the Daddy of Grand Coulee, Frank McCann

An editorial in the pages of the Wenatchee World in 1929 written by Rufus Woods compared Frank McCann to early fur trader, explorer and map maker Alexander Ross. “A present day disciple of Alexander Ross is Frank McCann, who has advocated for years the setting aside of this wonder as a national park.” Maybe after a long hard battle to get the Grand Coulee Dam started Rufus Woods could relate to this tall, large framed man from Coulee City and his plight to turn Dry Falls into a national park “It takes enthusiasm like Mr. McCanns to crusade for our scientific treasures…” – Rufus Woods, Wenatchee Daily World, 1929

Francis William McCann was born in Pennsylvania in 1867. His father fought for the Union during the Civil War. In 1879 when Frank was 11 they packed up a wagon with all their belongings and moved to Northloop, Nebraska. In 1886 the McCann family moved once more across country where they set up a homestead about seven miles north of Hartline.

“In 1889, Mr. (Frank) McCann took an active part in political matters and became deputy sheriff under Frank Day, the first sheriff in the (Douglas) county under the state constitution. Later, he was nominated for sheriff but was swept aside by the populistic and served as deputy sheriff under Charles Ogle. On May 13th, 1896, Mr. McCann married Miss Mary E., daughter of John C. and Sarah (Browning) Higginbotham. To our subject and wife, three children have been born, Ralph W, Francis F., and John C. McCann.” — An Illustrated History of the Big Bend Country, 1904

In 1902 Frank McCann and his partner, a man by the name of DeBolt rode into Coulee City and purchased McDonald’s Grocery and Hardware store. (McDonald kept some of the stock and used it to open a new store in town, which over time grew to include more and more until it was in direct competition with McCann and DeBolt). McCann and DeBolt added the newest in farming equipment, and sold thrashers and combines on credit. Soon DeBolt wanted to get out of the business and a deal was made that included a portion of land down in the Sun Lakes area that was owned by a gentleman named Jimmy Smith. When it was all said and done the store had a new partner and a new name: McCann and Smith, and Frank had new beach side property in Sun Lakes, which at the time was still all privately owned. The partnership changed hands when Jimmy sold out to his brother Bill, but the name remained the same for years until finally Bill sold his share to the McCanns.

During his time in Coulee City Frank McCann became the president of the Chamber of Commerce, and sometimes it’s only member. This allowed him freedom to write for the Coulee City paper and he had found something to write about, a love of the land. Frank actually had taken a geology class and that is what initially attracted him to the rugged scenic beauty of the area. I have yet to encounter a document that says how Frank actually acquired the land between Park Lake and Blue Lake that sits on Jasper Bay and has it’s own private beach, but he built a ranch house close to the sandy beach with a large front room and several small cabins outside. The beach became known as McCanns beach and gained some notoriety for local events and picnics. Before the McCanns moved in it was a spot used by countless generations of indigenous people and filled with ancient mysteries and artifacts. Like Alexander Ross, Frank McCann spent many hours wandering, exploring, discovering and simply observing the land and getting to know it intimately. It was a vanishing world that few had seen and as Frank explored he made mental notes of everything, taking in everything from the formation of the rugged Coulee itself to the people that came to inhabit it, and how it all fit together and dovetailed into the future.

“Frank McCann of Coulee City, an explorer and geologist of note, used to point out the old Yakima Trail through the Coulee. It was deep rutted from hooves of many Indian ponies. Paintings on granite rocks and Indian artifacts half-buried in the sand along the lakes denotes camping spots. After the hop fields of of Yakima drew Indian pickers in the 1900s, roads were impeded by white man fences. Small caravans of Indian wagons with horsepacks went through patiently opening those tight barbed wire gates. They crawled along dusty alkali roads, stopping to pick “ollalies”, serviceberry to us, or wild currents and gooseberries. The wax like coral berry was also called “Squaw Berry”. Chains of swampy lakes provided wild duck eggs for food; and water for horses. Young groundhogs were roasted by impaling them on sharp sticks over a bonfire. It was a happy unrestricted life which Indians required.” — Dayma Lange Evans, From Pioneers to Power second ed. 2000

Frank McCann had a natural rapport with the land. He knew the springs, streams and lakes, rocks, cliffs and crags, the flora and fauna, he wandered through nature following deer trails, watched secretly by the world around him. He mixed with the indigenous people and spent lots of time on McCanns Beach, or hiking the rough basalt scablands behind Blue and Park Lake. For years Frank had been using his political influence to subtly push on the value of the coulee for tourism as well as scientific studies, giving speeches at the Rotary Clubs and Chamber of Commerce meetings, enticing people and attracting geologists from all over the world to come look at the geological marvel that is Dry Falls. In 1912 noted Harvard Professor William Morris Davis joined Frank McCann at the ranch house and together they explored the geological wonders of the Grand Coulee.

In 1917 drought hit the Big Bend, a drought that would last for years ruining ambitions and dreams, pushing hundreds of families out of the coulee and into unknown futures elsewhere. Then in 1918 a flu epidemic struck the coulee making it seem like the end was nigh, and for many farmers, it was. Just when all seemed lost, what seems like a miracle happened that would change everything. In 1918 Billy Clapp and Rufus Woods met in Ephrata to unveil a project to dam the Columbia River at the mouth of the Grand Coulee and flood it for irrigation. Frank McCann saw this not only as a way to save his suffering and dwindling community, but also a way to garner attention for his bigger ambition of making Dry Falls and other parts of the Grand Coulee state or federally protected lands. By 1920 the Coulee City Chamber of Commerce was promoting and gathering funds for the Grand Coulee Dam project, still just in its initial conception phase and trying to raise support. Frank McCann turned his personal resources to leading the charge. He picked up the cause and traveled to speak of the advantages of building the dam all over the state, from Seattle to Spokane, and beyond. He wrote articles talking about the benefits, and at the same time adding his own agenda of turning Dry Falls into a protected national park. Frank McCann saw potential in Dry Falls, he felt that if he could start the flow of tourists they would increase yearly. It wasn’t long before Frank McCann was a well known advocate for both causes; the building of the dam and the preservation of Dry Falls for a national park.

The building of the Grand Coulee Dam then became wrapped up in a public battle as pro and anti Dam constituents took shots at each other through the media. In about 1928 when Dry Falls became an official state park, many people credited Frank McCann’s promotions and work. Unfortunately, the Great Depression soon struck the coulee temporarily cutting off funding for Dry Falls State Park. The Vista House and look out were completed, but other than that it was just a huge parking lot overlooking a 400 foot drop. Despite McCanns private funding and public endorsements, Dry Falls State Park would come together slowly over the course of decades, and continue to evolve long after Frank’s death.

While all this was going on, Frank had been hosting gatherings of geologists at his ranch house on McCanns Beach. His common practice was to take visiting geologists out into the field where he would act as guide and point out features or get a look closer at features pointed out by the visiting scientists. The debate over the creation of the the Grand Coulee intensified in the early 1930s with J. Harlen Bretz’ seemingly ‘crackpot’ theories of a great big flood carving out the land. This drew in more and more curious professors of all levels of education and from all over the world with something to prove, and mostly they all stayed down at Frank McCanns Beach where they knew they could get Frank’s input. Not only did he know the land, but he also knew and spent time with a lot of geologists. Frank McCann wrote a lot about the land, and the fossil beds, sometimes indicating where they were located in public. Not far down the coulee, Soap Lake was in its prime, attracting people from all over the world to it’s healing waters. In the summer the beaches would overflow and people would sleep under there cars when beds weren’t available. Cars and roads opened up the great wild west, now you could drive from Soap Lake to hunt for fossils around Blue Lake and Jasper Bay, and many people joined the professional geologists in scouring the landscape. It was a couple of amatuer rockhounds looking for shards of petrified wood that discovered the famous rhino caves just off McCanns Beach in Jasper Bay.

Frank McCann personally knew J. Harlen Bretz, who had stayed at his ranch house on McCanns Beach. It’s easy to imagine the two sitting out on the front porch of the ranch house drinking coffee and looking out into the basalt canyons and coulees. Later they would go out exploring with McCann acting as shepard and quite often sherpa and Harlen Bretz following along taking notes and making theories. Pretty soon Frank began to see Bretz’s vision and it started to reflect in his newspaper articles and public speeches, which was pretty brave considering most people didn’t yet accept the notion that a flood could create the Grand Coulee. So it was really no surprise that in 1931 when J. Harlen Bretz planned a huge gathering of 50 people he chose his good friend Frank McCann to host it at the ranch house on McCanns Beach. In the newspaper article it also mentions Bretz was preparing a scientific treatise which would eventually become his historic 1932 book: ‘The Grand Coulee.’ It’s pretty surprising that Frank McCann was never mentioned in J. Harlen Bretz’ historic treatise, the two spent plenty of time together in the coulee most likely discussing geology. Ironically though, in the years and decades that followed Frank McCann’s name would show up posthumously again and again in numerous and varied publications, including multiple local history books. Even without credit from Bretz, Frank continued on promoting the land and its wonders, often at his own expense in both time and money.

Frank was in his sixties now, having lived a life of outdoor exploration as well as traveling around the country promoting his beliefs. Already, he saw at least one dream come true when Dry Falls became a state park, and down on the banks of the Columbia in 1933 in front of a crowd of thousands he was about to see another.

“The chairman of the meeting, James O’Sullivan also a member of the basin commision was introduced by Frank McCann, pioneer merchant of Coulee City. O’Sullivan told in a brief way of the conception and development of the proposed dam. He gave brief figures on the immensity of the project and pointed out to the audience the site selected by the engineers marked by two white spots on a granite ledge on the north bank of the river and by a pile of stone and a whitewashed post on the south bank. Following his remarks O’Sullivan presented Governor Clarence D. Martin who stated “We could not possibly hope to get this project developed were it not that the president believes in it.” — Oroville Gazette, 1933

The Grand Coulee Dam was finally getting underway, and as a reward for all the campaigning he had done in the good will of the project, Frank McCann was invited to play a key role in the ground breaking ceremony. Suddenly Frank was a celebrity. They called him ‘the pioneer grocer’ and referred to him as an ‘amature geologist’, but anytime anyone discovered something new or different in the area he was the person they consulted. He was invited as a keynote speaker and split his time between the Coulee City Chamber of Commerce and other various projects he was involved in. He would make public appearances and speak about the benefits of the Grand Coulee Dam, and closer to home he would be sought out for geological questions. Frank McCann was by all definitions a self made man. Frank was also a good father and grand father. After his eldest son Ralph’s death in 1920 the family came together and Frank often included his children John and Francis on different event guest lists or listed them as members of his crew as much as he could to keep them close.

In 1935 Frank McCann accepted an invitation to ride on the first train down the coulee from his home town Coulee City to the work site at Grand Coulee, or close enough to it.

“Carry Notables on First Train to Coulee Dam” the headline yelled “The first Grand Coulee passenger train over the government railroad to the dam site Monday morning will be crowded with notables from all parts of the northwest, it was assured today, with acceptances of invitations continuing to pile into the office of the Columbia basin commision here. ‘There is going to be a splendid representation of outstanding citizens and civic leaders on the train when Governor Martin pulls back on the throttle of the locomotive.’ reported James O’Sullivan, secretary of the commission.” — Spokane Chronicle, 1935. At the bottom of the article Frank McCann is listed with other notables including Billy Clapp and Rufus Woods, people he personally knew and often rubbed elbows with.

In 1939, with Dry Falls a protected state park and the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam well underway, Frank McCann and his Mary Elizabeth decided to drive back to Frank’s childhood home. At a gas station in Nebraska, just after exiting the car Frank fell down dead of heart complications, age 71. He left behind his wife after 50 years of marriage, and his daughter Francis and son John. The funeral was held in Hartline and attended by people from all over the world.

“One of the most touching things I saw at the funeral of Frank W. McCann of Coulee City yesterday was the great crowd which followed the body to the cemetery at Hartline and remained there by the body for a long time after the ceremonies were finished. A large percentage of them were oldtimers – those who have been here 50 years and more.

Frank McCann did more than any other one man to publicize the remarkable geological features of Grand Coulee and Dry Falls. Of all the people he was the first to realize the importance of Dry Falls as a geological feature. He wrote articles and pamphlets about it. He was instrumental in bringing here the international geographers and geologists. Gale Matthews suggested that his body ought to be disinterred and placed in a suitable memorial overlooking Dry Falls.” — Wenatchee World, 1939

Frank’s death touched his long time friend and the first caretaker at Dry Falls, C.T. Giezentanner, inspiring him to add a page to later editions of his 1937 book “Chalice of the Gods” titled “The Daddy of Grand Coulee” that shows Frank’s smiling face in grainy black and white. A heartfelt, moving eulogy to a forgotten pioneer and builder of both our past and future.

“Over fifty years ago Grand Coulee was only a scar on the face of the Earth. Dry Falls was called a “Damned Pot-hole” by the stock men who roamed the range in those hectic days now passed into history.

“Not so,” said a young man, just out from Nebraska, and who had filed a homestead in what is now the Hartline district. He had taken a preliminary course in geology and saw a vision. He claimed that someday Grand Coulee and Dry Falls would come into their own. To that end he bent every effort to bring it about when other duties did not claim too much of his time. From that day on, until his death, he sacrificed a part of his time and spent his own money in attracting to Grand Coulee some of the world’s best geologists. He furnished the transportation after their arrival, and accompanied them on their explorations while studying its formations and geological wonders. He finally acquired the sobriquet: “The Daddy of Grand Coulee”

On May 13, 1896, Frank McCann became the husband of Miss Mary E. Higginbotham. Afterward he entered the mercantile business in Coulee City. On the 15th of October, 1939, he died of heart ailment at Alliance, Nebraska, while he and Mrs. McCann were on an auto trip to his boyhood home. His remains were brought back and entered into the Hartline cemetery October 19, 1939. Six hundred people, representing seven countries attended his funeral – all of one mind that a monument to his memory should be erected at some imposing point at Dry Falls. Whether the idea takes concrete form and is carried out or whether his dust moulders with that of other unsung and forgotten pioneers, who gave their all to make Washington State what it is, remains to be seen.”

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