In a 1934 speech at Fort Peck Montana, FDR unveiled his plan to build the world's largest earthen dam, creating thousands of jobs at a time when the country was still reeling from the Great Depression. It stands today as an icon of the "big dam" era, but our thirst for water places increasing demands on this precious commodity.
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In the midst of the great depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt set the stage to build the world’s largest earthen dam, to tame the mighty Missouri river. Led by the Army Corps of Engineers and the “New Deal” Public Works Administration, construction began on the Fort Peck dam, which promised many benefits in this pattern of excess and deficiencies.
The “help wanted” sign was posted in 1933, and thousands of American families headed for the only hope of employment that they had seen in years. The prospect for a regular paycheck, over rode any second thoughts about the fierce winters and intensely hot summers that prevail in Montana’s badlands. It was no surprise to see the mercury drop to 54 below zero in the winter, and climb to 115 in the dry summers. The conditions were dangerous, the pay low, and housing inadequate. For six long years, workers faced risky and dangerous conditions in three shifts, 24 hours a day.
Today, The Fort Peck Dam remains the largest hydraulically filled earthen dam in the world. For 75 years it has tirelessly carried out its original missions; flood control, navigation, power generation, and recreation. But, in a more environmentally conscious age, some wish the dam had never been built. The value system that was in place when the dam was authorized gave little consideration to the destruction of natural habitats. What is certain, is there will be ever growing debate about the management of water, and the role of large dams. Arid, western states are already considering the future of the commodity that if sold, could become the new gold standard.