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
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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

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Although the Corps, anticipating (correctly) restoration of its budget, was moving implacably ahead, Dickson was, to use a much-maligned phrase, winning the battle for men's hearts and minds. A council member recalls a night when the head of the appraising team lost his temper and roared at Dickson, "Neither you nor this little town is going to tell the Federal Government what to do!" In the shocked stillness that followed, Dickson gently asked, "Who is the Federal Government, sir?"

There were ploys and counterploys, but until Congress passed what now is enshrined in the Gorge as "the McCormack legislation," the only real weapons North Bonneville had were Pollard Dickson's virtuosity and Ernie Skala's Gothic inflexibility. Dickson seemed to have read all the law that pertained to eminent domain. He knew the history of the Corps (and the Gorge). He knew the Evergreen research backward and forward. He knew when to yell and when to walk softly. Outside the cramped town hall meeting room the winter winds howled, sometimes east, sometimes west.

By the time Mike McCormack's bill became part of Public Law 93-251 on March 7, 1974, North Bonneville already had taken a good many casualties. The Corps-appointed appraisers had okayed buy-outs all over town. Some people had had enough of the engineers and the weather.

"The fight wasn't over," Dickson says, "though some people seemed to think it was. I knew the next round would be over the town's selection of Hamilton Island and its infringement on the Corps' spoils area and future park. First thing I did was get in touch with the environmental groups—the Sierra Club, the Mazamas, everybody. They seemed to understand and they never opposed our relocating the town on the park site." It was a cheeringly rational response. With Beacon Rock state park next door and seven-eighths of the county a wilderness full of deer, elk, fish and just plain adventure, Skamania needs another park like Brooklyn needs another slum.

Colonel Clarence Gilkey, the district engineer, requested a town meeting in March of 1974 and came upstream to meet the people. He heard a lot of arguments for the Hamilton Island site from Bob Holcomb and others, but a dignified old man named Lee Miller brought down the scabrous North Bonneville School house (and, apparently, the colonel) with an inquiry that managed to be both specious and shopworn, but trenchant. Miller said he had lived on the banks of the Columbia for 63 years and had seen much that he valued destroyed. "I don't like to see people pushed," Miller said. "If our government can spend $2 million on a missile and shoot it out into the Pacific Ocean just to see if it'll shoot, why in hell can't they build a town for the people of North Bonneville without all this squabbling over a patch of ground where they want to dump some dirt?" Two months later the Corps approved the Hamilton Island townsite in principle.

It was, and is, a famous victory. "To my knowledge," Pollard Dickson says, "this was the first time in its history that the Corps of Engineers had ever let go of a significant area of land already designated for a project." But like a lot of famous victories, it didn't end the war. It took six months of negotiating, sometimes around the clock, a TV show and a lawsuit to get the Corps to provide the financial and planning assistance specified by Section 83 of PL 93-251.

The TV show, a 30-minute documentary by Seattle's KOMO, made Colonel Gilkey look like the wicked mortgage holder in a Horatio Alger novel, with the townspeople playing pluck-and-not-much-luck. The Corps didn't care for this image, and in late July the engineers signed a contract that gave North Bonneville enough money to engage its own planning staff. The council immediately chose Pollard Dickson as planning director and hired an able Tacoma lawyer, James Mason, as city attorney.

The Corps still wouldn't approve any design firm the town picked to do the final plan. "They were just tryin' to starve us out," Mayor Skala says. In October of 1974 North Bonneville sued in federal court to enjoin construction of the powerhouse. Lawyer Mason charged the Corps with breach of the midsummer contract and violation of EPA regulations. Sometimes the Corps seemed to move with glacial slowness toward a decision. But not this time. The next day North Bonneville got the go-ahead: pick your firm and put your town on Hamilton Island. The town signed a $750,000 design contract with Royston, Hanamoto, Beck and Abey of San Francisco.

The war seemed to be over. Last December Mayor Skala and Colonel Gilkey issued a joint statement that said all residents had the option of buying Corps-improved lots at unimproved value in the new town. It said the Corps agreed to replace 100% of existing municipal facilities, including sewer and water systems, and that they would be upgraded to current standards. It emphasized that the RHB&A design—due in May—would provide "all necessary planning information for the growth and development of an optimum town." This last meant a site that would give the town room to expand should tourists flock in.

RHB&A completed its design a month early. It was beautiful, even though the town had made a number of concessions. It had given the Columbia River frontage to the Corps for the spoils area and day-use park, thus providing a windscreen of contoured hills for the new site. It had abandoned a demand for rerouting the Burlington Railroad tracks. The Corps, in return, had agreed to switch the highway to the river side of the tracks, and to buy up land west and north of the site for resale to North Bonneville to fulfill the "optimum" town requirement.

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