Times were hard in depths of the Great Depression. This was true in the Columbia Basin as homesteaders sold out or abandoned their land for the would be greener pastures elsewhere. The rumblings of a large project like a dam on the Columbia River were seen as only a dream, except that dream came true.
As the project started to take shape, the prospect for jobs was first and foremost on everyone’s minds. But a big project like building a dam takes more than workers for those jobs. It needs companies and organizations with the means to hire those workers. It needs equipment. It needs management skills. It needs determination. These were the kinds of people needed to build the dam.
A large construction project needs to start somewhere, and that is where David H. Ryan comes into play. A construction man from San Diego, he was able to bid on the first contract to excavate overburden at the dam site. For his efforts, he was to be rewarded with his bid of $534,500. The project commenced on January 1, 1934 and was completed that summer.
During this time a second contract came up for bid, the construction of a railroad to facilitate the bringing in of construction supplies for the dam. The thinking at the time was there was going to be such a great amount of material needed, that the only way to bring it all in efficiently was via a railroad.
On April 13, the Northern Pacific put to work a survey crew to locate the line from their railroad at Odair all the way up the upper Grand Coulee to the dam site. The NP wanted to build the railroad too and said to the federal government they would do so if they could get the exclusive rights to haul in all of the material for the dam. The government had other ideas, and instead put the work of building the construction railroad out to bid.
At least 4 companies bid on the project, including Ryan. The low bidder was from a firm named Coluccio. However, by this time Ryan was under investigation for violating the Public Works Code during his first contract, which included an illegal rebate from an oil company.
Further awarding of the railroad contract was delayed by organized labor, who held that Ryan was using non-union men in his first contract.
Yet other complications came up when Ryan filed counter charges against a federal investigator who had made a study of his excavation work. Six more investigators were brought in to check on this work, and on Ryan too.
Another wrinkle was that the Mason group of contractors, who ultimately obtained the contract to build the dam, offered to build the railroad at actual cost, so they could get their equipment into the construction site before inclement weather set in.
More complications arose when the Columbia Basin Commission asked the Reclamation service to issue a new call for bidders for the railroad.
A rumor arose that Ryan’s bid on the railroad was too low to permit him to pay the wage scale required by the Public Works Administration regulations. Those regulations were branded as absurd by Ryan. When interviewed during a visit to Spokane, he said “First it was the Coluccio firm which was after the job,” said Ryan. ”They have been ruled out. Now a St. Paul firm, next above me in the bidding, is after the business. They are about $10,000 above me, and that amount is much less than the freight saved by the fact that my equipment is already on the ground.
“We are ready to proceed with the construction the very day we get the award. We plan to put on three shifts, running 24 hours a day, hiring three times as many men as is usual on railroad construction.”
Ryan’s bid of $235, 570 was ultimately chosen. Part of the reason his troubles were overlooked was the mounting pressure to get the railroad done. That pressure went all the way to the Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, who faced the prospect of delaying the whole project if the main contractors could not get into the dam site.
On July 8 Secretary Ickes awarded the railroad construction job to Ryan.
Paul Ford, Ryan’s general superintendent, said he would “go to the dam as soon as he gets official notice from Washington, and that Ryan’s equipment is completely overhauled and ready to move onto the job. “Grading will start immediately at the Odair, or south , end of the railroad, with at least 100 men working 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Construction was finally started in late August. Ryan did not use as many men as promised and cut as many corners as possible. Many pictures taken during construction show mules being used whenever possible. As a result, the line was not completed in November.
During the time the line was supposed to be completed, a grand ceremony was contemplated to celebrate the completion of the line. Ryan was asked to allow a golden spike ceremony to be held when the rails were finished being laid to the dam site.
December 8 was chosen as the time to celebrate completion of the railroad, though it truly wasn’t finished. Further delays didn’t allow the first official train to roll until July 27, 1935.
Ryan was asked to allow a golden spike ceremony to be had when the line was completed to the dam in December of 1934, even though the line was not truly fit for service. Ryan had bought a worn out logging engine to help complete service on the line, as he needed something that could pull cars of supplies with great ability.
The line was finally opened for service on July 29, 1935 with great fanfare, and the deluge of construction materials started to arrive immediately.
Not much has been found as to what Ryan did after the railroad was done, but in October of 1935 newspaper headlines had Ryan’s name in them as he had brought suit to stop the Washington State Tax Commission from collecting the business and occupation tax on his contract to build the railroad.
He charged the state had no right to collect a tax on a contract let by the federal government.
The suit was the second of its kind to have been brought in the Washington State Superior court, the other being an action filed by the Mason-Walsh-Atkinson-Kerr company to prevent the state from collecting the tax on the company's $29,000,000 contract to build the Coulee Dam.
Both suits were ruled in favor of Washington State.