History of Roosevelt Dam

by Tom Kollenborn

This enormous reclamation project was accomplished during the transition from mule teams to motorized vehicles in America. This accomplishment at that particular time in history was a triumph over overwhelming odds. Man, beast, and machine had harnessed the power of the mighty Salt  River of Central Arizona. 

The early pioneers who first settled in the Salt River Valley dreamed of harnessing the Salt River’s enormous energy. An early pioneer named John W. “Jack” Swilling looked at the Hohokam canal system and wondered why he couldn’t do the same thing. Swilling formed a canal company and started digging. He planned to irrigate the fertile desert land with water from the Salt River.

Swilling began construction on a canal site along the north bank of the Salt River in December of 1867. This vision of irrigating thousands of acres of desert land eventually led to the construction of Roosevelt Dam. A hundred years ago, nobody would have believed Swilling’s name would someday be synonymous with reclamation. 

Prior to the construction of Roosevelt Dam, the citizens of the Salt River Valley depended on weirs and a canal system along the Salt River for water to irrigate their crops. But the weirs and canals did not provide a dependable source of water for the valley and its farmers. The system was constantly destroyed by flooding and had no water to irrigate crops during drought.

Water storage wasn’t something new. The Valley pioneers had explored the Salt River for a dam site, but didn’t have the capital to finance such a project. They were very familiar with the site at the confluence of Tonto Creek and the Salt River and the Hudson Company had acquired the Tonto site by 1897 with plans of building a dam.

The combination of serious drought, federal inaction at the time and the failure of the Hudson Company to construct Tonto Dam led to the formation of a citizen’s committee on water storage in 1897.

It was Benjamin A. Fowler, a man who abandoned a successful book publisher career, who stepped in and led the citizen’s committee which eventually ended up forming the Salt River Water’s Users’ Association. The committee wanted to bond all cultivated acres and charge $1.25 per acre water rent. This created considerable consternation among committee members.

In the fall of 1900, a permanent Salt River Valley Water Storage Committee was appointed. It was composed of thirty-six men. In 1900, The Arizona Republican reported a lot of talk by this committee, but no real action.

Fowler was able to pull the group together into a working body. The group worked hard lobbying Congress to pass the Newland Arid Lands Act. When the Newland Act passed it provided the much needed reclamation construction for the West and set into motion the future of the Salt River Valley Project. The National Reclamation Act of 1902 promised financial subsidies through the use of interest free federal money for construction projects in the arid West. At first, this act appeared to be an act of national benevolence for the farmers of arid regions in the Southwest, but upon closer examination it had many strings attached to it.

Fowler and others worked diligently to organize the Salt River Water Users’ Association. The process required signing up landowners. The association closed its books on July 17, 1903 and forged ahead with 198,587 acres of land on the books. Fowler became the Association’s first president and was instrumental in bringing together many factions in the Salt River Valley so Roosevelt Dam could be constructed.

The Salt River Water Users’ Association committed bonding money to construct Roosevelt Dam by having its membership put up their land as collateral for a federally subsidized low interest loan. This loan is what built Roosevelt Dam and insured a good water supply for the future of the Salt River Valley.

The construction bids for Roosevelt Dam opened February 23, 1905. John M. O’Rourke of Denver, Colorado submitted the winning bid of $1,147,600 and promised to complete the project in two years.

The newly-formed Bureau of Reclamation started on the infrastructure of the Roosevelt Project in 1903. Preliminary construction consisted of building roads, base camps for engineers and workers, a cement mill, a sawmill, a power canal, a sluicing tunnel, an outlet tunnel, and a coffer dam. Stone had to be quarried at a nearby quarry. The government needed cheap timber, cement, stone and electricity to keep the construction cost of this project within the original budget.

Louis C. Hill was appointed as an engineer for the U.S. Reclamation Service on June 8, 1903. Hill was a former railroad engineer and professor of hydraulics and electricity at the Colorado School of Mines when appointed to this job. He was thirty-eight years old and was placed in charge of the Roosevelt Project in the spring of 1904 and remained with it until March of 1911.

The first stone was set down on September 20, 1906 and the last stone was laid on February 6, 1911. The original contract had called for a completion date within two years. The construction site suffered severe flooding on several occasions between November 26, 1905 and the spring 1906. Flooding caused many delays in the construction of Roosevelt Dam. It required almost three years to raise the dam to 150 feet at its lowest point.

The dam was finally completed in late February 1911, and rose 284 feet above bedrock. Roosevelt Dam, at the time, was the largest dam in the nation.

The cost reached a staggering $5.4 million. Even at this cost, the dam had borne out the wisdom of Louis C. Hill’s decisions. This dam has become a national model in sound water development and has been vastly important to the growth of Central Arizona. President Theodore Roosevelt dedicated the dam on March 18, 1911.

The construction and success of this massive reclamation project was dependent on the cooperation of many federal agencies and was dependent on the protection of the watershed of this lake. This need led to the formation of the Tonto Forest Preserve in 1909. The Bureau of Reclamation, Tonto National Forest and the Salt River Project are all constant partners today ensuring a good water and electrical supply for the Salt River Valley.

The need for a greater water storage capacity and better flood control resulted in the modification of Louis C. Hill’s work. The dam was raised an additional 77 feet in 1996 (work completed) giving this Arizona icon a new modern look.

If you decide to visit Roosevelt Dam, be sure and visit the Roosevelt Visitor’s Center at Roosevelt. The old haul road, the Apache Trail, will provide you with a scenic and adventurous drive.

There probably would be no Arizona as we know it today if Roosevelt Dam had not been constructed. This was a citizen’s project funded by the United States government. We celebrate Arizona’s Centennial this year because of the foresight of early pioneers who saw a future in Arizona. The building of Roosevelt Dam was one of many major projects that are a part of this great centennial we are celebrating.

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