Moses Lake Oral History

Narrators: George (GS) and Margaret Schiffner (MS)
Interviewer: Louis Logan (LL)
Date: November 11, 1995
Moses Lake, Washington

[The following is a verbatim transcription]

Tape 2, Side B

MS: . . . Everyone wanted their niche in the water to benefit their area. And the people in the Spokane area wanted to have it come out of the Pend O’reille River and the Spokane River and the Washington Water Power got involved in it. And they were going to have the water go up around Spokane somehow. . .

. . . Clear back in the 1890s the Spokesman Review was putting articles in the paper keeping the pot stirred up about the project of putting water in this area. . .

. . . [reading from Bruce ?] “On July 18, 1918, Rufus Wood came to Ephrata looking for a story for his newspaper which was the Wenatchee Daily World. He talked to Billy Clapp who told him of a proposal to dam the Columbia and divert its flow into Grand Coulee. By doing so it would be possible to irrigate the basin and produce electricity. Woods printed this story and gave Clapp credit for the idea. The dam pictured by Woods would have diverted the portion of the flow directly into Grand Coulee, the ancient bed of the river.”

And Bruce, in putting this thesis together, he interviewed C.C. Dill in Spokane, on October 13, 1949 in regards to his involvement. . . He had a lot to do with various proposals in regards to the dams.

. . . From the very beginning when people began coming into the basin the dream of putting water on this land was a vision that was not dropped. And Billy Clapp was one of these gentlemen with a vision. He was an attorney in Ephrata and both the Northern Pacific Railroad and the Great Northern Railroad conducted surveys in eastern Washington in the 1880s and the 1890s investigating ways to irrigate and attract settlers [reading from Pitzer]. . .

Well, they talked big. When it come down to it, it cost money and lots of times these dreams vanished because of the cost. . .

LL: . . . When you were a child, were railroads still important in this area?

GS: Railroads were everything. A lot of people will try to tell you that Highway 10 originally came through Moses Lake. Highway 10 did not come originally through Moses Lake. That was much later. Highway 10 came through Coulee City and Waterville and to Wenatchee and then over. . . Pass, and then. . .

The photograph shows my grandfather getting on a passenger train and I was told when I was a child that it was at Wheeler. And this railroad ran from Connell north to Coulee City and on into Spokane. And, with a stop in Wheeler. And railroads were everything. The problems of getting the Northern Pacific. I was just reading yesterday, through, originally the Northern Pacific came to Spokane and then down to Pasco and over the Oregon Washington Navigation Railroad tracks to Portland and north to Tacoma. They didn’t go through here and it was quite a feat to put them through the mountains and to build the tunnel in Stampede Pass.

LL: So when would you say that Highways replaced railroads as the major form of transportation in the Moses Lake region?

GS: I can remember the Highway 10, which was actually State Highway 18 being built just before, as I remember, just before World War II. And before that the highway was, you traveled from Ritzville to Moses Lake on what we call Wheeler Road. And then it came across Moses Lake. . .

MS: . . . O’Sullivan, his name is very prominent in building this project and he wrote an article in 1919 that appeared in the Wenatchee World and the sad thing about it was that O’Sullivan put his life and his finances before this project. He never really saw the true dream come because he lost both his life and his life savings in promoting this project. That’s how involved the man was. And of course, Nat Washington Sr., until his tragic death. That’s our former State Senator’s father, also was very prominent in promoting the earlier years of this project, along with Billy Clapp and Mr. Matthews from Ephrata. They were businessmen in the Ephrata area. . .

[talks about high dam vs. gravity plan]

GS: . . . One thing I would like to have an environmentalist explain to me is why they are so violently opposed to electricity. They oppose dams. Some of them even advocate tearing down dams. They’re opposed to nuclear power. They even want to close down the nuclear power plants that are in existence. They fought a coal fired generator at Cle Elum, got it stopped. They fought a coal fired power plant at Creston and got it stopped. They fought and got stopped a natural gas plant at Creston and got it stopped. They’re now in the process of fighting windmills at Bingen and I don’t know if anybody’s ever figured out another way to make electricity. I’d like to understand. . . why they’re so opposed to electricity.

LL: Did the generation prior to you ever discuss what it was like without electricity here?

GS: Well I lived through that. As a boy we never had electricity on the farm. Then when I lived in town we had electricity, and so from, within four hours notice, why I would go from one extreme to another extreme. . .

I was four years old and I can remember living in a house that was a, it was a big central furnace in the basement that burnt coal and the house was kept nice and warm. Went from that to living out on the ranch where we burned wood and coal and the coal in this country that we burned, unless we shipped in from back east, was the coal from Cle Elum, and my mother always claimed that you carried in the bucket of coal and two buckets of ashes. . .

. . . What a lot of people don’t realize is that the Moses Lake Irrigation District was established as we know it today in ‘29. In my understanding, prior to that, the right to pump water out of Moses Lake, it went to the Washington State Supreme Court three times. Now they irrigated, before the Columbia Basin [Project] obviously, because in ‘29 that was established. But the thing about it is that depended on the springs that were in the lake and also the runoff. And some years that was mighty slim. I can remember one year in particular that there was even a lawsuit over, some people opened up a spot alongside the lake near 2 northeast and Westshore Drive to let water out into the western part of the Mae Valley. In my understanding that went to court. But the Grand Coulee Project, the Moses Lake Irrigation District in the Columbia Basin Project here, the Irrigation District established by the Bureau, establishes Moses Lake and an adequate supply of water so that the Moses Lake Irrigation District does not run out of water during the year. So, without the Columbia Basin [Project] there would probably be a small amount of irrigation around Moses Lake, but that would be very small. . .

. . . One year. . . the dam broke and we had to patch it and also hold the water. And so we all chipped in money and or car bodies, all the old car bodies that people could gather up were taken down there and they dumped, they bulldozed the sand and car bodies in to keep the dam from washing, from holding the water that was there. It was vital. That was in the Flood of ‘48, I think. . .

MS: . . . [reading from Pitzer] What really got the dam going was that in 1932 it was “the election of Franklin Delanore Roosevelt and his New Deal in the White house, liberated programs suddenly offering prospects of immediate funding for public works ventures offering relief especially for the unemployed.”

So the money was finally secured to start thinking about the dam. But you know that brought a lot of problems. The unemployed just flocked to the Northwest! To the Columbia Basin, up around the dam projects where they thought it was going to be built. There was no housing, no facilities of any kind, to accommodate. They tried to warn them to write ahead and see if there was a job available in their expertise, but they just panicked and raced out here, so. Because none of the communities that are up there, in 1932 were there. In fact there’s some little communities that were there during the building of the dam that aren’t there. . .

. . . the primary work started in 1933 and then a company got the bid for the coffer dam and the initials were MWAKS. . . that was six construction companies that formed that company. . .

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