Frank McCann predicts the future

An editorial in the pages of Rufus Woods’ Wenatchee World in 1929 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…” – 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 over a 1000 miles to the newly created town of North Loup, Nebraska. In 1886 the McCann family once more traveled across the country and set up a homestead about seven miles north of Hartline, Washington.

“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 on Park Lake, 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 had taken a geology class and that is what initially attracted him to the rugged scenic beauty of the area. It’s unknown how Frank actually acquired the land between Park Lake and Blue Lake, it could have been the deal with Jimmy Smith, but the land sat on Jasper Bay and had its own private beach. Frank built a ranch house near the sandy beach with a large front room and several small cabins outside. The beach became known as McCann’s beach and gained some notoriety for local events and picnics. Before the McCanns moved in the area was used by countless generations of indigenous people and filled with ancient stories 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, making observations about the formation of the rugged coulee, the original people that lived on the land and the new people that came to inhabit it, how it all fit together and dovetailed from the past 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…” — 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 game trails, watched secretly by the world around him. He mixed with the indigenous people and spent lots of time on McCann’s Beach, or hiking the rough basalt scablands behind Blue and Park Lake.

Frank McCann loved the land when he first saw it. Others saw the Grand Coulee as a obstacle to be somehow surmounted, Frank didn’t see it that way. He saw a glorious land filled with life and wonder, one that was larger than comprehension and should be shared and preserved for scientific study. He began using his political influence and funds from his private business to subtly push on the value of the coulee for tourism as well as scientific studies, giving speeches at 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 the Grand Coulee. Frank also started to write to prominent geologists and universities and in 1912 noted Harvard Professor William Morris Davis joined Frank at the ranch house on Jasper Bay 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 27 miles of the upper coulee for irrigation. Frank McCann saw this as a way to save his suffering and dwindling community as well as a way garner attention for his bigger ambitions 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. Using his place as president of the Coulee City Chamber of Commerce Frank McCann added his personal resources to leading the charge. He picked up the cause and traveled to speak of the advantages of building the Grand Coulee Dam all over the state, from Seattle to Spokane, and beyond. He spoke publicly anywhere he could on the matter, and when he wasn’t speaking he was writing letters to influential people and articles for multiple papers including Coulee City, Wenatchee and Oroville.  At the same time Frank was addressing crowds or ‘important people’ he would bring up his own agenda, which had become more streamlined, his focus was now on 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 to the area they would increase yearly. This was the early 1920s and the car craze was taking over the nation; they were starting to pop up everywhere. Cars are only good if you have a destination and the state was looking for places to create parks where people could easily travel to. Soon Frank McCann became a well known advocate for both causes; the building of the Grand Coulee Dam and the preservation of Dry Falls for a state park.

The building of the Grand Coulee Dam and flooding of the upper coulee then became wrapped up in a public battle as pro and anti-dam constituents took shots at each other through the media. In 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 McCann’s 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 McCann’s 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 a lot of them stayed at McCann’s Beach. Frank had been hosting geologists at his ranch house on Jasper Bay for a while, and even had cabins set up nearby with a common outhouse conveniently situated close. The water came from a pump in the yard. Inside the ranch house was a large room that Frank used for a meeting space. It could be set up into a small speaker hall or a hold a huge table capable of sitting many people, and it was connected with teh kitchen. All in all, the ranch house had 3 bedrooms. The beach, the cabins and the ranch house all sat down in the coulee, surrounded by shear basalt cliffs. This was Frank’s home, and he knew it like his own soul. Not far away in the lower 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 their cars when beds weren’t available. Tents full of tourists would litter the beaches and neighboring landscape. 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 amatuer rockhounds joined the professional geologists in scouring the landscape. It was a couple of  tourists from Soap Lake looking for shards of petrified wood that discovered the famous Rhino Cave just off McCann’s Beach in Jasper Bay.

Frank knew famed geologist J Harlen Bretz, who had stayed at his ranch house on McCann’s Beach. They would go out exploring the rugged basalt landscape together, sometimes Frank would lead, pointing out details to J Harlen. In 1931, J Harlen Bretz planned a huge gathering of 50 hand picked geologists and various scientists at the ranch house on McCann’s Beach. At this time Bretz was working on “a scientific treatise” which would eventually become his historic 1932 book: The Grand Coulee. At first Frank believed that the coulee was carved by glaciers, like everyone else, but pretty soon he began to see Bretz’ vision. Soon the new idea of the coulee being carved by a great flood started to appear in McCann’s newspaper articles and public speeches, which was pretty brave considering the public didn’t yet accept the notion of a flood creating 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. In the years and decades that followed Frank McCann’s death his name began to show up posthumously again and again in numerous and varied publications.

Time had started to catch up with Frank McCann, having lived a life of outdoor exploration as well as traveling around the country promoting his beliefs. Already, Frank saw at least one dream come true when Dry Falls became a State Park, and in 1933 on the banks of the Columbia River 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, in his sixties and for the first time ever, Frank McCann was a celebrity. The papers dubbed Frank “the Pioneer Grocer.” He was often 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, 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 who was very close to his family. After his eldest son Ralph’s death in 1920 the family became inseparable and Frank often included his children John and Francis on event guest lists and when that wasn’t possible he would make them members of his personal work crew 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.

“Carry Notables on First Train to Coulee Dam” read the headline “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 wife Mary Elizabeth decided to drive back to Frank’s childhood home of  North Loup, Nebraska. At a gas station in Nebraska, just after exiting the car Frank fell down dead of heart complications at the age of 71. He left behind his wife of 50 years, 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”

“… 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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