Hells Canyon


Miss Hobbs sighed, reached into her briefcase once more, pulled out a fifth sheet of paper, and called Colonel Lawson to come forward and read it. He did so. It was a declaration of martial law, signed by the governor. The citizens of Copperfield were now under state jurisdiction. They would kindly disperse, leaving all weapons at the door.

Colonel Lawson’s voice had the effect of a pin poked into a balloon. The town collapsed. Within ninety minutes the streets were empty, the saloons were closed and being dismantled, and Fern Hobbs was on the southbound train, heading out of the canyon and onto the front pages of just about every newspaper in the country.

For three decades following the demise of Copperfield, Hells Canyon slumbered once more. The Lewiston-to-Huntington railroad project was abandoned, revived again briefly in the igao’s, then permanently laid to rest when a survey showed that the line would cost at least $198,000 a mile to build—never mind the maintenance costs. The power plant at the Oxbow proved far too fragile to withstand the power of the raging Snake; it operated sporadically for a few years, was patched several times, finally fell apart irrevocably, and had to be left to the elements. The promoters of copper and gold and silver mines gave up and moved away. A few prospectors stayed on, lured by the tenth of an ounce or so of gold a day it was possible to take from the bars deep in the canyon; a few ranchers kept stubbornly running stock, lured as much by the challenge of the great gorge as by the money they might make in the sheep or cattle market. One of these ranchers, Len B. Jordan, was to become Idaho’s governor and later her United States senator. And there was Rosie Dunbar, a middle-aged woman who trudged through Homestead one day in the mid-thirties headed for the canyon, all her earthly belongings tied into two large bundles which she was lugging in relays, one at a time, along the rough road. A sympathetic Homestead resident gave her an old wheelbarrow big enough to haul both bundles at once; she pushed on to Leep Creek, took up a homestead, and lived long enough to see herself become a canyon legend as “the Wheelbarrow Woman.”

But if there was little action during those thirty years in the canyon, there was plenty of planning going on. Despite the initial failure of the power plant at the Oxbow, the tremendous hydroelectric potential of this big, rapidly flowing river proved far too tantalizing to be overlooked. Surveys aimed at finding the best way to utilize this resource were under way as early as 1916, but it was not until the early 1930’5 that Congress ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to prepare a comprehensive plan for the orderly development of the Snake-Columbia river system. The resulting “308 report,” first published in 1934 and since revised several times, was to become the standard against which all future developmental plans for Hells Canyon would be measured. Five major dam sites were located within the 104-mile length of the canyon (a sixth and a seventh were added later), and after years of squabbling between private power companies and public power companies, three dams were in fact built, each within about twenty miles of the other—the 395-foot Brownlee, the 205-foot Oxbow (a resuscitation of the old Oxbow Power Plant), and the 330-foot Hells Canyon.

These were minor enterprises compared to what other power advocates had in mind. In November, 1954, four large private utilities, banded together and incorporated as the Pacific Northwest Power Company, filed an application with the Federal Power Commission to build a high dam at what was known as the Pleasant Valley site, near Pittsburg Landing in the middle part of the canyon—the high point of the Colonel Wright ’s voyage. Their own interests at stake, public-power advocates immediately contested it on the now familiar grounds that it would preclude development of an even higher dam downstream—in this case, at Nez Perce. This time, public power appeared to be winning: in January, 1958, the FPC, after exhaustive hearings, set forth an opinion denying the Pleasant Valley license.

But the Pacific Northwest Power Company, though down, was not out. Two months after its Pleasant Valley application was denied, the company filed once more—this time on the Mountain Sheep site, four miles above Nez Perce, literally on top of the rapids where the Imnaha had come to grief a half-century before. Hearings were set for the spring of 1960; a few days before they were to open, a competing application was filed—for the Nez Perce site—by a combine of sixteen public utility districts known as the Washington Public Power Supply System. It looked as though the issues were to be defined with crystal clarity: public power v. private power, the Nez Perce site v. the Mountain Sheep site. But a complicating factor was about to enter the picture.

This new factor was thrust into prominence largely because of an accident at the Oxbow. There, in September, 1958, a fish trap had collapsed just before the upper Snake’s fall run of salmon was due to reach it. When the excitement was over, at least half the run had been killed and the remainder so seriously weakened that some fisheries experts doubted that they would be able to spawn. Later that same fall it became evident that the expensive downstream fish-passage facilities at the new Brownlee Dam were experiencing a rate of failure in the neighborhood of 90 per cent. The prolific salmon runs in the upper Snake basin declined suddenly to next to nothing.