Protesting Monuments to Progress: A Comparative Study of Protests against Four Dams, 1838-1955

By Crane, Jeff | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Protesting Monuments to Progress: A Comparative Study of Protests against Four Dams, 1838-1955


Crane, Jeff, Oregon Historical Quarterly


THE HARNESSING OF NATURE for human needs has profoundly transformed wild landscapes, creating a domesticated terrain suited to large-scale agriculture and industrial production. For thousands of years, people have used water storage for irrigation farming; and controlling floods, extending and improving navigation, and producing power are all important benefits derived from dams. At the same time, however, dams cause extensive ecological damage, including the loss of riparian habitat, the blockage of spawning grounds for fish, and the loss of fertile soils that are deposited during floods. Massive dams permanently submerge fertile farmlands, block spawning runs of fish, and remove important subsistence and economic resources from those who live along dammed rivers. As historian Donald Worster convincingly argues in Rivers of Empire, dams also centralize power in the hands of government agencies and capitalists. (1)

For almost three hundred years, people have argued against the construction of dams in the United States. Over time, protesters have shared similar interests, such as the fear of negative economic impacts and concern over ecological changes, but the nature of protests against dams has changed dramatically. This article examines protests that occurred on the Kennebec River in Maine, the Elwha and Lower Snake rivers in Washington state, and finally the battle over the Echo Park Dam in Utah. A study of these protests allows us to consider how they played out at different times and in different regions and provides some insight into how protests against dams changed over time.

The protests against the Kennebec Dam in the 1830s were limited in nature, with those opposed to the dam finding no allies in state or federal agencies and appealing to the state government to deny a charter for the dam. The protest against the Elwha Dam in the early part of the twentieth century originated in the office of the Washington fish commissioner, demonstrating the increased role of the state in protecting natural resources. The conflict over dams on the Lower Snake River in the 1940s and 1950s pitted agencies responsible for protecting fisheries, as well as sports and commercial fishermen, against local boosters and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Finally, with the battle over the Echo Park Dam in the 1950s we see the emergence of an environmental movement that attacked the Bureau of Reclamation's efforts to build a dam in Dinosaur National Park. This study examines how protesters have argued against building dams and clarifies how protests changed over time until the emergence of full-scale environmentalism.

THE EARLIEST PROTESTS AGAINST DAMS in the United States arose largely as a result of competing economic interests and the tension between traditional subsistence activities and a market-oriented, industrial economy--that is, between traditional users of rivers and fish and those who wanted to build dams for power generation. (2) Increasing dam size is an important development in the eighteenth century, as historian Gary Kulik points out. As long as dams were used for small-scale grain mills they were perceived as an extension of the agricultural economy and, therefore, were not considered a threat to the existing economic order. Furthermore, owners of small mills demonstrated greater flexibility in allowing fish passageways to be built in order to sustain anadromous fisheries, and they occasionally closed operations during spawning runs. (3) In fact, these early dam builders were subject to laws that favored the maintenance of anadromous fish runs and benefited those who fished for subsistence.

The right to a river and its fish was codified in American colonial laws that continued into the nineteenth century, a period of strong, remarkable growth and industrialization in the United States. The law so favored the traditional uses of rivers that disgruntled fishers and farmers had the right to remove dams that threatened fish runs before a court determined the dams' legitimacy. …

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