A brief historical recap of the Speedball Highway on an imaginary night

Let’s take a quick trip down the Speedball Highway from Coulee City to Mason City on a warm September night in 1946. The Speedball Highway was contracted around 1933 and was in construction and use by 1934.The highway ran up the coulee from Coulee City to the bridge in Coulee Dam, and originally was constructed to move people and material from Coulee City to the Grand Coulee Dam construction site on the Columbia River. On this warm September night in 1946 a million stars twinkled overhead as a brick red Studebaker pulled out of Coulee City headed down the Speedball Highway towards Mason City. As the car rolled down the old highway on white walls a single orange-ish yellow line ran down the middle of the road illuminated by the headlights. Sometimes the line is solid meaning do not pass, dotted means ok to pass. As the Studebaker chugs along down the Speedball just outside of Coulee City the city lights fade and under the silvery full moon the black outlines of the fruit orchards slowly appear with the canyon walls. On the other side of the orchards the Speedball Highway bends, clinging close to the basalt talus slope. Someday this will be where Million Dollar Mile will be cut, but in 1946 the highway ran down the coulee floor. In the late 1930s this section of the Speedball was washed out by a great flood that cascaded down the coulee walls in waterfalls and overflowed several seasonal lakes. 1936 was a record breaking snowfall leading to a huge run off season that also took out the U.S. Construction railway forcing it to change it’s route.

As the Studebaker cuts through the night air the Speedball Highway skirts an unsuspecting basalt outcropping on which for decades before the coming of the pioneers was used by the first people as a camp. Later, the pioneers ran wagons, horses and livestock up the indian trail to the top of the bluff. In the cool night air of the coulee the old livestock road is barely visible as the Studebaker rounds the corner, high beams scanning the dark and empty coulee floor. Under the light of the full moon everything looks grainy; and black and white, and the road shoots straight down the coulee monotonously for a couple miles. Out of the darkness a truck and several men suddenly come into view parked along the highway, the Studebaker’s headlights scanning across them like a searchlight. behind them the lights of the Rainbow cafe at Rimrock can be seen in the distance like specks of fallen stars. As the Studebaker speeds past the parked truck the small group of men move to hide their rifles, more out of courtesy than concern. Up above on the coulee wall Rabbit Rock looks down on the men with apprehension. In the still of the September night with a full moon and high beams to light the way Studebaker speeds on.

Shades of sagebrush fly by the open windows as the car rushes down the Speedball Highway at night a few miles outside of Rimrock… when suddenly a coyote darts across the road. The car swerves just in time to miss the critter as it disappears back into the dark night like a dream. Glancing back in the rearview mirror to see where the varment went; a single dot of light appears from around the bend. It grows larger as it gets closer, it’s a train. Stepping on the gas the hulking Studebaker responds with a lurch of Gs, more speed and less stability. The train light steadily grows larger, and is soon lighting up the dashboard of the old Studebaker as it shuffles along at top speed under the moon lite night. Up ahead there is a railroad crossing with safety gates, but, maybe with a little more speed the train can be beat. Gas pedal to the floorboard the car accelerates like a rocket towards the railroad crossing. In the mirror the train starts to come out of the darkness as details like trimming and color can be seen around the head lamp. The red lights of the railroad crossing come on, and start blinking along with a clamoring bell sounding out a warning, too late, as the car flies over the tracks just as the crossing arms come down. The construction train roars across the Speedball Highway shaking the red and white striped traffic guards, now in place. The engineer sounds the whistle as a warning, this isn’t the first time a train had been raced to a railroad crossing, and the Speedball Highway had several of them. After that it didn’t take but the skip of a heart beat for the train to catch up to and pass the old Studebaker, once more tooting the horn as a warning.

Without any real regulations it was easy to speed along down the highway racing trains and making time. Back in the 1930s the term ‘speedball’ could be applied to anything moving fast. The Studebaker was now careening through the night, maybe a bit too fast, and it began to slow down, back to a reasonable speed as it approached Rimrock. Not much of a town, there was a gas station with a cafe and a large hall. As the Studebaker pulls through Rimrock on the Speedball the only light is coming from the residential cabin built onto the Rainbow Cafe. In the background a few frog ribbits, but other than nature, there is no night life in Rimrock this night. Behind the town in the moonlight the shadow of Steamboat Rock looms as a gigantic black outline in the night sky. Here and there lights can be seen in various farm houses dotting the otherwise dark landscape. At the far side of Steamboat Rock Martin Falls comes into view in the headlights. A old dirt road cuts off from the highway here and heads over to the base of the falls where a small seasonal pond hides. In August both it and the falls are dried up from hot, dry coulee summers. After Martin Falls the road suddenly veers off from the coulee wall and heads out towards Devil’s Lake. Devil’s Lake was a mile long, one end sat at the base of Steamboat Rock and was used by early settlers for livestock and irrigation water, by 1946 it was becoming a popular local fishing hole. The other end of Devil’s Lake sat nestled in a natural granite formation that ran from Steamboat Rock to Northrup Canyon called the Granite Hills. The Speedball Highway slipped through here to take advantage of an old natural cut in the granite hills known in the days of the pioneers as Lovers Lane; a natural cut that was almost a quarter mile long, with sheer granite cliff walls looming over head on both sides. On the backside of the cut was a popular spot called Eagle Rock that postcards have been made of. In the dark of the night it is hard to make out all these details under the headlights. Everything just looks like rocks and darkness without any street lights or habitants. Rimrock now becomes just a dot of light in the rearview mirror and no other cars can be seen on the highway, just an occasional rabbit scurrying across the road in the headlights.

Up in the distance the lights of a city come into view slowly. This is Osborne on the horizon. At one time there were several townships between Rimrock and Osborne, there was Basin City, Couleeville, and Franklin. Osborne was one of the larger townships and for a while was in direct competition with Electric City. From Eagle Rock to Osborne is almost a straight shot and the coulee is so wide the walls melt into the background, and get lost in the night. In the headlights bugs suddenly appear and bounce off or splat on the Studebaker’s windshield or grill. Here and there a fleck of light from a homesteaders ranch or newer home shine in the distance. Between the sagebrush the lights of Osborne can be seen, and beyond a cut in the rocks, Electric City. The old Studebaker accelerates, almost at its destination, Mason City. The fall air smelled like sagebrush as the car zipped along that cricket filled September night in 1946. Slowing down to creep through the sleepy town of Osborne, past a small diner and pub, then up a little hill and into Electric City.

The two towns are so close they almost seem to merge into one regardless of the huge granite boulders that separate them. As the Studebaker rolls down the Speedball through town a few people can be seen here and there in the warm September night, making the most out of the cooler air. Around the bend, down a hill and then into the Coulee Center portion of Grand Coulee. If you could call it that in 1946. Once the Speedball Highway ran up through Grand Coulee proper, when it ran down B Street. But that didn’t last long and pretty soon a fence was put up and the highway was forced to run down through what was at the time Coulee Center. Both towns seemed to grow down the hill towards the Speedball until finally they merged into one. It wasn’t the only time the Speedball’s route had been changed, especially on the hill between Grand Coulee and Engineers Town.

During construction the road from the top of the hill above the dam was a treacherous one at best. It was David H Ryan who contracted a couple out of Spokane to help with that part of the highway. The trouble was, it was a slide area and the contractors liked to use dynamite to blast away at the hillside. Back in the mid 1930s regulation was a lot different than what it is today, and there were more than several mishaps with dynamite. More than once huge rocks where blasted through the air and ended up in cars and once in a building. Reportedly, sometimes rocks were shot a quarter mile away. It was also a terrible slide area, notorious in fact. Once a group of men where at the top when the cliff started to slide, they tried to run against it to jump off and ended up jumping over the cracks that formed as the literal tons of earth rolled over on itself sweeping the men down the hillside about 500 feet unharmed, but shaken. The route for the highway completely wiped out, had to be started over on the same hillside. And it wasn’t the first slide in this area, but by 1946 all that was resolved and the highway down to the river and bridge paved.

From the top of the hill on a warm September night in 1946 the valley below the completed dam looks like a celebration of electricity. The Studebaker winds its way down the hill towards the cantilever bridge at the end of the Speedball Highway. Usually this is what peopled considered the end of the Speedball because the highway on the other side of the bridge was built by different people for different reasons, the two just met at the bridge. Later when 155 was constructed the roads where joined into one officially. Pieces of the Speedball Highway are still in use for various reasons, some even becoming part of its own replacement highway, 155, but most of it is returning to nature either under Banks Lake or in little hidden inlets, islands and peninsulas.

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