It’s a big damn dam … brought to the state by a federal work project

Will Montana’s only Congressman vote to support other projects like it?

August 16, 2021 5:56 am

Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana tours the Fort Peck Dam in August 2021. (Photo from Rosendale’s Twitter page)

Montana Congressman Matt Rosendale visited Fort Peck Dam recently. We know this because the very conservative Republican posted photos of his visit on his Twitter feed.

One photo featured the congressman and another fellow standing above the spillway of the massive dam, pointing to the horizon with the brown rolling hills of northeastern Montana in the background. Perhaps they were acknowledging the vastness of the huge reservoir behind the dam. Another shot pictured Rosendale in the visitor’s center looking at a nifty map showing the immense scope of the dam, reservoir and the Mighty Missouri River. Rosendale even wore a hard hat in one photo.

When he posted the photos on August 13, Rosendale wrote: “Yesterday I visited Fort Peck Dam. Originally built in the 1930’s, it’s the largest man-made hydraulic dam in the world and the 2nd largest dam by volume in the world.”

Matt Rosendale at the Fort Peck Dam in eastern Montana (Photo courtesy of Matt Rosendale Twitter page).

He’s right. Fort Peck Dam is a more than 80-year-old engineering marvel. It took nearly seven years to construct, consumed 560,000 cubic yards of concrete, 55 million pounds of steel and cost around $100 million. At the height of construction 10,000 workers were employed on the project, so many workers in sparsely populated Valley County that new towns had to be built on the prairie to house them.

The Fort Peck project was so big in the national imagination that the first issue of a new magazine – LIFE it was called – featured the now iconic Margaret Bourke-White photo of the still under construction concrete frame of the spillway. Bourke-White made a lot of photos while she was in Montana in 1936, including many of those 10,000 workers living it up on a Saturday night, but it’s the cover photo that still speaks to us decades later.

“Harry (Luce, the magazine publisher) told me to watch out for something on a grand scale that might make a cover,” Bourke-White said later. She definitely got the message. Her photo still speaks of mass and progress, money and ambition.

One assumes a Montana congressman knows this history of Fort Peck, the largest single New Deal era project in Montana, and one of the largest Public Works Administration projects in the county. Fort Peck was an effort to harness the power of the Missouri for flood control and eventually for electric generation, but it was fundamentally about creating desperately needed jobs during the Great Depression.

To put a fine point on it: The dam is a classic government funded infrastructure project, the kind of project many of Rosendale’s very conservative Republican colleagues have labeled “socialistic” drivers of inflation.

Matt Rosendale toured the Fort Peck Dam and Reservoir in August 2021 (Photo via Matt Rosendale Twitter page).

The $1.2 tillion Biden Administration infrastructure legislation hasn’t come to a vote yet in the House, so we don’t know how Rosendale will vote on the package that is estimated to bring, among other benefits, $2.8 billion in highway funding to Montana. The broadly bipartisan bill was crafted in no small part by Democratic Senator Jon Tester.

That legislation means massive and critical spending for decaying bridges, rural broadband and may even lead to resorting a passenger rail route across southern Montana. The package includes big dollars for water projects and a variety of other public investments. One suspects Franklin Roosevelt would have approved.

FDR was a huge fan of huge projects. Fort Peck was among his favorites. He visited twice during its development and personally authorized its construction, literally with the stroke of the presidential pen. Roosevelt was lobbied to approve the Fort Peck project by Montana Senator Burton K. Wheeler, who also pushed other New Deal spending in the state. Wheeler said the White House meeting where he sold Roosevelt on constructing the dam took a mere 15 minutes.

Wheeler, who could be a bit cynical at times, was a bit cynical about Roosevelt’s motives. He complained that Roosevelt tended to reward or punish senators with such projects, but Wheeler was happy to have the jobs and eventually the electricity and other benefits that flowed from the big dam.

So, here’s some of the irony of our current politics. A few days before Rosendale was gazing wistfully at “the largest man-made hydraulic dam in the world,” a massive federally financed infrastructure project that created thousands of Montana jobs, he was on the very conservative Newsmax network bashing the Senate infrastructure bill, the one that contains all the benefits for Montana.

Rosendale complained that the Senate held a procedural vote to allow debate to begin on the proposal without having a bill in hand. At best, that is half true and fully misleading. The vote Rosendale was complaining about merely authorized consideration of the infrastructure proposal in the Senate, and of course a printed bill was considered, as were many amendments.

The congressman complained that the infrastructure legislation was going to be loaded up with the “extreme radical plans” of Democrats. He speculated, incorrectly, that the final bill would have “amnesty” provisions for immigrants, would mean “federalization of elections” and would almost certainly contain “gun control measures” that would “strip way our second amendment rights.”

It was a full-on, rightwing assault consisting of specious talking points directed at legislation to build roads and bridges, but one suspects the Rosendale rhetoric had a larger purpose. The congressman may have been seeding the political ground with just enough distracting chaff that he can join his Republican colleague, Sen. Steve Daines, in opposing the infrastructure bill when he finally has to vote on it in the House.

There are certainly legitimate reasons to oppose government spending, but you wonder if very conservative Republicans like Rosendale and Daines really grasp how a lot of Montana was built. A good deal was built with just the kind of legislation recently approved on a bipartisan basis in the Senate.

The “Living New Deal Project” tracks the legacy of all the public works spending during the Roosevelt presidency and counts at least 220 individual projects in Montana that qualify as infrastructure. Fort Peck was just the biggest. The New Deal financed airport improvements in Havre, Helena, Billings, Butte and Missoula, constructed 11 armories from Harlowton to Wolf Point, built courthouses, schools, cemeteries, city halls, post offices and parks. The journalism building at the University of Montana was a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project, as was the Whitefish Golf Course and Clubhouse. The Buffalo Rapids irrigation project in southeastern Montana was federally funded infrastructure.

The list goes on and on and on.

Hungry Horse Dam in northwestern Montana was a federal infrastructure project authorized by Congress in the 1940s, so too Montana’s interstate highway that began in the 1950s.

As Smithsonian magazine has noted, the WPA alone “built, improved or renovated 39,370 schools; 2,550 hospitals; 1,074 libraries; 2,700 firehouses; 15,100 auditoriums, gymnasiums and recreational buildings; 1,050 airports, 500 water treatment plants, 12,800 playgrounds, 900 swimming pools; 1,200 skating rinks, plus many other structures. It also dug more than 1,000 tunnels; surfaced 639,000 miles of roads and installed nearly 1 million miles of sidewalks, curbs and street lighting, in addition to tens of thousands of viaducts, culverts and roadside drainage ditches.”

We literally live in a world built with federal infrastructure investments.

In 1934, when Wheeler was running for re-election, he naturally touted the fact that he was a big supporter of Fort Peck. Wheeler carried every county in Montana in that election, and Valley County, home to the emerging Fort Peck Dam, gave him 83% of its vote. Wheeler’s conservative Republican opponent, George Bourquin, was dubious of all that government spending, and not sure of the benefits. He said Fort Peck would create “a nice duck pond.”

Here’s a political and historic truism: Smart, forward looking spending on infrastructure provides lasting, long-term benefits, real tangible assets that benefit generations of Americans. Crafting a bill that garners broad, bipartisan support is hard work and we haven’t seen much of that kind of legislation since the 1930s.

The infrastructure legislation is truly historic.

George Bourquin clearly missed the importance of federal infrastructure spending in Montana the 1930s. Steve Daines has already proven he’s missed this historic moment with his no vote in the Senate. Matt Rosendale, who now has seen Fort Peck and seems to appreciate its value, will soon have to make his choice.


Marc C. Johnson is the author of Political Hell-Raiser: The Life and Times of Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana. He’s working on a book on Mike Mansfield’s Senate leadership in the 1960s.

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