a bondage that held them in the great canyon where tradition and custom bound them inevitably to a life of drudgery and poverty.

-- WPA press release, 1940

When construction of Grand Coulee Dam began in 1933, many American Indians lived along the river bottoms between Whitestone Creek (near Jones Bay) and Inchelium and also farther upstream. Most were concentrated on the tongues of land close to the water or on the low benches along the river. A number of ferries crossing the river served these people and their neighbors farther from the riverbanks. Only a handful of white families lived in the immediate vicinity of the dam site, but a number of communities and small farming settlements were located along the river farther upstream. Fruit orchards, livestock raising, farming, logging, and mining supported the people living along the river. When construction of the dam began, the residents of northeastern Washington, white and Indian alike, were suffering from the effects of a series of agricultural recessions and mine closures and the nationwide Depression. [8]

Sometimes I just can't help but wonder if things might have been better up here if they hadn't built the dam.

I think about it every spring when the water is down and I see that old town [Marcus] down there. It's not a pretty sight.

-- Ed Frostad, former resident of old Marcus, 1985

Beginning in 1933, Reclamation engineers prepared to purchase land and rights-of-way for a reservoir that would stretch some 151 miles from the dam to close to the Canadian boundary. Surveyors worked for several years setting permanent monuments along the approximate 1,310-foot "taking line" to indicate the land the government needed to acquire. The "Columbia River Reservoir" eventually flooded approximately 70,500 acres, and Reclamation took an additional 11,500 acres of "freeboard" land (the strip of land between the 1,290 water line and the 1,310-foot taking line) for the reservoir. Within this area lay two railroads, three primary state highways, about one hundred and fifty miles of country roads, fourteen bridges, eleven towns, four sawmills, four telegraph and telephone systems, and many power lines and cemeteries. All of these had to be purchased and/or relocated before the waters came. Some towns were relocated to higher ground, but a number of small communities were not. In total, some three thousand people had to leave their homes because of the creation of the reservoir. [10]

As early as 1933, an appraisal board began valuing the twelve hundred parcels of land to be purchased. The appraisers considered the physical value of the land and also its productive and residential values. When landowners did not accept final government purchase offers, Reclamation filed condemnation suits. Many property owners felt that they did not receive fair value for their land. By the close of 1942, all of the lands required for the reservoir had been acquired by purchase or condemnation or were under contract to purchase. In the end, over $10.5 million was paid for this land, including town lots and farms, plus the relocation of railroads, highways, sawmills, and other improvements. [11]

Portion of a 1930s map showing the land ownership at the confluence of the Columbia and Spokane rivers. The dashed line represents the water line at 1,300 feet, but the actual water line was at 1,290 feet and the taking line for Bureau of Reclamation acquisition of land was at a minimum of 1,310 feet. (Metsker's Atlas of Stevens County, Washington, [1930s], Stevens County Historical Society.)
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

The federal government paid property owners the market value of their land but did not cover moving and relocation costs. This was standard policy until 1958, when Congress authorized payment for moving expenses. Some homeowners sold their property (real property — land — and improvements) to the government, then bought the house back for salvage at much lower cost. They then lived in the building until required to evacuate because of rising water and paid the moving expenses if they wished to relocate the house. These costs could be high; for example, house movers charged about $125 to move a home from old Marcus up to the new townsite less than a mile away on the hill. Reclamation did pay, however, for the moving of some buildings, such as the U.S. Forest Service Kettle Falls Ranger Station and Great Northern Railway facilities. [12]

town of Kettle Falls
Town of Kettle Falls, 1938. Photo courtesy of National Park Service, Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area (LARO 2784).

Projected distances below water:
85 feet
235 feet
175 feet
110 feet
90 feet
130 feet
75 feet
Kettle Falls (town)
30 feet
45 feet
30 feet
Fort Colvile
80 feet
Kettle Falls (falls)
90 feet
-- Historical Research Associates, Historic Resource Study, 1980 [13]

The reservoir flooded eleven towns that had post offices. Daisy, one small town that was relocated, had three stores, two churches, a blacksmith shop, a creamery, a saloon, a highway department garage, and a high school. The school was rebuilt in a new location, but only the store and the service station were relocated. The town of Kettle Falls found a novel solution to its problem. Unable to obtain land adjacent to St. Paul's mission, their first choice for a new town site, Kettle Falls residents annexed the nearby higher town of Meyers Falls and a strip of land along the state highway connecting the two communities. The residents of both towns, after some political maneuvering, then voted to abandon the old town site and the strip. They gave the old town of Meyers Falls the new name of Kettle Falls. Many residents of Meyers Falls resented this forced merging of their town with their relocated neighbor. Marcus, with a population close to six hundred in 1940, was the largest town that had to be relocated. It was moved to a bench some 145 feet above the former town. [14]

Inchelium was another town that was flooded by the reservoir. The community had about 190 residents in the 1930s, mostly members of the Colville Confederated Tribes (CCT). There was heated controversy over the location of the new town, and in the end, the school and the Indian subagency were relocated a few miles away from the new town. Because payment for the school building was tied up in litigation, the school board had no money to buy or move the building, so the rising water began to flood the school. Ultimately, Reclamation had to lower the reservoir level to allow trucks to move the school at the last possible minute. Long-distance phone service was not provided to the new town for thirty years. Many of Inchelium's former residents had to move to other areas such as Okanogan, Omak, and Tonasket that were far from their homes. Many older people, according to anthropologist Verne Ray, died of grief, and the damage to the traditional culture was "incalculable." [16]

The river was the central and most powerful element in the religious, social, economic, and ceremonial life of my people. Suddenly, all of this was wiped out. The river was blocked, the land was flooded. The river we had known was destroyed. Our homesites were gone. The fordings were made impossible. The far banks were beyond our reach. The root-digging prairies were cut off. The salmon came no more, and with the disappearance of the salmon, our traditional economy was lost forever.

-- Jim DeSautel, member, Colville Confederated Tribes, 1977

Besides established towns, hundreds of year-round villages and seasonal campsites of the CCT and Spokane Tribe of Indians (STI) had been established along both sides of the Columbia River and its larger tributaries, all waters that carried the life-sustaining salmon. In the 1930s, descendants of these people on the two reservations continued to live along the rivers. The southern half of the Colville Reservation was allotted to individual Indians in 1916 but held in trust by the government for the next twenty-five years. Members of both tribes chose their allotments adjacent to the Columbia River or the Spokane River whenever possible. Many of these people's homes were located within the future reservoir area. [17]

Lands acquired within the reservations for Grand Coulee Dam and Lake Roosevelt:

Colville Reservation
Allotted14,844 acres$259,458.83
Tribal3,359 acres$67,530.21

Spokane Reservation
Allotted1,855 acres$37,174.64
Tribal1,045 acres$17,264.46 [18]

The right to purchase tribal and allotted lands was accomplished by the Acquisition of Indian Lands for Grand Coulee Dam Act of June 29, 1940, which authorized the Secretary of the Interior to take lands for reservoir purposes. There were three classes of land ownership on the two reservations: Indian allotments assigned to an individual for his personal use (the Indian owned the property but could not sell it - title was held in trust by the U.S. government); tribal lands (communal property of the entire tribe held in trust by the U.S. government); and alienated lands (Indian title extinguished, usually through homesteading or outright purchase). The actual acquisition of Indian allotted lands began long before the 1940 act was passed, and many people were forced to relocate before they even had been paid for their land and buildings. The acquisition of tribal lands was relatively simple, since the Secretary of the Interior was the trustee for these lands. Alienated lands were treated the same as privately owned lands not located on the reservations. [19]

The Act of June 29, 1940 required the Secretary of the Interior to determine the amount of money to be paid to the Indians as compensation for their lands. This was done on the basis of appraisers' reports and a Reclamation-prepared description of the land proposed to be acquired. The appraisal done by Reclamation's Board of Appraisers turned out to be more favorable to the owners of allotted lands than an independent appraisal done by the Office of Indian Affairs, due to different methodologies. The Reclamation appraisal was adopted, and funds were transferred to pay the Indian allottees or their heirs. In total, 18,203 acres of allotted and tribal land was purchased on the Colville Reservation and 2,900 acres (including the Klaxta town site) on the Spokane Reservation. Most of Klaxta, the area where the Spokane and Columbia rivers join, has since been turned back to the STI. [20]

Reclamation reported that the appraisals of Indian land were made on exactly the same basis as the appraisals of lands outside the reservations, but many tribal members at the time and in subsequent decades have disputed this contention. Most Indians received $500-$700 for their land. One man's timberland was reportedly appraised at the same value as sagebrush land. Under the Act of 1940, however, the decisions of the Secretary as to the value of allotted lands were final. Landowners with title in hand could challenge the appraised value and negotiate the amount of compensation, but the Indians' land was taken by "declaration" because the federal government had retained title to the allotted and tribal lands. [21]

Aerial view of the confluence of the Columbia
and Spokane rivers
Aerial view of the confluence of the Columbia and Spokane rivers, 1932. The bridge across the Spokane River was one of several that had to be relocated. The new bridge is closer to the confluence and historic Fort Spokane. Photo courtesy of National Park Service, Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area (LARO 2961).

The CCT and STI suffered far-reaching injuries beyond the loss of their homes and land. Hundreds of Indian burials were relocated; others were inundated by the rising water. The construction of Grand Coulee Dam and the flooding of the reservoir destroyed fundamental aspects of tribal culture and forced Indians into a new, undesired way of life. The arrival of thousands of non-Indian dam workers and the construction of towns to house them created cultural conflict.

Both tribes gathered roots and berries on lands south of the Columbia River; this ended because of the influx of non-Indians to these lands and because crossing the reservoir was so difficult. Hunting was affected by the flooding of much bottomland forage. School-age children living in the Keller area of the Colville Reservation had to take a forty-mile (one way) school bus and ferry ride to school in Wilbur. The reservoir flooded sites with mythological significance, places to gather pitch wood and driftwood, and rock art. All these related impacts created great personal hardship and economic dislocation. The benefits to the tribes, on the other hand, were few. Relatively few tribal members were employed in the construction of the dam. The irrigation aspect of the project benefited lands south of the reservations, not agricultural lands owned or farmed by Indians. [22]

Another tremendous loss for the American Indians of the region was the loss of the fishery at Kettle Falls, the mouth of the Sanpoil River, Little Falls, and other places along the upper Columbia River in the area flooded by Lake Roosevelt. At the time of white contact, several species of salmon taken from the Columbia and tributaries provided perhaps half the total diet of the Colville and Spokane tribes. The salmon was also important to the tribes' religion, economy (dried salmon was traded for other goods), and social life. The fish runs on the Columbia River and in the Kettle Falls area began declining in the late 1800s due to commercial fishing in the lower Columbia and the Pacific Ocean and the construction of downstream dams. The sudden and complete loss of the salmon fishery upstream of Grand Coulee Dam dramatically changed the way of life of Indians living along the upper Columbia. [23]

We had a beautiful way of life. We were rich. The dam made us poor. The way they treated us, they tried to make us less than human. . . . We Indians trust the day is past when the nation will approve of what the government did when they built the dams, which back in those days caused one of our people to say, "The promises made by the government were written in sand and then covered with water, like everything else."

-- Lucy Covington, member, Colville Confederated Tribes, 1977 [24]

In June 1940, American Indians from around the Pacific Northwest gathered at the site of St. Paul's mission above Kettle Falls for a final three-day "Ceremony of Tears" to mourn the loss of the ancestral fishing grounds. A crowd estimated at eight to ten thousand people attended the gathering. Chief Peter Joseph of the Kalispel commented that the government should reimburse the tribes for the loss of their fishing grounds, and Senator Clarence C. Dill pledged his support for a measure to accomplish this. [25]

One specific concern of both tribes in subsequent years has been the high cost of electricity to tribal members living on the reservation. The rates are much higher on the Colville Reservation than in the town of Coulee Dam, for example, even though the BPA had assured the tribes that electricity would be extremely cheap as a result of the dam. The BPA response is that they sell power at the same rate to electrical utilities; the difference in users' costs is due to the varying cost of distribution, so rural residents face higher bills than people living in towns. [26]

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Last Updated: 22-Apr-2003