High Energy 

Idaho's historic flirtation with the tallest dam in the world

It sounds more like fiction than Idaho history.

In the years following World War II, the United States government announced that it would build a dam--the world's tallest, no less--on the Snake River between Idaho and Oregon. Aside from transforming North America's deepest canyon into a 93-mile long reservoir, this project, dubbed the "Hells Canyon High Dam," would transform Idaho itself. Through a series of tunnels under mountains and numerous new canals, water from the reservoir would flow to thousands of new farms on the arid desert southeast of Boise. The Treasure Valley and the entire Snake River Basin, supporters said, would become a green, electrified oasis of irrigation and industry, and Idahoans lives would be changed in ways we can only imagine.

The dam was never built. But here's a surprise: Unlike the other western dam that almost was, Echo Park on the Colorado River, Hells Canyon's failure had little to nothing to do with environmental concerns. Maybe if it had, more people would remember it. Instead, when Boise Weekly made up a new version of Hell's Canyon High Dam for our April Fools Day issue in 2004 (this version would have dubiously put Nampa and Eagle under 100 feet of water), even some of us on staff had no idea how close our state had once come.

click to enlarge BEN WILSON

But during the 1950s, Hells Canyon was no joke. The possibility of federal power lighting up Idaho, a state that Idaho Power had had reign over from the beginning, put us firmly in the national spotlight. Indeed, we were the crux of a national debate that lasted for years.

Democrats--including President Harry S. Truman--saw the dam as a possible triumph of the New Deal-style federal programs that had already helped pull the nation out of the Great Depression. Bringing what seemed like unlimited power and promise to a barren state whose population had dropped by 75,000 in the last 30 years, the dam would help Idaho and Eastern Oregon thrive industrially and economically, the same way that similar projects had lit up the Northwest's coastal metropolises.

Republicans--including the governors of Idaho, Oregon and Washington--saw it as the creeping hand of government megalomania into an industry better left to private businesses. That was the nice way of putting it. Others shrieked that the dam represented left-wing socialism eradicating personal liberty and property rights. Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican candidate for President in 1952, even picked Boise as the first campaign stop, speaking to more than 20,000 supporters on the Idaho Statehouse steps. He left no doubt in his comments that he favored Idaho Power's nascent plan of building either one or three small dams over the Bonneville Power Administration's ambitious monument.

A series of Republican defeats in the 1952 elections helped to ensure that the dam was never built, though when the Federal Power Commission issued Idaho Power a 50-year license to build and operate dams on the Snake, opponents unsuccessfully appealed the license all the way to the Supreme Court. Today, the three small dams Brownlee, Oxbow, and Hells Canyon--the last barely a third as tall as the high dam of the same name--are known as the Hells Canyon Complex, and constitute one of the largest private dam complexes in the world.

Karl Boyd Brooks, a former Democratic Idaho State Senator, first started digging into the history of the Hell's Canyon controversy while working as a lawyer in Boise. His firm represented Nez Perce tribes in Northern Idaho who claimed the Hells Canyon Complex collectively constituted an improper seizure of the tribe's fishing grounds as set forth in an 1855 treaty. The tribe lost the case, but Brooks' fascination with Hells Canyon High Dam has continued through his legal career, into a Ph.D. program in environmental history and into his new job as a professor at the University of Kansas. And at long last, he has written the definitive history of the Hells Canyon High Dam controversy, Public Power, Private Dams: The Hells Canyon High Dam Controversy (University of Washington Press, 2006). In the following excerpts from the book, he transports us to Boise in 1952, when Idaho Power was on the verge of applying for its license and 80 percent of Idaho voters (seriously!) felt strongley enough one way or another turned out to have their say.

Meet the Dam Author
Excerpt from "Public Power, Private Dams"

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