In many cases, the planes' components were hardly worth salvaging. But their aluminum ran to the hundreds of millions of pounds, and could be melted down into ingots and reused.
The Columbia River has a key role in the history of aluminum production in America, as the industry was the first major industrial customer of Columbia River hydropower. Over time, the industry grew to employ around 11,000 people in the Northwest and consume 3,150 megawatts of electricity, enough to light three cities the size of present-day Seattle for a year. But rising costs of electricity and labor, and intense competition in the world aluminum market made it increasingly difficult for the 10 Northwest smelters to compete, and by the end of the 20th century most of the region’s smelters were closed and/or facing an uncertain future.
The electrolysis technique of producing aluminum from bauxite requires large amounts of electricity delivered steadily. With Bonneville Dam coming online in 1938 and the region hungry for economic expansion, the aluminum industry seemed promising for the Pacific Northwest. That year J.D. Ross, first administrator of the Bonneville Power Project (it was renamed the Bonneville Power Administration in 1940), commented in the Project’s first annual report that industrial development and national defense would be important uses of electricity from the dam. But he did not mention aluminum. Ross didn’t favor aluminum because smelters used large amounts of power but did not employ large numbers of people. He thought the aluminum industry should stay out of the Northwest in favor of other, more labor-intensive industries until the completion of Grand Coulee Dam in 1941.
However, the Bonneville Project faced tough questioning in Congress in 1938 and early 1939 about its low revenues. The Project needed to boost its sales to satisfy Congress, and aluminum was the answer. Ross died in March 1939, and in May President Roosevelt appointed Frank Banks of the Bureau of Reclamation as a temporary replacement. A conservative Republican, his ties to private business made him unpopular with public power advocates and New Deal Democrats. Banks would go on to be key figure in the construction of Grand Coulee Dam, but his tenure as Bonneville administrator ended in September when Roosevelt appointed Paul Raver as permanent administrator. Raver signed a contract with ALCOA in December to supply electricity — initially 32.5 megawatts — for a smelter at Vancouver. The first transmission line from the dam was completed to Vancouver at about the same time. With that smelter the Northwest aluminum industry was born.
Boeing, which was building warplanes in Seattle, was a primary customer for aluminum from Northwest smelters. It has been estimated that electricity from Grand Coulee Dam alone provided the power to make the aluminum in about one-third of the planes built during World War II.
World War II greatly stimulated the production of aluminum. For example, in 1939, total world production is, without regard to the Soviet Union, was 620 thousand tons, but by 1943 had grown to 1.9 million tons
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