The Public Works Administration (PWA)

The Public Works Administration (PWA) was charged with developing very large public works construction projects. Between 1933 and 1939 PWA invested more than six billion dollars and 4.75 billion man-hours of labor in constructing about 10 percent of all the new transportation facilities (roads, bridges, etc.) built in the United States during the period, 35 percent of the new hospitals and health facilities, 65 percent of city halls and courthouses and 70 percent of all the educational facilities. (TFC, Vol 4, p. 132.) During its existence, almost 50 housing projects were built as well. People referred to the PWA as “Poppa Working Again.” (Roscigno and Danaher, p. 106.)

One of the best known PWA projects was the Grand Coulee Dam located northwest of Spokane, Washington on the Columbia River. Construction started on July 16, 1933, and the first water over-topped its spillway on June 1 of 1942. The Bureau of Reclamation in 1932 estimated the cost of constructing Grand Coulee Dam to be $168 million; its actual cost was $163 million. The Grand Coulee Dam provides water to irrigate approximately 600,000 acres in the Columbia Basin Project, where apples, pears, cherries, wheat and potatoes are grown. It is also a significant source of hydro-electric power, generating more than 21 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year. That’s enough power to supply 2.3 million households with electricity for one year. In addition to its irrigation and power functions, Grand Coulee Dam is a primary factor in controlling floods on the Columbia River. (

Providing jobs to unemployed workers was the most immediate benefit of the project. Around 8,000 people worked on the project. The workers building the dam received an average of 80¢ an hour; the payroll for the dam was among the largest in the nation. The workers and all support personnel had to be housed. Thus, small towns with all necessary support facilities and infrastructure had to be built to accommodate the workers and their families. Women were allowed to work only in the dorms and the cookhouses. (Id.)

A look at auxiliary construction on collateral projects necessary to support the actual construction of the dam provides an idea of the huge scope of the project:

In order to provide adequate transportation facilities, highways leading to the dam site were regraded, widened, and hard-surfaced by the State; a hard-surfaced road from the Grand Coulee to the dam site was built by the Government; bridges across the river replaced a primitive ferry; and 32 miles of standard gauge railroad from Odair, on the Northern Pacific Railway near Coulee City, to the mouth of the Grand Coulee and into the river canyon were built by the Government, to be operated by the contractor. A 110,000-volt transmission line, 31 miles long, was built from the Washington Water Power Co.’s lines near Coulee City to Mason City by the contractor. Telephone and telegraph lines were built in by the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Co. and the Western Union Telegraph Co.


Woody Guthrie, who loved the Pacific Northwest, was hired by the federal government and the Bonneville Power Administration to compose several songs about the Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams. Guthrie spent a month in the Columbia Basin and wrote 26 songs. Two of those songs are “Grand Coulee Dam” and “Roll on, Columbia.” He was paid $266.66 for his work.

“Roll on Columbia” (1941) became the signature song to rally support for the federal government’s Columbia Basin Project, and later it was adopted as the state song of Washington. Words by Woody Guthrie, music based on “Goodnight, Irene” by Huddie Ledbetter/Lead Belly.

Green Douglas firs where the waters cut through
Down her wild mountains and canyons she flew
Canadian Northwest to the oceans so blue
Roll on Columbia, roll on

Chorus: Roll on, Columbia, roll on
Roll on, Columbia, roll on
Your power is turning our darkness to dawn
So roll on, Columbia, roll on

Other great rivers add power to you
Yakima, Snake, and the Klickitat, too
Sandy, Willamette and Hood River too
So roll on, Columbia, roll on

It’s there on your banks that we fought many a fight
Sheridan’s boys in the blockhouse that night
They saw us in death but never in flight
So roll on Columbia, roll on


Tom Jefferson’s vision would not let him rest
An empire he saw in the Pacific Northwest
Sent Lewis and Clark and they did the rest
So roll on, Columbia, roll on

At Bonneville now there are ships in the locks
The waters have risen and cleared all the rocks
Shiploads of plenty will steam past the docks
So roll on, Columbia, roll on

And on up the river is Grand Coulee Dam
The mightiest thing ever built by a man
To run the great factories and water the land
So roll on, Columbia, roll on


These mighty men labored by day and by night
Matching their strength ‘gainst the river’s wild flight
Through rapids and falls, they won the hard fight
So roll on, Columbia, roll on

“Grand Coulee Dam, was written and sung here by Woody Guthrie. (1941)

Well, the world has seven wonders, the travelers always tell
Some gardens and some towers, I guess you know them well
But the greatest wonder is in Uncle Sam’s fair land
It’s that King Columbia River and the big Grand Coulee Dam

She heads up the Canadian Rockies where the rippling waters glide
Comes a-rumbling down the canyon to meet that salty tide
Of the wide Pacific Ocean where the sun sets in the west
And the big Grand Coulee country in the land I love the best

In the misty crystal glitter of that wild and windward spray
Men have fought the pounding waters and met a watery grave
Well, she tore their boats to splinters but she gave men dreams to dream
Of the day the Coulee Dam would cross that wild and wasted stream

Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of Thirty three
For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me
He said, “Roll along Columbia. You can ramble to the sea
But river while you’re ramblin’ you can do some work for me”

Now in Washington and Oregon you hear the factories hum
Making chrome and making manganese and light aluminum
And there roars a mighty furnace now to fight for Uncle Sam
Spawned upon the King Columbia by the big Grand Coulee Dam

In the misty crystal glitter of that wild and windward spray
Men have fought the pounding waters and met a watery grave
Well, she tore their boats to splinters but she gave men dreams to dream
Of the day the Coulee Dam would cross that wild and wasted stream