Fifty years ago, Harvey Powell blew up a dam.
That was just his way.
See, Harvey always had a blast at work. Literally.
Powell, a Tuckasegee native from the Grassy Creek area, made a career out of explosives.
The Powell family goes back a good ways in Jackson, being owners of Powell’s Grocery in Tuckasegee, best remembered in the modern era as Ken’s Grocery.
Family tradition says there’s a relationship to John Wesley Powell, and that brings up a couple of other anniversaries.
Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran, rose to fame for a daring three-month trip down the Green and Colorado rivers.
The expedition began with 10 men in four wooden boats; only six men and two boats completed the harrowing 95-day trip that ran through what’s now Grand Canyon National Park.
Grand Canyon is celebrating its 100th birthday as a park this year. The Powell expedition marks its 150th anniversary this month.
John Wesley Powell went on to become the U.S. Geological Survey’s second director, in addition to serving as the Smithsonian’s first director of the Bureau of Ethnology, a National Geographic Society co-founder and U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
But it’s another anniversary we’re here to talk about, that of Harvey Powell’s blast at the Grand Coulee Dam 50 years ago.
The fuse for that blast was lit in 1948, when the Columbia River overflowed its banks, in spite of the mighty Grand Coulee Dam. A levee break in the lower Columbia wiped out 20,000 homes in Vanport, Washington. The need for more water storage was evident.
After lengthy talks between the United States and Canada, the two nations agreed to three additional dams in Canada and another in the U.S. That opened the way for the addition of a third power plant at the Grand Coulee Dam.
Thing was, they needed a bigger dam.
Enter Harvey Powell.
A section of the existing dam had to be removed to make way for construction, and Powell obliged by blowing off the dam’s east end. The additional power plant lengthened the dam to just 57 feet short of a mile.
The Third Power Plant deployed 600,000 kW generators, double the size of the 300,000 kW generators originally planned. It made Grand Coulee the largest power producer on the planet.
Harvey Powell got around and did a lot of blasting, along the way earning the nickname “Hard Rock.”
He worked on the Fontana Dam before a stint as a military policeman in Europe. Notable “powderman” jobs for Powell included the Tennessee Tombigbee Project in Mississippi, Dove Creek Canal in Colorado, the San Diego Convention Center and the Red Dog Mining Project in Alaska.
He is said to have set off the largest charge in the history of California, a job that took three days to load. His work took him to exotic sites such as Liberia and Hawaii.
Work on the Beaucatcher Cut in Asheville involved blasting heavily fissured granite, a job that could get tricky – one report of the times said a chunk of granite from a site blast went through the roof of the Bonanza steak house, 1,000 feet away. Doug Powell, Harvey’s son, said everything went smoothly after Harvey began work on the project.
Harvey Powell was able to return to see the fruition of his work on the Grand Coulee Dam before his death on Jan. 15, 2015. There were memorials in his honor at his home in Madera, Calif., as well as here in Jackson County.