52 Interesting Facts About The Grand Coulee Dam

Last updated on December 5th, 2022

36. Generator Upgrade

It was the Cold War era. The US and the USSR battled for global supremacy in everything from the space race to power generation. The Soviets installed massive generators in their latest dam, so engineers revised the Grand Coulee design to keep up.

37. Clearing the Papers

Henry M. Jackson, a Washington senator, helped the project get funding in Congress. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed the appropriation bill.

38. An Embarrassing Situation

Most megaprojects are usually open to international bidding. After all, more options can lead to better deals. However, the US shut this down to avoid potential embarrassment after a Soviet firm expressed interest. They couldn’t let an international rival build a local power plant.

39. Expansion

They blew it up. In 1967, the workers demolished the northeast side of the dam and built a new fore-bay section. Then they excavated 22 million cubic yards of dirt before building a 526-meter dam extension.

Grand Coulee Dam Generators. For facts about the Grand Coulee dam.
Grand Coulee Dam Generators. Photo © Scott Bufkin

40. Turbines and Generators

The new power plant featured six of the latest generators available. The first three are 600 MW units from Westinghouse, while the other three are 700 MW behemoths from General Electric – later upgraded to 805 MW units from Siemens.

41. Energy Production

It was worth the effort. The expansion increased energy production by 300%, with the third power plant producing two-thirds of Grand Coulee’s output today. It fueled growth in the Northwest for decades.

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42. World Record

The Grand Coulee has a proud legacy. It held the record as the largest power plant in the world during two separate periods: 1949-1959, for the original structure, and 1983-1989, after expansion.

43. The Soviet Dam Projects

In 1959, the Grand Coulee Dam lost its record when the USSR opened the Volga Hydroelectric Station. It didn’t stop there. The country built the larger Bratsk Hydroelectric Power Station in 1963 and the Krasnoyarsk Dam in 1971.

44. Wartime Use

During World War II, the Grand Coulee Dam served as the powerhouse of the US war effort. Its energy enabled aluminum smelters, airplane factories, and shipyards to keep going. Its electricity powered plutonium production for the top-secret Manhattan Project.

45. Economic Benefits

The dam contributes about $2 billion to the economy annually through power production and irrigation. It helps over 60 crops grow across 670,000 acres. It also generates 21 terawatt-hours of electricity each year.

46. Dam Volume

The Grand Coulee is massive. If you compress the nearly one-mile structure, you may appreciate its size. The total volume is over 9 million cubic meters – over three times the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.

Grand Coulee Dam Lake Reservoir. For facts about the Grand Coulee dam.
Grand Coulee Dam Lake Reservoir. Photo © Chris Boswell

47. The Reservoir

The Bureau of Reclamation began purchasing land for the reservoir in the 1930s. The dam flooded 70,500 acres, and the artificial body of water became known as Lake Roosevelt.

48. Glimpse of the Past

Settlers moved their homes before the dam reservoir flooded the area. There were 11 towns, four sawmills, 14 bridges, and four telegraph systems. Whenever the water recedes, the submerged remnants reappear – streets, stumps, and foundations.

49. Relocation

The reservoir partially flooded tribal lands. Some Native Americans had to relocate to higher ground and move graves from traditional burial sites. The dam also blocked salmon from their fishing grounds, affecting their annual rituals.

50. Grand Coulee Bridge

It’s hard to move tons of materials across a river. A permanent bridge made it easy in 1936. Three temporary bridges downstream also helped with labor and vehicle transport.

51. Workers

Chief construction engineer Frank A. Banks supervised the work of around 8,000 people. The average pay was 80 cents an hour, which was high for the period. The dangerous site claimed the lives of 77 men, mostly from falls.

52. Architectural Design

Marcel Breuer, a modernist architect, designed the third power plant. His other notable works are the World Heritage Centre, Met Breuer Museum, and IBM La Gaude. The Hungarian also designed iconic furniture like the Wassily and Cesca Chairs.

The grand Coulee Dam – quick facts and vital statistics

Official nameGrand Coulee Dam
Coordinates47°57′21″N 118°58′54″W
Installed capacity6809 MW
Type of damConcrete gravity
LocationUnited States
Purposepower, regulation, irrigation
OpenedJune 1, 1942
Owned byBureau of Reclamation
Cost$163 million (cost of original structure built in 1943)
ImpoundsColumbia River
ReservoirFranklin Delano Roosevelt Lake
and Banks Lake
Height550 ft (168 m)
Length5,223 feet (1,592 m)
Spillway1,000,000 cu ft/s (28,317 m3/s)
Last updatedDecember 05, 2022