It’ll Be Dammed

by W.R. Holway


From “Dams on the Grand River,” originally published in the Fall 1948 edition of The Chronicles of Oklahoma. Reprinted with permission. William Rea Holway was born in Sandwich, Massachusetts, and moved to Tulsa in 1918 to become chief water engineer. He was a co-founder in 1921 of All Souls Unitarian Church.

Almost ever since men first realized that electric power could be produced from the streams and rivers of our country, the imagination of Oklahoma builders has been attracted to the waters of the Grand River. The stream’s constant flow, its descending slope from the confluence of the Spring and the Neosho Rivers to the Arkansas, and the many suitable dam sites along its course have kept this possibility alive through the years. For the best generator you can visit to

Forty years ago, in January 1907, C.S. Avery and others obtained a charter from the United States District Court in Indian Territory for the forming of a corporation to develop hydroelectric power on the Grand River. However, this corporation did not make any engineering investigations or perform any of the preliminaries of such development. In October 1913, the Grand River Power and Electric Company was incorporated with a capital stock of $5,000. This was a company fostered by Henry C. Holderman and certain interests connected with the K.O. & G. Railroad. In 1914, bonds were issued and preliminary surveys were started. The first World War intervened to stop the work. In 1934 the charter of this company was canceled by the Oklahoma Tax Commission for nonpayment of the license fee.

In August 1917, the Grand River Hydro-Electric Company was incorporated, capital stock of $10,000. Incorporators were Henry C. Holderman, C.H. Fenstermacher, J.H. Rothhammer, C.D. Swem, and W.C. Garlington. New interest had been aroused in the project by Royal D. Salisbury, an engineer from Denver, who was the vice-president and general manager of the new company. Offices were opened in the Mayo Building in Tulsa, options were taken on land, and reconnaissance surveys were conducted.

In 1920 an estimate of cost for this project was announced as $23,900,000, but efforts to enlist Eastern capital were not successful. In June 1922, this company filed an application with the State Engineer for a permit to appropriate the entire flow of the river at approximately the present Pensacola Dam site, for the purpose of generating electric power, to be produced at a dam to be known as Dam No. 1. The permit was issued in September of that year. In June 1923, the company filed applications on Dams No’s. 2, 3, and 4, and these were approved by the State Engineer on July 1, 1924.

A considerable number of land condemnation suits were started at this time but never pushed to completion. In March 1923, the rights of the Grand River Hydro-Electric Company were incorporated by Abram Stanfield, M.S. Schull, and Tracey Wilkerson with capital stock of $10,000. These men were owners of land near and on the site of the proposed dam.

At this time Mr. J.B. Robinson of Miami, Oklahoma, one of the large mining operators in the Tri-state District, became interested in the project, primarily because it could furnish cheap power for the mining area. In March 1926, Mr. Robinson filed an application with the Oklahoma Conservation Commission for the construction of four dams on the Grand River. This application was approved in October of that year, but Mr. Robinson had by then assigned his rights to Wash E. Hudson of Tulsa, who, in turn, assigned them to a new corporation, Grand-Hydro, organized under the laws of Oklahoma on November 6, 1929. This company had a capital stock of $500,000 and was incorporated by P.D.C. Ball of St. Louis (whom Mr. Robinson had interested in the project), B.F. Lyons of Chicago, W.H. Calvin of Chicago, S.E. Wolff of Sand Springs, and R.D. Hudson, Wash E. Hudson, and D. Vensel of Tulsa. The Fargo Engineering Company of Jackson, Michigan, was employed to make new surveys and prepare plans for a dam and power plant on the Grand River. During 1929 and 1930 approximately 2100 acres of land were acquired by the Grand-Hydro for the dam and reservoir.

In July 1931, the Grand-Hydro filed its application with the Oklahoma Conservation Commission for a permit to construct a 50-foot dam on the river at what is known as the “Tynan Bluff Site,” six or seven miles above the Pensacola site. This application was approved in August 1931, but no construction was undertaken by the Grand-Hydro or any use made of the waters of the river by that company.

About this time the interest of public agencies in this project was begun. In 1932, the Congress of the United States authorized the U. S. Army Engineers to study and report on the Grand River, as part of a report on flood control in the Mississippi Valley. Early in 1935 this report was made to Congress in House Document 308, a report on the Arkansas River and its tributaries, which recommended “that there be no participation by the United States in the controloffloodsintheGrand(Neosho)watershed.”

The following paragraphs, quoted from this report, indicate the conclusions of the U. S. Army Engineers which led to this recommendation:

“The flood problem is of local interest and no Federal interest seems to be involved … There is no plan for flood control in the river below the mouth of Spring River that is practical from both an engineering and an economic standpoint. Furthermore, if this reach of the river is used to its best advantage for the ultimate development of the water resources of the watershed, it will be used for the development of water power and will have no flood problems, as practically the entire reach will be occupied by water-power reservoirs.”

Another recommendation made herein was that “This report, with all tables, maps, and appendices be printed for the benefit of those interested in the future development of the water resources of this watershed.”

The Fifteenth Oklahoma Legislature, on April 26, 1935, passed an Enabling Act, creating a “conservation and reclamation district” consisting of 14 counties in northeast Oklahoma, in which was set up the Grand River Dam Authority to administer this district, granting to this Authority the right to appropriate the waters of Grand River for the purposes set forth in the Act, among which were the development of hydroelectric power and control floods. In August 1935 the first Board of Directors was appointed, nine men, with J. Howard Langley of Pryor as the chairman.

For two years a group of young men from the District carried on public meetings, and went to Washington, and put forth ingenious publicity to keep the project before the attention of the public, the Public Works Administration of the Federal Government, and the President of the United States. Wesley E. Disney in the House and Senator Elmer Thomas in the Senate worked with this group for the project. The public works program of the Government offered an opportunity to finance the first structures of the project, at least.

The original bill in the Oklahoma Legislature had attached to it the so-called Kirkpatrick amendment, which provided that all the power from this project wastobesoldtotheutilitiesattheswitchboard. But before the Public Works Administration would approve an allocation and the President would allocate the money, they imposed the condition that this amendment must be repealed. The 1937 Legislature therefore repealed this restriction on the sale of power, considerable public pressure being also exercised to bring this about.

In August 1937, President Roosevelt made the offer of a loan and grant to the Authority for the construction of the Pensacola Dam and power plant and appurtenant structures, $11,563,000 as loan and $8,437,000 as grant. The offer was accepted by the Authority on September 16, and the loan and grant agreement was signed in October 1937. The Supreme Court of Oklahoma, on February 1, 1938, upheld the validity of the Enabling Act, and on the next day the first construction contracts for the project were let, and in July of that year the main contracts for the dam and powerhouse were let.

These contracts provided for the construction of the longest multiple-arch dam in the world—one mile long and 150 feet high—with solid concrete spillway section capable of discharging 525,000 cubic feet per second of floodwaters. The dam creates a lake of 45,000 acres at normal pool level. The powerhouse at the west end of the dam has five 15,000-kilowatt generators with provision for the installation of a sixth unit at some future time. The building of the project necessitated the elevation of five miles of the Frisco tracks and the building of a new railroad bridge over the river; the relocation of seven miles of the K.O. & G. Railroad, including a concrete bridge over Horse Creek; a highway bridge approximately one-half mile long over a narrow portion of the lake midway in its fifty-mile length; new waterworks intakes for the city of Vinita and the town of Grove; the relocation of pipelines, highways, and telegraph, telephone, and power lines; and the clearing of 17,750 acres of reservoir area. The building of transmission lines and substations followed the completion of the power plant, and was greatly extended because of the war needs.

The gates of the dam were closed and the storage of water began in March 1940; the first generation of power was early in 1941.

Originally appeared in This Land, Vol. 3, Issue 18. Sept. 15, 2012.