SI Vault
Richard W. Johnston
November 24, 1975
North Bonneville was just another trapped town as bulldozers of the Corps of Engineers approached. But for once—and maybe forever—the bogeymen were set back
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
November 24, 1975

Caught Standing In The Way Of Progress

North Bonneville was just another trapped town as bulldozers of the Corps of Engineers approached. But for once—and maybe forever—the bogeymen were set back

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5

Holcomb had just been elected county commissioner ("I thought I might have more clout than as mayor") when one of his inquiries paid off. Russ Fox, a professor of urban planning at Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Wash., was willing to send some students. Before he took office in January 1973, Holcomb handed Ernie Skala, his successor as mayor, a valuable legacy: Dave Hussell, the bright young administrative assistant he had hired soon after the original Corps announcement, and a promise from Fox of student interns.

Skala, spare and tanned and 63, was glad to have the students' help, even though they were long haired and some were girls (until then the feminist revolution had just been a nasty rumor in the Gorge). "I really didn't want the job of mayor," Skala says, "but I had to take it because I wanted to save the town. After I'd retired I just spent all my time fishing and hunting, and I couldn't claim I was needed for any other job. So I couldn't say no." What Skala had retired from was a job with—surprise—the Corps of Engineers, but he had not learned much about the engineering bureaucracy in 14 years of swabbing paint on Bonneville Dam.

When the news reached Portland that Bob Holcomb was no longer mayor, and that the town was being run by an old Corps painter and a bunch of hippies, the engineers must have thought the war was over. Nobody told them that one of the hippies was a burly 6-footer with the command presence of a general, the tenacity of a bulldog and an appetite for work that at times awed his new colleagues on the town council. All the Evergreen team was determined, and most of its members put in 12-hour days. Pollard R. Dickson managed about 18, partly because he was trying to support himself.

"The town didn't have any money," Dickson says, "so I got a cabin and board at Bonneville Hot Springs [a nearby resort] in return for mowing the lawns and collecting the garbage." From the start he exuded an air of permanence. "I had a great personal response to the people in this town," Dickson says. "I grew up in a town on Puget Sound called Gig Harbor, and I know what it means to sacrifice to get the things you really want. I worked in Alaska on fishing boats every summer for nine years to put myself through Washington State University and its school of architecture. I felt—and feel even more now—respect for the North Bonneville people's ability to resist and their personal sense of dignity as human beings." Like an eager archaeologist prospecting Mesopotamia, Pollard Dickson had found his dig.

The townspeople had eyed the hippies with suspicion at first, but within a few months the residents were won over. About this time two important things happened: a delegation including Pollard was asked by Congressman Mike McCormack to assist in drafting a bill that would specifically empower the Corps to provide financial and technical assistance to the town. And the Corps, maybe to keep an eye on the hippies, repeated its old offer. Instead of just rejecting the suggestion—though they did that, too—the council members popped back with a counterproposal. They invited the Corps to join town and state officials on an interagency relocation board.

"Our whole thrust has been to get the Corps to face our people," Dickson says. "Real people—not just some abstraction like 'the people.' We figured the board would be a way to get the engineers up here, not just once in a while but enough to see how this town felt." The engineers agreed, cautiously, to sit on the board, provided that it was "only advisory." Later they were to regret this tactical blunder.

All during the summer of 1973 Dickson drove himself and his four subalterns through North Bonneville, interviewing its people and infusing them with his hot Irish rage at the Corps of Engineers. "We talked to everybody—absolutely everybody—about what they wanted in a new town, Dickson recalls. "We talked to kids. Little kids. Who does that? We got 'em to show us their paths and trails and secret hidey-holes, and we programmed all that into the planning study." By fall there wasn't a soul in North Bonneville from nine to 90 who didn't know Pollard Dickson, with his dirty Adidas shoes, his scruffy jeans and his soft white face under a helmet haircut that covered his ears but framed hazel eyes. Dickson was following an age-old military precept: to win a war, it is not enough to disagree with the enemy; you've got to hate him.

Before the Corps came to the relocation board table that fall, Dickson had moved his wife Darlene and their two young sons into a rented cottage in the doomed city. Nobody was going to call him an outside agitator. He was ready for a fire fight.

Dickson wasn't dismayed by the fact that the town still didn't have much law going for it, and only one dubious precedent—the engineers had been obliged to move a small town in Nebraska because one of their dams had accidentally half-drowned it. Like a good trial lawyer, he could tell right (his side) from wrong (their side). In Dickson's view, Niobrara, Neb. had been raped; North Bonneville was being mugged. Bob Holcomb, who was a member of the board, says now, "We never could have made it without Pollard, but I guess if I'd still been mayor I'd have tried to hold him down a little." Ernie Skala didn't try. In his own quiet way the mayor led the council members in rock-hard support of their incendiary spokesman.

In mid-November 1973 the Corps announced it would begin acquiring property for the powerhouse project and sent civilian appraisers into North Bonneville. The Corps had promised that it would buy up land as needed, and did not contemplate scattershot acquisitions. After the first buy-out, the actions of the appraisers seemed to contradict that pledge. "They went through this town like army ants." Dickson charges. "They knew that if enough people could be persuaded to move, there wouldn't be any town to relocate. I call it coercion by seduction."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5
Related Topics
Pollard Dickson 1 0 0
Bob Holcomb 1 0 0
Bonneville 16 0 0
Washington, DC 159 0 8
Ernie Skala 1 0 0