‘Bonneville Lock and Dam’ author ‘had the best dam job’

The Columbian

Nov. 11–“Park rangers excel at inspiring people,” Pat Barry writes in his very big book about the truly huge Bonneville Dam — which also excels at inspiring people like Barry, who worked as a park ranger and visitor center manager there for 32 years. That’s a long time to work anywhere, but Barry retired still in love with the place.

“Most of the time I thought I had the best dam job,” he jokes in the preface to “Bonneville Lock and Dam: A Gift from the People of the Great Depression.”

The 2,690-foot-long dam and its system of powerhouses, locks and spillways may be an engineering marvel, but people are the core of Barry’s tribute. It’s a lively and thoughtful blend of historical tale, science textbook, personal memoir and, most fun of all, “Bonneville Memories” shared by visitors and “Frequently Asked Questions” that Barry fielded countless times over the years.

Q: “Why are you watering the Columbia River?”

A: Fountains spraying over the river about a mile downstream from the dam discourage hungry birds from swooping down on a juvenile fish bypass there.

Q: “How does a lock work?”

A: Check out the handy diagrams on page 155.

Q: “Why do tribal anglers get special rights?”

A: They don’t. When the government forcibly moved them in 1855, treaties preserved their rights to fish in “usual and accustomed places.” (Also, the Trump administration just rejected a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers request for $1.6 million for a tribal housing near The Dalles, Ore., for tribal members whose ancestors were displaced decades ago by dam construction.)

Q: “Where is the dam?”

A: You’re standing on it.

Q: “Where is the secret government weather station that controls the jet stream?”

A: (Speechless).

Park rangers everywhere tend to joke about the endlessness of “the seven deadly questions,” Barry said — but as a customer service professional, he always remembered: “You’ve heard the question 100 times, but this is the first time that person has ever asked it.” What he really wanted, he writes, was to inspire 100 more questions.

Try coming up with questions Barry has never heard before during a slide show and book signing at 2 p.m. Saturday at Vintage Books in Vancouver.

Plants and people

Barry’s strong people skills may trace back to his youth in culturally diverse New York City, but in college he studied plant biology. Then, in the early 1970s, with “no job and no schedule,” he and a friend road-tripped around the country.

Going on a ranger-guided hike at Glacier National Park in Montana was a revelation, he said: “You can take people on hikes and get paid? Who wouldn’t want to do that?” He was considering a career in teaching, but this was even better: teaching “non-captive” students — that is, visitors who want to be there — out in nature.

Barry enjoyed working as a seasonal park ranger for the National Park Service, but his ultimate employer at Bonneville was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It’s not widely understood, he said, that about a half-dozen federal land-management agencies, including the Corps, employ park rangers.

One angry guy who definitely didn’t understand once confronted Barry at Multnomah Falls Lodge, operated by the National Park Service. Barry had stopped by to drop off some surplus brochures for his sister agency, but this visitor raised a finger and scolded him and bosses for closing the World War II memorial in Washington D.C. during the government shutdown of 2013. It was obviously a vast and long-planned conspiracy, this fellow told Barry.

Wrong ranger, wrong agency, non-facts — but people in uniform often serve as lightning rods, Barry said. That’s where his dedication to customer service came in handy. When you work in the federal bureaucracy, he said, you don’t control much except your own behavior and attitude. “I was a public servant,” he said; in this case it was his job to listen actively, sympathize and de-escalate.

Fortunately, most of Barry’s visitor interactions were excellent — even when they started with this gem of a Frequently Asked Question: “Is this Bonneville or Grand Coulee Dam?”

“I enjoyed hearing many people say, ‘I’m happy my taxes are being spent on this,’ ” Barry writes.

National project

It’s not just a FAQ file; Barry’s book is also a photo album, stuffed full of hundreds of historical and contemporary images, many of which have rarely been seen. All are black-and-white. They document the amazing feat that building Bonneville Lock and Dam really was.

Photos of proud workers precariously posing in dangerous places — atop the blades of an immense turbine that’s suspended by a crane, or riding the cable “high line” that transported them over the water — could not be taken today, Barry said, because of safety regulations that didn’t exist at the time. Some people may grumble about those regulations, but as far as Barry is concerned, they allow construction workers to have faith in surviving the day and returning home at night.

Twenty-six workers were killed on the job during Bonneville’s construction, he writes.

His book even includes the prescient dedication speech made onsite by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on Sept. 28, 1937; Roosevelt worried about unaffordable real estate in growing cities like Portland, and championed the regional distribution of electricity as a way of decentralizing growth and improving the lot of rural populations. He called Bonneville “a great national project” with benefits for all.

Costs and benefits

Barry may be retired, but he still loves connecting people with our outdoorsy local history. That’s why you’ll find him, these days, volunteering weekly at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site — and why he wrote this book.

“I appreciate the place, both for its history and for benefits it brought,” he said. “There were costs, especially to the tribes and the workers who lost their lives, but the benefits have been striking.”

Hence the thought-provoking subtitle of his book: “A Gift from the People of the Great Depression.” Across the generations, many thousands of people have built lives and livelihoods by building and staffing the dam; millions more have enjoyed the electric power it continues to generate.

If you’re reading this story under electric lights, you’re probably benefitting from Bonneville power right now.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Waterways Council, Inc.