LAKE YELLOWSTONE LODGE

A poignant moment, as we left Old Faithful Inn: This wonderful National Park Lodges Tour that we’ve anticipated and planned for, for over a year, is nearing its terminus. How true the closing line in Dumas’ powerful novel, The Count of Monte Cristo—that all human wisdom is distilled in just two words: Wait and Hope. Indeed, for those like us who have reached the autumn of our lives—without new goals, new dreams, new directions, new places to see, new people to meet—our bodies would close shop on us. It is our dreams that energize each day’s awakening, and give us torque and joy.

Then it was time to leave. Actually, it was harder to leave than I thought it would be. Perhaps because of all I now knew about Robert Reamer, who’d dreamed up this magical place, who’d done the same with Lake Quinault Lodge, and transformed Lake Yellowstone Hotel—which I could hardly wait to see. After driving away from a place I now felt we knew personally, I (as navigator) read the entry in Barnes’ second book having to do with the Lake Hotel. What an incredible difference it makes to arrive at a hotel you already know inside out because of all her research, words, and photographs!

Yellowstone Falls

Soon we angled off to Artist’s Point on the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Bob and Lucy had never been here before so, with them, we were able to experience vicariously that once-in-a-lifetime moment when someone first takes in the sights and sounds of those prodigious waterfalls thundering over their wide ledges into the abyss over a thousand feet below us. This incredible vista never fails to overwhelm us with its grandeur—and Bob and Lucy’s silence was testimony to how deeply it affected them.

By mid-afternoon it was time to head for another of the world’s most beautiful sights: twenty-mile long Yellowstone Lake, framed by the snowcapped Absaroka Mountains (with peaks towering over 12,000 feet). At first, we missed the turn-off for the hotel—which is not surprisingly given the undeniable fact that it is publicized so little. As many times as we’d been to the park over the years, we’d not only not seen it—we’d not even heard about it! In fact, it hadn’t been included in Barnes’ first book at all (but Old Faithful Inn had). Only during the last year had I discovered it even existed.

Lake Yellowstone Lodge

Then we turned a corner—and there it was! Real after all. A very long wooden structure radiantly golden in the afternoon sun. As out of place stylistically yet paradoxically just as much at home as is true of the Stanley Hotel in the Colorado Rockies. As Robert L. Wheaton put it,

Lake Hotel represents a rare survivor of the large Colonial Revival-style hotels and resorts that once sprawled along the Atlantic Coast from Florida to Maine and inland at mountain retreats. At Yellowstone National Park, it was a symbol of civilization in the wilderness. (Barnes, 32).

After driving up the sweeping drive to the porte cochere, we parked behind one of the hotel’s eight vintage White Motor Company motorbuses, painted yellow like the hotel of course. Inside, we walked into a scene that could not be more at variance with old Faithful’s were it on the moon. A grand hotel out of the Golden Age of a hundred years ago, reminiscent of the likes of Greenbriar Inn and Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel. And as serene:

Solitude seekers hike and pack into the far reaches of the park and lose themselves in its beauty. For those simply looking for a room to soothe the soul, far from the marvels at Old Faithful or Mammoth Hot Springs, the butter-yellow and white Colonial Revival facade of Lake Hotel . . . simply beckons an attitude adjustment. (Barnes, 17).

THE LAKE HOTEL’S STORY

When Robert Reamer was hired on to be the equivalent of “court architect” for Harry Child in 1903, it was with the understanding that he would design everything Child entrusted to him—which turned out, meant everything! Virtually every building that has endured for the last century came about because of this collaboration of kindred spirits. More often than not, there were many concurrent projects going at once. Just so, it was with Lake Hotel and Old Faithful Inn. Northern Pacific Railroad wanted a hotel on Yellowstone Lake, but all they had was a plain-looking box with the ambiance and appeal of an Army barracks. Reamer’s job was to transform the ugly duckling into a swan.

Interior of Lake Yellowstone Lodge

During the 1903-1904 period, Reamer doubled the size of the facility, and by the introduction of twelve 50-foot-high ionic columns transported all the way from Chicago (these supported the porticos), dormers, false balconies, huge iron coach lamps, balustrades, verandas, enlarged windows, etc., he pulled off his miracle: transforming a plain box into an elegant hotel. By summer of 1904, the Lake Hotel had 210 rooms and the ability to accommodate 466 persons, and was advertised as the largest hotel in the park. Because its opening predated that of Old Faithful Hotel, it is considered today to be the oldest public lodging in the park.

Twenty years later, so popular had the hotel become that Reamer was asked to expand its size by adding 113 rooms, and 59 additional bathrooms. Inside, major changes took place: the dark redwood paneling was removed and replaced with light painted woodwork and plaster; “reed-style furniture ordered from San Francisco and large potted ferns replaced the heavy, wooden Colonial Revival ladder-back furniture, giving the hotel the feeling of an East Coast ‘summer resort’ . . . .” Not only that, but now Reamer also constructed a larger, four-hundred capacity, dining room, complete with large picture windows, curved bay window, and self-standing torchere lights.” Adjacent to it, in an inspired mood, Reamer constructed “a lounge solarium set between the columned portico and new porte cochere at the west end of the hotel. This beautiful sun-filled lounge seemed to be the architect’s final grand statement.” (Barnes, 24-28).

The hotel reached its peak beauty just as the Great Depression hit. It was closed down from 1933 – 1936, and only partially opened in 1937. By 1940, the decision was made to tear it down. That summer, the rear wing was demolished. What was left remained empty until 1947. “Neglected and unappreciated, the hotel stood like an aging grand dame with a saucy new era mocking its once stately beauty.” (Barnes, 32).

It was all down-hill from there. In 1979, the National Park Service purchased the derelict from the Yellowstone Park Hotel Company. During the last 30 years, gradually the hotel (now a National Landmark) has been restored to its former glory. Since 1995, it has been managed by XANTERRA.

* * * * *

View of Yellowstone Lake from the Lake Lodge

Our own room on the second floor front looked out at the deep blue waters of Yellowstone Lake. After exploring the hotel, none of us wanted to leave the sunny lounge solarium. Nor, apparently did the hotel’s other guests. Since (as is generally the case with these old lodges) there was no TV in the rooms, families either explored the outdoors or relaxed, read, chatted, played board games, or spent money in the gift shop. Later on, we sat down in the large dining room, and took a long time to dine. Outside: the great windows we never tired of. Later, as darkness fell, the Lake String Quartet (a group of professional musicians from New York City, here for their fourth season) performed from a wide musical menu—from classical, semi-classical, easy-listening, pop, to jazz. The audience loved them!

Afterwards we retired. My head spun; I had the sniffles—the bug had got me too.

Next morning, we ate breakfast in that lovely dining room, then delayed our moment of leaving until check-out time. Afterwards, we drove over to another old facility (also managed by XANTERRA, the rustic Lake Lodge (built during the 1920s) and its 186 wooden cabins (away from the lake). The main lodge has a large lobby with two impressive gas fireplaces, a cafeteria dining area, and long veranda equipped with rocking chairs so comfortable neither Lucy nor Connie wanted to get out of them. As we drove out, just north of the Lake Hotel, a great bull buffalo grazing next to the road posed for photos.

CANYON HOTEL—PARADISE LOST

We must not close this series of Robert Reamer-designed hotels without bringing up a very sad story. In the fall of 1909, the Childs and Reamer boarded the steamship S. S. Mauritania for Europe. Once there, they studied European architecture in England, Scotland, Switzerland, and Germany. On their return, his head whirling with visions of all the romantic architecture he’d studied, Reamer dreamed up his Xanadu: a great European-inspired hotel at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Construction began in June of 1910, of the largest building ever to be constructed in the park. Thanks to Northern Pacific’s deep pockets, money was no object, and it showed. It cost half a million dollars—a staggering sum for the times.

Lake Lodge

It was 600-feet long by 100 wide, and contained 375 guest rooms—huge fireplaces added to the overall dramatic effect. The great three-story-high lounge was 200-feet long by 100-wide, and became renowned for its two spiral staircases, and grand staircase; the magnificent lobby was 85-feet high, 175-feet-long, and 100-feet-wide, complete with signature fireplaces. Twenty years later, so heavily booked was it that Reamer added a 96-room-wing to the already enormous hotel. The great masquerade balls and dances became the stuff of legend.

That Reamer knew he’d created a masterpiece is borne out by these words: I built it in keeping with the place where it stands. Nobody could improve upon that. To be at discord with the landscape would be almost a crime. To try to improve upon it would be an impertinence. (Quinn, 79).

But then the Great Depression hit, delaying completion of the 96-room-addition until 1935. By then it was all too clear that the euphoria of the Jazz Age would not return; nor would the wealthy clientele that filled great resort hotels like this for months at a time.

It remained a forlorn relic of that bygone age for 25 more years until it was demolished in August of 1960. But it did not perish ignominiously to the wrecking ball—somehow, it suddenly ignited and roared into an inferno.

Quinn’s requiem reads thus: “The Grand Canyon Hotel is second only to Old Faithful Inn in fame and recognition of Reamer’s talents. Numerous Yellowstone visitors today return with fond memories of lunches eaten, dances enjoyed, or summers engaged as employees at this grand hostelry. For those who experience it only vicariously through photographs, it is a romantic reminder of grander, gentler times.” (Quinn, 78).

SPECIAL NOTE

Next Wednesday, we move on to Jackson Lake Lodge

SOURCES

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks 2 (Portland, OR: Graphic Arts Books, 2008) [most informative!]

Quinn, Ruth, Weaver of Dreams (Gardiner, MT: Leslie and Ruth Quinn, Publishers, 2004). [Invaluable source for both the Yellowstone Lake and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone hotels].

Scott, David L. and Kay W. (The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).

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OLD FAITHFUL INN

            After leaving Grand Coulee Dam, we drove south along shimmering blue Banks Lake (a Grand Coulee reservoir) to Coulee City, then turned east on hwy 2, taking us to Spokane and Interstate 90.  We stayed at a Best Western in Coeur d’Alene that night.  Next morning we continued along I-90.  Now, the scenery became more mountainous and scenic—well, as scenic as interstates ever get.  Because we were on a tight schedule, we made few stops en route to Bozeman, Montana, where we stayed at the Hampton.

            Already the differences between the world of the old national park lodges and the world of chain lodges was beginning to be more and more marked in our minds: small bedrooms and large lobbies compared to small lobbies and large bedrooms; serenity compared to electronic noise; camaraderie compared to isolation; deep thoughts about life compared to electronic stifling of thought—not coincidentally, TVs everywhere to no TVs at all.

Historic North Entrance gate to Yellowstone National Park

            Next day, we drove into Yellowstone National Park, stopping at the famous Gardiner Gate at the North Entrance, Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris Geyser Basin, and Virginia Cascade, en route to Old Faithful Inn and Old Faithful Geyser.

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK       

            Before 1872, there was not in the entire world such a thing as a “national park.”  For almost three quarters of a century, reports of its wonders had occasionally trickled out, but no one believed them.  Not until 1870, when Thomas Moran and William Henry Jackson not only saw those wonders but returned with proof: Moran’s stunning panoramic paintings and Jackson’s memorable and convincing photographs.   On the premise that it was useless to developers, the bill for its preservation passed almost unanimously.  It was signed into law by Pres. Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872.

            But creating a national park and protecting it proved to be two different things.  Gradually, conditions deteriorated to the point where the park’s very survival was at risk.  At this critical point, George Bird Grinnell (influential editor of Forest and Stream and close friend of young Teddy Roosevelt) and General Phil Sheridan (hero of the great Civil War poem, “Sheridan’s Ride”) joined forces; since the government refused to protect the park, Sheridan sent his cavalry in—thirty years later, they were still there.

            Roosevelt first visited the park in 1883, John Muir in 1888, Rudyard Kipling in 1889.  By then most everyone was calling the park “Wonderland.”  On April 24, 1903, Roosevelt, on a transcontinental 14,000-mile speaking tour, spent two weeks in Yellowstone.  Dedicating the new entrance arch in Gardiner, Montana, TR said,

The Yellowstone Park is something absolutely unique in the world. . . .  Nowhere else in any civilized country is there to be found such a tract of veritable wonderland made accessible to all visitors, where at the same time not only the scenery of the wilderness, but the wild creatures of the Park are scrupulously preserved.

                                                                        —(Duncan and Burns, 92).

Old Faithful Geyser

            Yellowstone’s iconic symbol is Old Faithful Geyser—most appropriate since, with over 10,000 hydrothermal features, the park offers the largest concentration of geysers (over 300) and geothermal activity on earth.  1,700-foot-deep Yellowstone Canyon is by itself one of the greatest natural wonders on earth; and Yellowstone Lake is the largest lake in North America above 7,000 feet.  But Yellowstone is also perhaps the world’s most successful wildlife sanctuary, with grizzlies, black bears, elk, moose, wolves, bison, and so much more.

            In short, 2,200,000 acre Yellowstone is the parent stock for all the national parks around the world that have come into being during the last 138 years. 

THE STORY OF OLD FAITHFUL

            Have you ever noticed that it is the best-known, most famous, subjects that prove the hardest to get your arms around?  Just so, it is for Old Faithful Inn, without question the best known hotel in national park history.  Strangely enough it is just as much an international icon as Old Faithful Geyser itself.

            Over 3,000,000 tourists from all over the world swarm Yellowstone each year, almost all during the short summer season—so they come at the rate of almost a million a month.  And it appears that no one dares to come here without worshiping at the shrine of both Old Faithfuls.  Who’d believe they’d been to Yellowstone without photographic proof that they’d actually stood there in front of those two semi-immortal entities?

            So how did the lodge get here in the first place?

            Well, in the early days they could get by with just tents.  But all that changed in 1883 when railroad tracks reached the North Entrance in Gardiner.  Park administration continued to complain about the failure of tourists to stay long enough to see much; but the reason was obvious: they had to find lodging somewhere by nightfall.

            The breakthrough came in 1901 when Northern Pacific Railroad sold its controlling stock in Yellowstone Park Association to the Yellowstone Transportation Company; Harry Child was named president.  Up till then, the park had lacked a focal center, a final authority.  Child would rule supreme in Yellowstone for the rest of his life.  Almost immediately, he set about searching for an architect he could count on, not just for a building or two, but for the long haul.  He found that in the person in a self-taught architect by the name of Robert Reamer.

            Reamer journeyed to Yellowstone in 1903 via a career trajectory beginning in Ohio, and continuing through Tennessee, Michigan, Illinois, and California.  When Child first heard of him, Reamer was making a name for himself in San Diego, especially in terms of his projects for the already legendary del Coronado Hotel (first opened in 1888).  It proved to be a perfect fit: Child and Reamer worked together for the rest of Reamer’s life.

            Old Faithful not only was Reamer’s first major project, it would remain his life’s greatest achievement.  Teddy Roosevelt, in his 1903 visit to the park, upon seeing Reamer’s designs for park hotels, expressed his delight.  Northern Pacific Railroad came up with $100,000 to construct it.

Interior of Old Faithful Inn

            Reamer designed the iconic core of the hotel in 1903, the East Wing in 1913-14, and the Y-shaped West Wing in 1927; eventually providing 327 rooms for guests.  The seven-story stair-stepped-inn is striking enough from the outside, but Reamer’s biographer, Ruth Quinn, maintains that the píece de résistance has to be the lobby:

                        For most visitors the lobby stands as the structure’s distinguishing feature.  From its polished maple floor to the peak of its log paneled ceiling, it measures more than 76 feet in height.  The lobby of Old Faithful Inn is a maze of twisted branches, inviting staircases, and welcoming balconies described by one historian as rusticity gone berserk!  Upon viewing the lobby, many are drawn beyond, to experience it—to touch its enormous stone chimney, to stroke a beautifully polished log, to inhale the scent of the wood, to listen to the creak of the stairs and the chatter of admirers.  This is a building to delight the senses.  It is a public space with a strong sense of place where many feel at home.  All eyes are carried upward, one gapes and wonders, Who could have imagined this? (Quinn, 1).

            Old Faithful Inn would become the template, the inspiration, for other great park hotels such as El Tovar, East Glacier, Many Glacier, Prince of Wales; Crater Lake, and Ahwahnee.  It would be reproduced life-size for the Panama Pacific Exposition in 1915, and is the inspiration behind Disney’s Wilderness Lodge.

            Though it has been loved to death from the start, almost we lost it during the 1970s.  Barnes notes that “Rotting logs, worn shingle siding, and a deteriorating roof were the obvious problem. . . .  There were joints coming apart, the roof was collapsing in sections, logs were falling off the building.”  The NPS seriously considered demolishing it, but the public was outraged at the very thought! (Barnes, 24).

            It took ten years and over $7,000,000 to fix the problems and shore it up for the next half century.  Periodic earthquakes are always a problem since Yellowstone itself is the world’s most active volcano.

            The entire world watched with bated breath, however, in 1988, when it appeared certain Old Faithful Inn was doomed.  In that terrible forest fire, when almost a third of the park burned over, only a last-minute shift of the wind saved the lodge for posterity.

* * * * *

Exterior of Old Faithful Inn

            Over the years we’d been to Old Faithful Geyser and Inn many times, but had never stayed here.  Since it’s booked a year in advance, it was not easy to get rooms in the Inn itself.  Turns out we didn’t spend much time in our bedrooms, because the hotel itself is so fascinating.  Especially the people-watching.  The clock everyone watches is the one that tells everyone when Old Faithful Geyser is due to erupt (the intervals used to be about an hour long, but since the last big earthquake, it has extended to about an hour and a half).  About fifteen minutes before it’s due, the tide goes out; five minutes before, the inn is all but deserted.  When it’s over, the tide surges in again—but in one long sustained tsunami.  And the cycle is faithfully repeated night and day.  The poor Inn never sleeps.  One clerk told me, “I get here at 6 a.m., and chances are the lobby will be jammed already!”

            What’s most fun is to sit on the second floor mezzanine and watch the faces of people young and old as they stream in—especially the moment of shock when they freeze in motion and stare up and up in awe, jaws dropping.  It never fails.

            Since dinner reservations are so difficult to secure, our travel agent made ours over half a year ahead of time.  Eating in Reamer’s great dining room was a feast for the senses as well as for the food itself.

            Next morning, Bob and I took a tour of the Inn.  Our guide, in period costume, really made the old hotel live, telling us behind-the-scenes anecdotes and secrets most people would never know.  We learned that the last major quake stopped the great fourteen-foot clock and messed up the chimney in the huge fireplace—no one knows when they’ll be up and running again.

            But unlike sister park lodges, because of the continual tidal surges there is little serenity here—though, later in the evening, we came fairly close when a pianist played old standards and brought about the first lessening of the decibels since we’d arrived.  And breakfast was considerably quieter than dinner was.

            So we weren’t sorry to go.  Wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world!  But once was enough.  Perhaps Reamer’s next hotel would be quieter.

SPECIAL NOTE

            Next Wednesday, we’ll move on to Robert Reamer’s Yellowstone Lake Lodge.

SOURCES

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks 1 (Bend, Oregon: W. W. West, Inc., 2002). [Splendid chapter on the hotel].

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2009). [The most definitive history of Yellowstone Park I’ve ever read].

                        The Most Scenic Drives in America (Pleasantville, New York: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1997).

Quinn, Ruth, Weaver of Dreams (Gardiner, MT: Leslie and Ruth Quinn, Publishers, 2004). [Invaluable biography of the builder of Old Faithful Inn].

Scofield, Susan C, and Jeremy C. Schmidt, The Inn at Old Faithful (no p.: Crowsnest Associates, 1979).

Scott, David L. and Kay W., The Complete Guide to National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Graphic Society, 2009). [Helpful].

GRAND COULEE DAM

Early the next morning ,we sat out on the deck, enjoying the music of the river—across the river a doe and her fawn daintily stepped down the embankment to the river. Bob and I locked up the hot tub we’d used the night before. It hadn’t done its job: the bugs were still with us. We ate a forgettable breakfast in one of the only cafes open early in the morning, packed the car, and drove south out of Winthrop on hwy 20.

CHIEF JOSEPH

Metal statue of Chief Joseph

Passing through miles of fruit-laden trees in the famous Okanogan Valley, we just had to stop for a large bag of just-picked cherries. Since Connie’s folks once had a huge cherry tree in their yard, every cherry season she yearns for a cherry fix. At Omak, we turned east on hwy 155. As we approached Nespelem, Bob (who was navigating at the time) suggested we stop there in order to learn more about the legendary Nez Percé Indian Chief Joseph (1840-1904). Undoubtedly, his is one of the saddest and darkest stories in American history. His only sin was that he did his best to get Washington to honor its treaties with his people. His was the genius in the Nez Percé War, as he fought and retreated with his 250 warriors over 1,600 miles of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. After a two-day battle at Kamiah, Idaho, he and his people were caught by Gen. Nelson Miles, only 40 miles from the Canadian border. It was then that the broken-hearted chief uttered those famous words, “Hear me, my chiefs; my heart is sick and sad. From where the Sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” In spite of promises made by U.S. authorities, Joseph and his band, in 1878, were sent to a barren reservation in Oklahoma, where many sickened and died. Not until 1885 were he and the remnants of his band permitted to go back to Washington state—but not to the Wallowa Valley. Twice he journeyed to Washington to plead for the return of his people to their beloved valley, once with President Teddy Roosevelt personally. It was in vain.

Chief Joseph Memorial Stone

By asking some of the Native Americans in Nespelem where his grave might be, we learned it was on top of a nearby hill in an old cemetery—under a tree. There we finally found it, graced only by a modest marble statue, with the words etched on it slowly fading out of existence. If there was ever a figure in American history who deserves better historical treatment than this, it has to be Chief Joseph. Even to this day, his people have not been permitted to go home. Their lives are still controlled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the nearby town of Colville. The Grand Coulee Dam flooded their best land and destroyed their salmon-based way of life.

SERENDIPITOUS COINCIDENCE

We next moved on to Grand Coulee Dam—long on Bob’s bucket list. I’d known about it all my life but knew little about it. Gradually our road dropped down, following a canyon off to the side. Suddenly, around the corner, there it was, so huge it was difficult to gain perspective—even more difficult to get a photo of. First of all, we drove up to the headquarters so Connie could get her U.S. Parks Passport stamped. Then we stopped at the large visitor center adjacent to the dam. We learned much studying the exhibits and watching the short film—but I’ve learned even more since.

Overcoming daunting odds, the polio-crippled patrician, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been elected President in 1932, in the deepest depths of the Great Depression. He promised a New Deal for the average beaten-down American: to revive farm prosperity (America was still predominantly rural then), to rehabilitate the railroads, to regulate banks and security exchanges, to increase the development of electric power, to embark on a broad program of public works, to tackle unemployment, build roads, and solemnly promised, “No American shall starve.”

Unlike many politicians, Roosevelt determined to deliver on each promise. My maternal grandfather, Herbert Norton Leininger, of Arcata, California, with seven children and a wife to support, had lost his business. In desperation, he wrote FDR a letter, asking—not for dole, for Grandpa was a proud man—but for a job! Within minutes of the letter getting to the White House, it always seemed to Grandpa, a telephone call was made from the White House to the person in charge of federal hiring in Humboldt County, with the directive, Get Herbert Leininger a job! And he got it. Grandpa never forgot!

Before this trip, I had no idea the Columbia River was so significant. It is born high in the Canadian Rockies. Of its 1,214-mile length, 460 miles (or 38% of it) is in Canada; perhaps the most spectacular portion of it in the Columbia Mountains (Cariboo, Monashee, Selkirk, and Purcell Mountain ranges, each range towering over 10,000 feet high). Also in British Columbia the great North and South Arrow Lake the Columbia flows through before it reaches Grand Coulee Dam, where it backs up 151 miles to the Canadian Border in Lake Roosevelt. For 300 miles it separates the states of Oregon and Washington. Its drainage basin is vast (258,000 square miles). It is the largest river in North America in terms of the sheer volume of water flowing into the Pacific. It produces 30% of all the hydroelectric power in the nation. And had it not been for the vision of FDR, it is doubtful the dam would ever have been constructed.

North side of Grand Coulee Dam

For a long time prior to FDR’s presidency, debate—more often than not heated—had been going on in the Northwest about how it might be possible to harness the tremendous power of the Columbia River for both hydroelectric and irrigation purposes. But there was no consensus: one side (the so-called “pumpers”) wanted to pump water from behind a dam. The pumpers were generally in favor of hydroelectric power. The ditchers, on the other hand, wanted to irrigate the Columbia basin with water from the Pend Oreille River.

Grand Coulee Dam came about because of a promise FDR made to Washington Senator Clarence Dill: that if he was elected president, he’d build a big dam on the Columbia. Initially, Roosevelt balked at the projected price tag: $450,000,000—more than the Panama Canal. Roosevelt said he could, however, support the building of a lower dam: 150 feet high rather than the proposed 550. It was a pragmatic victory as it quieted the critics. Later on, since a high dam would generate eight times the income of the low one, it was decided to go ahead with the original plan.

South side of Grand Coulee Dam

Construction began in 1933 and was completed on March 12, 1938. It certainly accomplished another Roosevelt objective, as it gave thousands of men jobs, but 77 men died during its construction. The completed dam exhausts superlatives: it is more than twice the height of Niagara Falls. It is 550 feet high, 480 feet wide at the base, and (with the third powerhouse), almost a mile long (5,223 feet). All the pyramids at Giza could fit within the total area of its base. There are over eight and a half miles of corridors inside it. At the time it was constructed, it was the largest masonry structure ever erected by man; other than the Great Wall of China, the only man-made structure in history larger in mass than the Great Pyramid of Khufu. There is enough concrete in it to build a four-inch thick four-lane-highway 60 feet wide, 3,000 miles long, from California to Florida. Even today, with all the other mega dams that have been constructed around the world, it is still the largest all-concrete dam ever built. Its Frank D. Roosevelt Lake is 151 miles long with 600 miles of shoreline.

And the “serendipitous Coincidence?” It is this. As I pointed out in Blog #46 on September 29, we had inadvertently retraced Roosevelt’s steps: Timberline Lodge on September 28, 1937; Crescent Lake Lodge on September 30, and Lake Quinault Lodge on October 1. So you can imagine how I felt when I discovered that the very next day after Roosevelt left Lake Quinault Lodge: on October 2, the President visited Grand Coulee Dam!

SPECIAL NOTE: Next week we visit Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park.

SOURCES

Bottenberg, Ray, Grand Coulee Dam (Charleston, SC: Arcadia publishing, 2008).

Encyclopedia Britannica. 1946 and 1964 editions.

“Grand Coulee Dam Statistics and Facts,” U.S. Department of the Interior document.

“Grand Coulee Dam,” Wikipedia reprint.

“Grand Coulee Dam: History and purpose,” Alpha Index document.

Oregon and Washington Tour Book (Heathrow, Florida: AAA Publishing, 2010).

NORTH CASCADE LOOP

            Reluctantly, we checked out of Crescent Lake Lodge—but not before procrastinating all we could by taking forever to eat our breakfast in that sunny dining room.  Finally, I—Lucy calls me “the tour guide from hell”—got everyone rounded up, and we were on our way again.

            We had hoped to cross on a ferry to Whidbey Island from Port Townsend—but it was booked solid.  So we drove down the peninsula on hwy 101 to Kingston, and took the ferry across there.  It was a stunningly beautiful day, and Puget Sound flaunted its blue for us.  Next, we tried to get a ferry across to Whidbey Island from Mukilteo, only to strike out again—everyone, it seemed, was deserting Seattle for the holiday weekend.  Finally, we gave up, and grudgingly drove up I-5 to Burlington, where we checked in at a Hampton’s.  Bad news from the back seat: Connie had generously gifted her bug to Lucy.  Lucy’s case was to prove considerably worse than Connie’s—I got a baleful eye when I jocularly attributed the difference to Lucy’s inexplicable reluctance to chomp down on a couple tablespoons worth of garlic.  With both backseaters out of commission, Bob and I crossed over onto Whidbey Island on hwy 20.  An absolutely spectacular vista awaited us at the high bridge that connected the mainland to Whidbey.  Whidbey Island surprised us: we expected it to be much more built up and heavily populated than it is.  Back in Burlington, it proved to be a quiet evening.

Mt. Baker

           Next morning, we finally had the opportunity to see two iconic snowcapped mountains in the North Cascades.  We drove hwy 20 to hwy 9 north, then hwy 542 east.  We passed what shyly bore the #33, and had to go back.  It was a humble little narrow windy road that had much to be humble about.  Finally, we reached the Cougar Ridge vista point that wasn’t. 10,778 foot Mount Baker was taking the holiday off.  Regretfully, we unwound ourselves back down to hwy 542 and continued east all the way to the Mount Baker Ski Area—but 9,127-foot-high Mount Shuskan was taking the 4th off too.  Sadly, we turned around and headed back to Burlington. As Longfellow put it in “Rainy Day,” “Some days must be dark and dreary.”

            The next day, Lucy was worse, but we had to move on anyway.  Again, we picked up hwy 20 and headed east.  At Concrete, we turned north on hwy 11, following the shoreline of Baker Lake.  But both Baker and Shuskan had foggy hangovers from the holidays and refused to come out.  So it was that we had to leave Washington without seeing those two majestic mountains we’d seen in so many photographs through the years and had salivated for so long.  None of us could bring ourselves to say, “Two blessings for another time.” We could only sigh at the lost opportunity.

A WORLD OF ICE, ROCK, AND SNOW

            There are few untrampled wilderness areas left in the world
            North Cascades National Park is one of them.

                               —(North Cascades), 18

            The North Cascades National Park consists of 505,000 acres of rugged unspoiled beauty.  With peaks in excess of 9,000 feet, the park offers some of the most spectacular scenery in the nation; its average elevation is nearly 7,000 feet.  It is anchored by two young volcanoes both towering over 10,000 feet: Mt. Baker to the north and Glacier Peak to the south.  Even though these mountains may seem low compared to the 14,000-foot giants in the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevadas, their vertical relief is as great or greater than any other range.

            So why do these mountains carry so much snow and ice?  It is because, running parallel to the coast and only thirty miles from the Puget Sound, “North Cascades intercept the storms that sweep in from the Pacific.  As the warm, moisture-laden air is pushed up against the mountains, it rises, cools, and drops its moisture as rain and snow.  Average annual precipitation on the west side is 110 inches.  The winter season may deposit as much as 46 feet of snow.” (North Cascades, 15).  Indeed, so much snow falls here that Highway 20 is closed through the mountains from November to April—no traffic gets through

            In actuality, the Cascades are much larger than the park itself.  When you factor in adjoining land across the Canadian border and more than 2,000,000 acres of federally designated wilderness, the ecosystem encompasses over 3,000,000 acres of protected public land.  Very few roads bisect this vast wilderness.  Its creeks would be called rivers anywhere else; these creeks eventually merge into four mighty rivers draining into the Pacific: Chilliwack, Baker, Skagit, and Nooksack.  Since the eastern side attracts much less rain, the rivers are much smaller: the Methrow and Pasayten.  Its two greatest bodies of water are Lake Chelan and 12,000 acre 25-mile-long Ross Lake.

            We can thank Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson for preserving the Cascades for us.  Concerns about the pace of population growth, especially in the West, caused Udall to warn, “What we save now may be all we’ll save.”  Besides helping to save roadless North Cascades with its 318 glaciers (almost a third of all those left in the lower 48), Udall also joined forces with the Sierra Club to save what was left of the California redwoods (which live several thousand years and grow 300 feet high).  By Udall’s time, loggers had wiped out 85% of this old growth; Redwood National Park saved only half of them.  First Lady Lady Bird Johnson was also a great champion of these parks.  North Cascades National Park was created in 1968, so it’s only 42 years old.   Highway 20 wasn’t constructed until 1972.

* * * * *

Ancient Douglas Fir

            We next stopped at Rockport State Park with its stand of magnificent old growth Douglas fir, towering to 300 feet high.  Bob and I walked through one of the loops—the park is currently closed to auto traffic because of habitat destruction.  It would be our last view of old growth trees.  We could only imagine what it must have been like a century ago before the West was all but denuded of these great trees.  What a debt of gratitude we owe Park Manager Al Nickerson and all those other thousands of conscientious guardians of our fragile park heritage.  Without them, we’d lose everything.

Diablo Lake

            Next we stopped for huckleberry ice cream at a roadside hutch—but they were sold out of it.  Then, perversely—when it was too late to go back—the sun came out.  We all walked out to see the spectacular Gorge Creek Falls cascading hundreds of feet down the mountain, then rushing under the 900-foot-high bridge.  One more stop: the dramatic Diablo lake overlook—its jade-green water is so beautiful you almost wonder if it was computer-enhanced.

Western Town of Winthrop with Wooden Sidewalks

            Late afternoon found us dropping down out of that pristine wilderness into the gold-mining town of Winthrop.  True it was once Old West but little of it was left when, in 1972, borrowing a leaf from Leavenworth, Winthrop reinvented itself, complete with old West facades, wooden sidewalks, and old-fashioned streetlights.  Town leaders at least had justification for Owen Wister describes some of the town’s original sites and citizens in his novel, The Virginian.  Wister and his bride had earlier honeymooned here.  We stayed on the Chewuch River in a River’s Edge Motel cabin.  The river lulled us to sleep.

NEXT STOP: We’ll be visiting the Grand Coulee Dam.

SOURCES

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2002).

The Most Scenic Drives in America (Pleasantville, New York: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1997). [Very helpful].

North Cascades National Park (Las Vegas, NV: K.C. Publications, 2008). [Most informative!].

Oregon & Washington Tour Book (Heathrow, Florida: AAA Publishing, 2010).

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).  [Most informative!].