There was a time when Rattlesnake Canyon was alive with history. Outlaw Texas Jack hid out near the springs in a dug out cave, the Dillman Brothers listened for the drums of war that never came, orchards bloomed, buzzing with bees, while picnickers lazed beneath the shade trees on manicured grass. The fruit produced was renown, and people traveled from all over to buy fruits and crafts from the Davis Family. The orchard later sold to the Noble family but the tradition of fruit and a serine park like setting continued in Rattlesnake Canyon despite its colorful name. Down the middle of the canyon ran a creek that was fed by the natural springs, the same springs that irrigated the orchards and supplied drinking water for the sparse population at the bottom of the canyon.
In the late 1920s, if you were to follow the foot trail alongside the creek downstream from the Noble Ranch, you would come to the only other inhabitant in the canyon, Herb Beulin. Always a hard worker, Herb’s place started simple and as his income increased and building material became accessible it sprouted into a fine farm. Herb mostly worked as a hired hand around the county, and was well known and liked. After he got married and the baby was born he worked even harder to be successful, but when his marriage fell apart he packed his things and left Rattlesnake Canyon for the last time.
It wasn’t long after Herb left that people started to flow into the Grand Coulee following rumors of work building a dam across the Columbia River. B-Street sprung up almost overnight, but with it came problems, and one was the sanitation. One of the developers decided to tackle this problem, and owning some land down in Rattlesnake Canyon devised a crude way to dump semi-treated sewage over the hill where one of the natural springs would wash it away, or at least out of sight. The man, whose name I’m not going to mention, charged people and businesses to use his new service and he had people lined up to do business with him in no time, because, let’s be real, who doesn’t want a sewer system? Especially with so many beer parlors. There were rumors of alleys starting to smell, so the sewer system, as crude as it was, came at a great time, unless you happen to be the Noble family living down in Rattlesnake Canyon when it all began. Of course, the whole system was a bit more complex than just some pipes leading from B-Street to the side of Rattlesnake Canyon that people put raw sewage in. Instead the waste first passed through septic tanks that were owned by the businesses and somewhat processed by whatever it was they were using at the time, before being shipped over the wall into the canyon.
About the same time as all this just getting started, the government also decided they wanted the land the fledgling sewer system was on. Normally, if the government wanted land in the 1930s they would condemn it, do a small pay out of their choosing to the owner, and move in. The developer who owned the land the new sewer system was on decided he wasn’t going down easy and because he controlled something the people fiercely wanted and needed, he was able to get the community behind him and the whole thing went to court. In the end, everyone has a price and the land developer was only in it for money. To deal with the problem, and as part of the arrangement to keep the townspeople happy, the feds build a sewage treatment plant to standards which eventually was turned over to the city of Grand Coulee.
When the feds got control of the canyon, they condemned it. No one was there anymore though, just a few buildings as reminders. Herb Buelin was gone, having received a government pay-out for his property, and the Nobles had sold their farm and orchards to the land developer and moved off before any of this really got started. The land was then cleared of the buildings, houses and majority of trees, which were sold off to the highest bidder for wood. There was one last picnic held before the clearing began, called the Pioneers Picnic, and everyone was there from pioneers to big name land developers. Much beer and food was served and a few of the pioneers wandered around the old orchard and farm drinking in memories. A motion was put forth to rename the canyon “Pioneer Canyon.” No one really knew how much of the canyon would be flooded by the rising waters of the Columbia behind the Grand Coulee Dam, and fewer yet could even suspect the changes that would soon arrive on a world record breaking rubber band.
The reason for the land acquisition on Rattlesnake Canyon was because the Grand Coulee Dam people were looking for a place to dump millions of tons of overburden. Overburden is the dirty, rocky, clay-mud dug up from where the base of the Grand Coulee Dam would sit. In order for the concrete to properly bond they had to dig all the way down to the granite bedrock, and remove thousands of years worth of muck and mire from the bottom of the Columbia River. They did it with a series of cofferdams. At first they tried removing the overburden, or spoil, as it was known, with traditional ways, but they could see real quick they would need a different solution. Someone came up with the idea to use the world’s biggest rubber band. At least, that’s what it came to be known as, it was really the world’s longest conveyor belt at the time, running several miles and with several spurs and completely independent tracks. The world’s largest rubber band carried the spoil over the river, zigged zagged up the other shore and off to the stacker unit. The stacker was basically a wooden overburden sprayer where the conveyor belt ended. The whole thing sat on a series of tracks so it could move back and forth distributing the muddy spoil as it shot out the front. They could move the stacker forward, backward, and side to side easily while still spraying spoil into Rattlesnake Canyon. Their target was Herb Beulin’s farm, or at least his property. The farm had been removed and huge flood prevention tubes ran through the bottom where the spoil would fall. The huge piles of spoil would then be pushed around and molded by men on bulldozers.
At first there were some issues with the spacing on the conveyor belt rollers, they were placed too far apart and bigger rocks would hang it up. This was easy to fix by moving the rollers closer together. During the rainy season the spoil would become wet weighing more and also gumming up the works so a roof was installed over the world’s largest rubber band and it kept working into the winter, which brought its own problem in frozen rollers. The winter of 1936 / 37 was especially cold and ice froze around the conveyors bridge, threatening to bring it down with the thaw. To prevent loss, the conveyor was removed from the bridge and use of the world’s longest rubber band was suspended. Sure enough, as predicted the ice shifted and took out part of the bridge support, leaving the conveyor offline until spring thaw brought repairs.
Before the spoil pile really got going, and even while it was flowing out of the end of the stacker into a 200 foot fall onto what was Herb’s farm in the canyon, a small movement was on to try to save the land by a handful of locals. During this time one man ventured into the canyon and found petrograms. Painted in red on a granite wall, a specialist from the Colville Tribe said they told the story of a great battle. Some people believed they were real, while others accused the man of planting evidence to try to slow or stop the flooding of Rattlesnake Canyon. About the same time hard hat journalist Hu Blonk wrote an account of a construction worker at Rattlesnake Canyon who saw a Native American sitting on his horse up on the rim looking down on the stacker and its crew dumping mucky spoil into the canyon, shaking his head in disdain, he rode off never to be seen again.
Closer to the dam excavation site there was at least one account of a steam shovel crew digging away at a basalt talus slope, the loose basalt that gathers at the bottom of the cliffs. It was early spring, one man was in the steam shovel and two outside, when suddenly the bucket dug into a ball of hibernating snakes. The story as reported in a gossip section said it was a ball rattlesnakes, but more likely it was a mess of several kinds, including rattlers. Not really knowing what to do with this ball of snakes in the bucket of the steam shovel, the driver swung around and dropped it on the conveyor belt to Rattlesnake Canyon where it vanished out of sight down the line. I bet that was a surprise for the people working at the stacker, if the story is true. The stacker had problems of its own, slides were common on the spoil pile as it shifted filling the caves, cracks and crevices with muck. At one point the spoil pile slid out of control spreading out to the far side of the canyon surprising everyone, but the biggest slide was 1935, and pulled the stacker partially down the 200 foot embankment, tangling up the conveyor and taking it offline for a while, causing over 700 layoffs.
As the canyon started to fill with immense amounts of overburden spoil, the spring fed creek became backed up flooding the canyon, covering up the evidence of Texas Jack, the Noble Ranch and the indigenous people that moved through the canyon. As the waters rose, a smell of sewage also began to rise out of the canyon, carried into the city on the winds of change. In the summer these winds could have been said to be a little extra odorous. On the hill above Rattlesnake Canyon the small sewage treatment plant chugged to life taking sewage, treating it, and piping it to its final resting place in the flooded canyon. It was during this time in the late 1930s that people started to refer to the newly formed lake with names like Urine Bay and Poop Lagoon to describe the mess the federal government was making in Rattlesnake Canyon.
Eventually the spoil reached the far canyon wall, cutting off an area on Lake Roosevelt called Crescent Bay. In 1942 this area was diked to keep sewage from escaping into the Columbia River. On the other side of the spoil pile dike Rattlesnake Canyon was completely flooded, and now treated like a part of the sewage treatment process. The newly formed lake was named Crescent Lake, but it struggled with an identity besides Poop Lagoon, a name still used today by a handful of locals. The newly formed lake was then seeded with trout. On good days it smelled bad, but on bad days the whole city reeked of chemicals and sewage. The spoil pile was leveled, and on the Lake Roosevelt side big plans were brewing for a resort. Crescent Lake was seemingly going neglected, rejected by most of the locals as Poop Lagoon, rumors started circulating about the muddy tasting brown trout, and pretty soon only brave kids or die hard outdoor enthusiasts would venture into the remains of the canyon once filled with romance and mystery, now filled with sewage and spoil.
next in Part Three, the Conclusion of the History Of Rattlesnake Canyon: The State steps in and cleans up, plus, tales of Poop Lagoon and parks lost.
History of Rattlesnake Canyon part one:
The World’s Largest Rubber band
Herb Beulin’s house in Rattlesnake Canyon, ground zero
the Stacker Unit in Rattlesnake Canyon
the Spoil Pile