Harvey Slocum and the Spirits of B Street

In 1920, two years after Rufus Woods and Billy Clapp’s 1918 meeting in Ephrata that unveiled their plans for a record shattering Dam across the Columbia River, Prohibition ratified the Constitution making it (mostly) illegal to sell or purchase alcoholic beverages of any kind in the good old U.S. of A. Two seemingly unrelated events would come crashing together in the most unlikely of places, a small desert boomtown overlooking Seaton’s Landing in the Grand Coulee of Washington State.

Before Prohibition even started, the area around Grand Coulee had been one of pioneers and homesteaders. The people of the coulee had their own lives, and the effects of the “outside world” rarely reached as far down as Seaton’s Landing. If a rancher wanted to get a drink it wasn’t that far to the nearest still, and the area really was the wild west with little to no lawmen around. When Prohibition came to Grand Coulee the real change in day to day life for the pioneers and homesteaders was that a few saw a quick way to make a dishonest buck. A little ways up the Columbia River from Seaton’s Landing was a place where bootleggers had installed ferries to help escort the flow of illegal liquor over the border from Canada and into the backroom gambling halls and speakeasies. After years of drought that ran out many ranchers and farmers, The Great Depression of 1929 struck making the people who didn’t move out of the coulee a bit worried as they watched topsoil drift away in the wind and cattle starve. At the same time Prohibition was in effect and would be for the next 4 years.

In 1933 word got out about the building of the Grand Coulee Dam. It had been a well publicized battle and the jobless, homeless throngs of men willing and able to work watched for a chance to once more earn a paycheck. Many of them had families they left behind as they trekked anyway they could, walk, hitchhike, jump a train… drive. It was an exodus out of poverty into the land of prosperity, the Grand Coulee Dam at Seaton’s Landing. Most started their trek with nothing more than what they could carry and a head full of dreams. Not all were to be construction workers. The battle for the dam had been so big that it attracted all levels and societies of people. The speculators circled like vultures waiting to make a get rich quick deal. They bought up land from the locals and immediately started to plotting it off and reselling or leasing it for a profit. All at once, and without regulation, boom towns started springing up like mushrooms around the coulee. 13 years of Prohibition was set to be abolished at the end of the year, and the beer parlors started going up. Soon the area would be full of men, beer and work, vices would soon be sure to follow.

The same year despite the Great Depression, construction superintendent Harvey Slocum was on top of his game, his list of accomplishments, too long to mention here, included the Gibraltar Dam, Exchequer, Henshaw and Hetch-Hetchy Dams in California, and Panama’s Madden Dam to name a few. By the time he got the call to come work on the Grand Coulee Dam by WMAK he was already a seasoned professional dam builder in his late 40s. Even though he had never had any engineering school it was said that Harvey could estimate a job better than trained professionals. He prided himself on being ‘one of the guys’ and talked, dressed and acted like his crew. He talked tuff and ‘no nonsense’ with his crew who looked up to and admired him. He took pride in the fact that he could do any of the construction site jobs from driving the steam shovels to rivet tossing, and often bragged of the fact. He was one of the crew, in the pit when needed, getting his hands in the same mud as the shovel jockeys. In his day, he was what they called a ‘man’s man’, rugged and straight forward.

Up on the hill above the dam a town had been starting to grow, put together by ambitious people looking for a few dollars and shelter from the Depression. It was almost like one day there it was and now everyone just had to live with it, like it or not, the coulee had a bratty new neighbor the people were calling Grand Coulee, history knows it better as ‘B Street’. When prohibition ended in December, 1933, a new era had begun that would grow to be more explosive than the fireworks that rang out on that cold, fuzzy night so long ago. In 1935 everything ramped up. The construction started full time, hiring thousands of workers, men who had been living day to day on soup lines could now afford such luxuries as new shoes and a haircut from a real barber. They even had money to tip! The rest of the world might have been in the bitter grip of the Great Depression, but in Grand Coulee the party had just begun. Anytime of the day you could drink, and all night. People drank so much bars were giving away ‘free drink tokens’ to people they had over served in hopes of over serving them again the next night. If you got a bit too carried away with the gay festivities and kicked out of one establishment it wasn’t a far stagger to get your next drink, or pass out in an ally. Music blared from hidden speakers out in the street trying to draw people into the dance halls and drinking establishments. Live bands played almost every night of the week, and everyone danced. At first there wasn’t much in the way of law enforcement, and word on the street was the coppers only raided B Street was when their kitty was low and they needed a quick buck. Even though Prohibition had ended rumors persisted that some of the establishments were still buying liquor from the Canadian bootleggers to supplement their legally gained merchandise, keep costs low and profits high. Some establishments were accused of watering down their drinks to up their profit margins, while others were accused of drugging their patrons and taking their wallets! Scams were rampant on B Street, once a fellow printed up elaborate fake circus tickets and sold them, making his escape before people realized they were had. When raids did happened the state patrol would gather, and rush into a gambling den, red light room or after hour drinking establishment. People would scatter trying to escape, clamoring out windows and stumbling down dark hallways, and if you were caught you could go to jail but most likely you would be ticketed. It was a world unlike any Harvey Slocum had ever seen, and it drew him in.

Standing on a hastily made plank sidewalk on B Street, Harvey witnessed several fights, as drunks pushed eachother out the bar room doors into the ‘gumbo’ laden streets. Over head from the windows girls called, uncaring who you were and not telling any secrets. If you went upstairs after hours they would welcome you to gamble in dimly lit rooms and feed you moonshine imported from Canada. In these hastily constructed old west style wooden buildings you could lose yourself in a haze of drunken debauchery. It was a rough and tumble environment where anything goes, and it did. And Harvey wasn’t alone. He shared the streets and bar stools with men who came from the poverty of the Depression and days of Prohibition, to the Grand Coulee Dam where money seemed to flow free as the soon to be harnessed Columbia River, and most were single or left their families behind to catch up later. Harvey knew some of the men personally, and when he was recognized the men would buy, or Harvey would buy; he was out drinking with the crew. Harvey was the General Superintendent in charge of construction, including all the men, manual labor, and projects that make the whole. He oversaw all the construction, including both cofferdams, and most of the low dam. Harvey was the go-to man and the face of Grand Coulee Dam construction when the press had questions. He publically settled many disputes concerning everything from labor disputes to world record breaking construction achievements. “All in a days work.” he would say after finishing some monumental task. Under his firm and fair leadership the construction crews pushed harder, challenging themselves and many world records were shattered one right after the other; deadlines not only met but usually with time to spare. It became such a routine that Harvey once bet Guy Atkins a new hat that he would have the trestle span all the way across the river by a certain date, everyone was so surprised when Harvey lost the bet (due to unforeseen delays) that it made the daily newspaper. Harvey Slocum was a big man, one of the biggest in the building of the dam, yet here he was drinking and slinging cards with the powder monkeys, muckrakers and riggers on B Street. Many thousands of men that made up his crew looked up to him like he brought them jobs in the time of the Great Depression when all had been lost, to the workers he was a true hero and treated with regard and respect not only on the job site but off of it as well. In a couple years Harvey became so comfortable in his new environment that he wasn’t just a casual customer on B Street, he had become a regular, spending unaccounted for time on the infamous street. Sometimes Harvey would miss days of work, lost in this playland old west drunk fantasy.

But he wasn’t always at B Street. Harvey also had a wife and would spend time with her at his house. One night when they were in bed the coffer dam burst, word was sent to get Harvey to down there and by the time he arrived the scene was panicked. It was 3:00 am and still dark as night, but water could be heard rushing. People were throwing everything they could into the huge split in the side of the cofferdam where the river was pouring through; sagebrush, planks, rocks, someone even threw in a mattress. In the chaos of the darkness one man was ran over and killed. The problem was solved when the USBR arrived and added a chemical that makes water turn to a thick mess, and thus, the project was saved. It was perhaps Harvey’s greatest and most remembered moment in the construction of Grand Coulee Dam, but he actually was responsible for all projects that included manpower, and that equals thousands of workers, scores of world records, and permanent changes that still affect our lives today, almost 90 years later. The Grand Coulee Dam, no matter how you look at it, is a mind blowing feat of construction, and it was Harvey and his crew that helped realize that dream for the engineers, politicians and people of this great country.

When Harvey was needed after hours and he wasn’t home they would find him at B Street. He had a girl there that he liked to spend time with. She worked upstairs at the Swanee Rooms and he would visit her often, sometimes for days. By 1937 Harvey had not only broken many concrete pouring records but he had also cemented his place on B Street as a prominent figure. He knew the owner of several beer parlors and was treated with the respect and dignity that fed his ego making him feel invulnerable in both his work life and his play life, and the line between the two was starting to blur. The summer of ’37 was a scorcher. Heatwaves danced in the dry bone dusty streets taunting the patrons of B Street. It seemed there was no relief from the heat, even inside the businesses. From his office at work on the Dam, Harvey sent a small crew of men up to B Street to install a sprinkler system on the roof of the Swanee Rooms in an effort to try to combat the heat. The bar owner joking referred to his place as the first ‘air conditioned’ business on B Street and everyone thought it was clever and funny except Harvey’s bosses. Harvey had used federal workers on government time for his personal gain, and the USBR took that as an excuse to fire him. In truth, it was just the final reason. Harvey had been battling spirits and it was affecting his judgement and job performance. When the official story came out it read that Harvey Slocum had resigned due to health issues.

Almost immediately rumors started to flourish, there was a state of shock among the majority of workers who looked up to Harvey’s honest and fair leadership. Not everyone knew about his time spent up at the Swanee Rooms, or his time with the spirits of B Street, and the ones who did disregarded it as a reason to be fired. Most eager to get to the bottom of the story were the papers, for a while they followed Harvey’s exploits waiting for the next chapter, everyone assured he would come out on top. Meanwhile, the men who had worked under him petitioned with over a thousand signatures but to no avail, Harvey had worked his last days for WMAK. Finally, when it became evident that Harvey Slocum wasn’t coming back, the men who petitioned all pitched in and bought Harvey a brand new convertible Buick as a going away present. The papers picked up Harvey’s exploits as he joined with a new group of contractors to bid on the Grand Coulee high dam, a bid that ultimately wasn’t accepted. Harvey packed his bags and left the Coulee returning to work on the Shasta Dam in California in 1938, and newly formed contract winners CBI started the high dam without him. He was so loved in the coulee by his old co-workers many vowed to go work under him once more in California. Most importantly, Harvey put down the bottle and started focusing on his future, and in 1952 he settled down into a somewhat flamboyant domestic lifestyle with his wife in India where he became the Chief Engineer of the Bhakra Dam. Harvey Slocum died in 1961 in New Dehli at the age of 74. He left behind a legacy of construction and changed lives that is unsurpassed by any of his contemporary peers, and only slightly smudged by his time among the spirits of B Street.
matchbook cover
(images courtesy Dennis King Photography, copyright 2018)

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