Grandpa’s role in an engineering showpiece

Before my maternal grandfather was a traveling salesman for the Curtis Publishing Co., he was among thousands of men who worked on the Fort Peck Dam in northeast Montana.

When President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the Fort Peck Dam project through the Public Works Administration in the midst of the Great Depression in 1933, the prospect of paying work probably appealed to men from all over the region, including my grandfather who was just turning 20 at the time in western North Dakota.

Exactly how my grandfather got from North Dakota to Fort Peck is unclear, but my mother guesses he hopped a freight train. “He was a hobo,” she says. He read and understood hobo language which was graffiti designed back then by travelers who attempted to share warnings and tips with their fellow transients. Hobo signs were typically drawn onto utility poles, railroad trestle abutments, outcropping rocks, billboards or even on houses when referring to those who lived inside.

Mother doesn’t know what role her father filled on the dam project, but she guesses he was a construction worker of some sort. What I know of him, I would guess he might be excellent at leaning on a “slow” sign and telling stories to the workers around him. Of course, I got to know my grandfather when he was in his 60s, so I can’t imagine him as a 20-year-old with a spring in his step; mother guesses he might have pushed around wheelbarrows of cement.

A bulldozer is being lowered into the tunnel control shaft at the Fort Peck Dam construction site. In the background, dredges can be seen pumping material into the dam. (Ellis Photo May 30, 1935)

The dam was necessary to control flooding of the Missouri River. Thanks to a little noodling around on Google where I found an entry in Wikipedia and the Fort Peck Dam website, I learned a number of facts about this engineering masterpiece. At its peak, more than 10,000 workers — including my grandfather — were employed to build the dam, named for a 19th-century trading post. It was completed in 1940, began generating electricity in 1943 and today is one of six dams in the Pick-Sloan Plan.

Over 21,000 feet long and 250 feet high, Fort Peck Dam is the largest hydraulically filled dam in the United States and creates Fort Peck Lake, a mammoth man-made body of water with more shoreline than California’s coastline.

The dam represented a foundation for my grandfather. My grandparents agreed to marry when they could save up $100. My grandmother was earning $1 a day as a waitress in Stanley, N.D., and my grandfather was laboring for the PWA. They accomplished their goal and married on June 12, 1937.

My grandfather at 71 when he attended my high school graduation

Perhaps it is easy to point to such a monumental structure as a legacy of a man’s work. Fort Peck Dam stands today, and thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can see what’s it’s like there; check out the Fort Peck Dam Cam here. Yet, my grandfather’s legacy includes other, less tangible reminders of his presence on this earth. Though my grandfather made one of his marks with the result of back-breaking work, he held education in high regard. He had four children, one of whom served his country in the Vietnam War, and eight grandchildren. Seven of those grandchildren have earned bachelor’s degrees; four of them (so far) have earned master’s degrees (my grandfather’s youngest grandson, my cousin, is working diligently on becoming an attorney); and one of them is a pharmacist, which means technically she can be addressed as “Doctor” though she’s too down to earth to demand that.

Isn’t it interesting that a tramp became patriarch of such a well-educated tribe.

4 responses to “Grandpa’s role in an engineering showpiece

  1. I do not remember ever seeing this particular picture of Dad before. I would like a copy sometime. I think you did a very good job with this post. Did you know that your grandpa worked at a CCC camp {one of those government created groups which built many things during the time Franklin Roosevelt was president)? I think it stood for Civilian Conservation Corps. The president tried many things to bring our nation out of the recession and was largely successful. My folks loved him!

  2. Great history on grandpa! I remember being so excited to get to visit him and to see what treats were in the box on the wall by the phone.

  3. I stumbled on your blog in an attempt to find out more about the Ellis Photo Service, which evidently took a number of photos during the construction of the Fort Peck Dam. What a lovely piece of family history! I enjoyed reading it.

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