Dam Well Built

Written by Colin Lecher Category: History Issue: November 2011
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Westward expansion had been one of Roosevelt’s pet projects, and the opening of the Roosevelt Dam was the crown jewel of that endeavor, funded under the Reclamation Act of 1902. The famed statesman later said that he was especially proud of two moments in his career: the construction of the Roosevelt Dam and the construction of the Panama Canal (maybe the Rough Rider had a thing for mastering waterways).

Roosevelt had a right to be proud: It was a hard road getting the dam built. Construction officially started in 1903 at a time when the build site was even more remote than it is today. Before construction could begin, workers spent a year hacking a road out of the
Superstition Mountains so supplies could be transported. Today, the sidewinding motorway is known as the Apache Trail.

Despite its relative isolation (the dam is about 76 miles northeast of Phoenix), the location presented many benefits, hydraulically speaking. “The site where they [built] the dam was ideal,” SRP historian James Labar says. It harnessed heaps of water and held it at the right elevation, ready to help transform 250,000 arid acres below into prime agricultural land. 

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Funding was tricky. Phoenix and other water-starved towns of the Valley banded together and used their land as collateral toward loans on construction, sweetening the deal for the federal government (the Reclamation Act didn’t provide a free ride). A group of local settlers did even better than that, forming the Salt River Valley Water Users’ Association (later to become SRP) to allocate the water.

The settlers didn’t have much of a choice. The Salt River had wreaked havoc over the years with massive floods. A storage system would be a godsend to farmers in the area, as would a source of hydroelectric power. Loans would be paid back with revenue generated from the dam’s power.

So construction pushed ahead. Perhaps too ambitiously, a contract was awarded to the John O’Rourke Company of Galveston, Texas, for a cool $1.1 million in 1905 to complete the project in two years. The deadline was not met, and a few more years passed, straining the relationship between the O’Rourke Company and the Reclamation Service, which was the government entity Roosevelt created to develop gargantuan irrigation projects. Chronic flooding during construction caused frequent setbacks. And it wasn’t easy on the workers in the trenches, who had to build the old-fashioned way with hands and tools, “which was labor-intensive, to say the least,” says Jon Czaplicki, an archaeologist at the Bureau of Reclamation (formerly the Reclamation Service) in Glendale.

When the embankment was completed, it was the world’s largest stone masonry dam and hailed by the government as a monument to American expansion and ideals. It was not only the flagship project of the still-young Reclamation Service, but its most ambitious and anticipated undertaking.

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The Roosevelt Dam was also a boon to Arizona, which graduated from territory to state not long after the its completion. “I think the Roosevelt Dam played a major role in taking the territory to statehood,” Czaplicki says.

The dam also ushered in one of the biggest population explosions in Arizona’s history, from 1910 to 1920. Reliable water meant a stable economy and fertile business, especially while the country was at war and needed regularly irrigated cotton fields.

For a centenarian, the dam has held up remarkably well, Czaplicki says. As Arizona’s population increases, it might become less integral as a source of irrigation but will continue to be a major power and water source. (In its early years, the dam provided irrigation to approximately 80 percent of rural Arizonans and 20 percent of urban dwellers. Today, that figure is flipped.)

The only major upkeep on the dam was a cementing project in the early ’90s. The structure’s historical status was subsequently revoked, but Labar says that change is good for the dam, despite the loss of status. “Roosevelt Dam is not some sort of static structure,” he says. It adapts to the times.

The dam remains a major source of power, and the builders were remarkably prescient about the water’s allocation. The same equation used in the early 1900s to determine where water would be distributed still holds up today, Labar says.

In honor of both the Roosevelt Dam’s centennial (2011) and Arizona’s Centennial (2012), the Phoenix Public Library is spotlighting archived photographs of the dam first donated by Arizona historian James McClintock as part of a series celebrating the state centennial. Opening the Floodgates will feature about 25 to 30 pieces and will be on display at the Burton Barr Central Library from November 1 to January 31.

“We wanted to find ways [of showing exhibits] that demonstrated important moments in the state,” says Jean Barry, a staff librarian at Burton Barr.

With so much history behind it, the Roosevelt Dam certainly fits that definition. Teddy would be proud.

Roosevelt Dam
76 miles northeast of Phoenix, via State Route 88

Opening the Floodgates: Roosevelt Dam and the Development of the Salt River Valley, Burton Barr Central Library, 1221 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, phxlib.org

November 1 to January 31

948,291,580,200: Roosevelt Dam’s total water storage, in gallons

444,000: cubic yards of concrete used in dam renovations – enough to pave a two-lane road from Phoenix to Tucson

849: miles of reinforcing steel used in dam renovations – the distance from Phoenix to Denver