When the Roosevelts Visited Oregon

FDR and Eleanor stopped at Bonneville Dam and Timberline Lodge in 1937

By Scott Laird

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt tour the Bonneville Dam facilities in 1937. Roosevelt promised to bring hydroelectric power to the Pacific Northwest when he first campaigned for president in 1932. Photos courtesy of the National Parks Service

On September 28, 1937, Oregon received a special treat: a visit from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor. The presidential visit was to promote two of Roosevelt’s most successful programs and dedicate the completion of two successful and symbolic projects: the Bonneville Dam and Timberline Lodge.

When Roosevelt first ran for president in 1932, his platform promoted bringing rural energy to the Pacific Northwest. The idea of a dam at the site of the current Bonneville Dam had been floundering for years under the leadership of President Herbert Hoover.

With the country in the depths of the Great Depression caused by the financial crash of 1929, Hoover didn’t want to make the huge financial investment in the dam. Roosevelt saw it as an opportunity.

The dam was conceived in the 1920s as a way to build locks that could handle the large ocean-going vessels needed to transport agricultural products produced around the Columbia River Valley region. Without funding, the project stalled.

On the campaign trail, Roosevelt promised that, if elected, “The next hydroelectric development to be undertaken by the federal government must be on the Columbia River.”

He visited the proposed Bonneville site while campaigning. He championed the idea of a dam that would generate hydroelectric power for the people of the region as a key component of his New Deal program during a speech in Portland.

“The question of power, of electrical development and distribution, is primarily a national problem,” said Roosevelt, who went on to promote the virtues of publicly generated and federally regulated electric power over privately generated power.

“Electricity is no longer a luxury,” he said. “It is a definite necessity. It lights our homes, our places of work, and our streets. It turns the wheels of most of our transportation and our factories. In our homes, it serves not only for light, but it can become the willing servant of the family in countless ways. It can relieve the drudgery of the housewife and lift the great burden off the shoulders of the hardworking farmer.”

FDR defeated Hoover in 1932 and quickly made good on his promise to build the Bonneville Dam. Funding was approved in September 1933, and construction began before the end of the year.

Roosevelt returned to Bonneville in September 1937, almost one year after he won the election to his second term.

The country was a much different place after his first four years of leadership and was rebounding from the brink of disaster. His New Deal, which provided relief to the unemployed, built up the country’s infrastructure and infused the nation’s struggling economy, helped put millions of Americans back to work on publicly funded projects, including the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams in the Pacific Northwest. At the peak of Bonneville’s construction, the total workforce averaged about 3,000 people, most of them straight from Oregon and Washington’s bread lines and relief rolls.

As the project neared completion in the fall of 1937, the president and first lady— on their way to visit their daughter Anna and her family in Seattle—decided to stop in Oregon to see two of FDR’s projects.

The presidential train arrived from Boise, Idaho, at 6:45 a.m. on September 28. Later that morning, Roosevelt appeared on the train’s rear platform to the cheers of approximately 6,000 admirers.

“Today I have a feeling of real satisfaction in witnessing the completion of another great national project, and of pleasure in the fact that in its inception, four years ago, I had some part,” he told the crowd.

He addressed the great public benefit the project would bring to the region, “…in developing electricity from this Bonneville Dam, from the Grand Coulee Dam, and from other dams to be built on the Columbia and its tributaries, the policy of the widest use ought to prevail. The transmission of electricity is making such scientific strides today that we can well visualize a date, not far distant, when every community in this great area will be wholly electrified,” he said.

Roosevelt went on to tour the dam, powerhouse, navigation lock, and spillway.

Prior to his visit, Congress approved the Bonneville Project Act, which Roosevelt signed into law in August 1937, laying the groundwork for what would later become the Bonneville Power Administration.

With the completion of the dam in 1938, Bonneville could begin transmitting publicly generated power to customers across the Pacific Northwest.

Eleanor Roosevelt held a press conference of her own during the Roosevelts’ Bonneville visit. She was the initial first lady to show real independence while championing her own personal causes and policy ideas focused on communities of color, those suffering in poverty, and women’s issues. She often traveled without her husband to visit programs and projects she was interested in.

FDR addressed a crowd of 6,000 as he dedicated the almost-completed Bonneville Dam during his visit to Oregon.

A journalist, Eleanor published a syndicated column six days a week called “My Day,” which brought attention to her causes and discussed her views on politics, social issues, news, and life at the White House to readers across the country. Eleanor often met with just female reporters as a way of encouraging the hiring of more women journalists, which is what she did at Bonneville. In her newspaper column a few days later, she wrote about her visit to Bonneville, noting, “The thing which interested me most was the runway made for the fish so they could get up the river past the dam.”

Following their visit to Bonneville, the Roosevelts traveled by motorcade to Mount Hood, where they dedicated the Timberline Lodge, under construction at the time.

The lodge at Timberline was also a product of one of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs—the Works Project Administration. With millions of Americans out of work, just five days after his inauguration in 1933, Roosevelt announced his plans to hire 500,000 men to work in the nation’s forests and on farms. In March, Congress authorized the creation of the Emergency Conservation Works, which became popularly known as the Civilian Conservation Corps. The name was officially adopted in 1937.

The CCC hired young men from rural areas and sent them to military-style camps, where they formed into units with a command structure and worked on projects building roads, trails, and dams; planting trees and fighting forest fires; building public recreation sites, such as campgrounds and picnic shelters; and working on farming and ranching projects.

About the same time as the CCC, the Works Progress Administration was formed and hired older, unemployed urban dwellers, including laborers, writers, artists, and musicians, to work on projects to serve the public good. Because only one family member could be employed by the WPA at a time, the program also employed women.

The lodge project used workers from both the WPA and the CCC. Starting in the summer of 1936, more than 500 workers harvested nearby stone and timber to build the lodge. Unskilled workers were taught woodworking, ironwork, furniture making, and textile work. Much of this original craftsmanship is still visible and in use at the lodge today and adds to the charm of the historic building.

The president’s motorcade left Bonneville and arrived at the unfinished lodge on a clear afternoon. After a luncheon, the president stepped out onto the balcony above the main entrance— today called the Roosevelt Terrace—and addressed a crowd of about 1,200 people. He talked about Oregon’s economy, the Forest Service, and public recreation, barely mentioning the lodge itself.

After a long and busy day visiting two important Oregon successes, FDR and Eleanor spent the night as Timberline Lodge’s first guests. The president was the first person to sign the guest book before heading on to Seattle. The lodge officially opened in early 1938.