Pensacola Dam – Celebrating 80 Years of History in 2020

The “official” birthdate occurs sometime later in 2020, but since this year marks the 80th anniversary of Pensacola Dam, the Grand River Dam Authority plans to share information all year long about this historic structure and the important role it has played in the development of Oklahoma and the surrounding region.

Much of the dirt work for Pensacola Dam was just getting underway when this photograph (above) was taken in September of 1938.

It would be approximately two more years before the dam was completed in 1940.

Since then, it has produced renewable electricity for 80 years and, of course, become a featured Grand Lake attraction.

Today, the six hydroelectric turbine-generators located inside the Pensacola Dam powerhouse continue to produce electricity in the same way that the dam’s original builders intended, all the way back in 1940.

In the late 1990s/early 2000s, those generators were upgraded with new components so that both generation capacity and efficiency would increase, but still, capturing the power of falling water to create renewable hydroelectricity continues as it always has throughout Pensacola Dam’s lifetime.

However, the importance of Pensacola Dam goes beyond just power production, and also includes other areas like economic development.

Of course news of its construction beginning in 1938 fell like much-needed rain on the ears of those struggling to find work during the Great Depression.

Thousands of men and women flocked to the region surrounding the construction site in those early days to help turn the dream of a mile-long dam across the Grand River Valley into a reality.

Today, everyone who enjoys the waters of Grand Lake and relies on the electricity the dam produces, still benefit from the work done by so many people, so long ago.

Pensacola Dam Electric Powerhouse

Remembering Those Who Made It Possible

It would be difficult in a limited space like this to list all of the individuals who left an indelible mark on Oklahoma by bringing the Pensacola Dam from an idea to a reality in 1940.

However, as the Grand River Dam Authority celebrates the dam’s 80th birthday all year long, we will continue to use this space to tell the stories of the people and the issues and interesting facts surrounding Oklahoma’s first hydroelectric facility.

During the free tours of Pensacola Dam offered by GRDA, visitors can learn more about Henry Holderman, the man credited with being the first to envision a dam across the Grand River Valley.

A Cherokee, Holderman wanted to provide hydroelectric power to Indian Territory and he worked many years to try to make that dream a reality.

In later years others, including a group of Grove and Vinita businessmen known as the Rainbow Chasers, would also pick up the cause and help secure funding for the project.

Along the way there were plenty of others as well, with names like Thomas and Rorschach, Schaefer and Babb, Butler, Disney, Langley and more.

Some were the “Rainbow Chasers” and others were civic and political leaders who also supported the cause in Oklahoma City and Washington, D.C. and all across the region.

There were also engineers, construction workers, early-day GRDA officials and citizens living near the construction site who helped bring hydroelectricity, recreational opportunity and, most of all, economic development to the region by playing some role in the completion of Pensacola Dam.

Pensacola Dam construction 1938

A “Grand” Lake For a New Dam

If things had gone like Mr. Wm. P. Appleby of Claremore suggested in the late 1930s, there would be no Grand Lake.

Don’t get the wrong idea; Mr. Appleby wasn’t against Grand Lake; he was just in favor of another name.

Appleby was just one of many interested parties who submitted name ideas for the new lake, back in the days when GRDA was still building Pensacola Dam.

Appleby’s letter to GRDA, dated February 16, 1938, reveals “Chouteau Lake” was his choice for the new body of water that would forever change the landscape of Northeast Oklahoma.

He wasn’t alone.

In fact, a group called the Pioneers of Oklahoma took a vote and out of 12,000 ballots, 98 percent agreed with Appleby.

Why? Likely because Chouteau was a pioneer in Oklahoma and in 1796 he established a trading post on the shores of the Grand River, near present-day Salina.

But there were other suggestions too.

Among them were Oklahoma Roosevelt Lake, Will Rogers Lake, Tulsahoma Lake, Wiley Post Lake and even Electric Power Lake.

In the end though, this 46,500 surface acres of water, impounded by the brand-new Pensacola Dam would become the Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees.

The rest, as they say, is 80 years of history.

Grand Lake 1940

The Right Mix To Build The Pensacola Dam

The construction of Pensacola Dam in the late 1930s called for a lot of earth excavation, a lot of steel and a lot of concrete in cement.

In fact, it took 625,000 barrels of cement and 510,000 cubic yards of concrete to bring the dam’s 51 iconic arches and its powerhouse out of the ground and into completed reality.

Still, W.R. Holway, the chief engineer on the construction project, knew that getting the right materials to the construction site – especially the right type of cement mixture – may prove challenging.

However, thanks to important pre-planning and cooperation on the part of many suppliers, the materials and manpower all came together at the right place and time.

Here’s how Holway recalled that effort in his book, A History of the Grand River Dam Authority (1968):

“… It was necessary to obtain cement of a special type in order to maintain a fast schedule of pouring the arches and buttresses. We arranged as several-day conference in Tulsa with the managers and chief chemists of all the cement plants in the area (Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri and Kansas). No one  plant in this area was equipped to produce the quantity of this special type of cement (Type 2), but at this conference it was arranged that several plants would join to furnish the necessary quantity in the time required.”

That little bit of teamwork is another reason we can celebrate Pensacola Dam’s 80th birthday in 2020.

About the photo: A powerful mix – Nearly 81 years ago, these construction workers were hard at work pouring the concrete to help construct Pensacola Dam. The right mixture of materials like concrete, cement and structural steel – along with the efforts of workers like these – was vitally important in bringing the dam from vision to reality.

Pouring of concrete at Pensacola Dam 1939

Hungry for work in 1937

As we continue to celebrate Pensacola Dam’s 80 years of service to Oklahoma, we are exploring the many different stories surrounding the dam, Grand Lake and those who helped to make it all. This week, we take a closer look at the important role the dam’s construction played in the area’s employment in the dark days of the Great Depression…

In November of 1937, Adolf Hitler was gearing up for war in Europe, the United States Congress held its first session in an air-conditioned chamber and St. Louis Cardinals slugger Joe Medwick was claiming the National League MVP award after a triple-crown winning season.

Meanwhile, the Grand River Dam Authority was moving ahead with one of the earliest engineering contracts (approved by the GRDA Board on November 18th for construction of Pensacola Dam. 

News of the dam’s coming construction had spread far and wide across Oklahoma, which was in the midst of the Great Depression while also recovering from the hardest years of the Dust Bowl. The soon-to-begin major construction project was welcomed far and wide by thousands looking for work during such hard times.

“The wooden stairs up to the Authority’s door clattered all day long with hundreds of applicants for jobs,” wrote longtime GRDA Consulting Engineer W.R. Holway in his A History of the Grand River Dam Authority. “The joblessness of the depression was still in evidence and people were hungry for work…”

Over the next several years, there would be plenty of work for thousands of Oklahomans as they built the magnificent mile-long, multi-arch dam that forever changed the physical and economic landscape of the region.

So many of the men and women who were “hungry for work” in November 1937 completed the tasks that still provide work for so many Oklahomans today.

It is just another reason to recognize and remember Pensacola Dam’s 80th in 2020.

About the photo: Working on a powerful future … Contractors were hard at work on Pensacola Dam’s construction when this photo was taken on a hot July afternoon in 1939. They were just a few of the thousands of people who found work on the project, during the Great Depression.  

Pensacola Dam workers 1939

Promoting The Idea

In the past, we have shared information on the “Rainbow Chasers” group, including Owen Butler and Clay Babb (Grove) and George Schaefer and Jack Rorschach (Vinita), who traveled several times to Washington, D.C., at their own expense to promote the idea of the dam.

While that trip was usually made in Owen Butler’s Chevrolet, they were able to go at least once by train, when funds were a little more generous.

On another trip, the group traveled to Memphis to meet with the United States Army Corps of Engineers and also met with Governor Marland in Ponca City to secure his support for the project.

While they were doing all that, the idea of the dam was also making newspaper headlines across the region. Long before construction ever began, much had been written about the Pensacola Dam.

In his book, A History of the Grand River Dam Authority, longtime GRDA Consulting Engineering W.R. Holway recalled it this way: “The project was kept before the mind of the public by gatherings where speeches were made, by newspaper stories, and even by publicity stunts like the big illuminated sign at the Vinita Depot when the President of the United States was passing through. It told him that he was very near the site of the ‘Grand River Dam – a $20,000,000 Project’.”

Of course, it would all become a reality in just a few short years, but in the late 1930s, the idea of the dam was kept alive, and promoted, in meetings, in newspaper headlines, on signboards and in many other ways by the residents of the area.

Today, their efforts continue to benefit that same area.

About the Photo: Pensacola Dam, under construction in 1939. Long before the project could get to this point, the idea of a dam across the Grand River was shared and promoted all across the region by individuals who understood the many benefits it would provide.

Pensacola Dam construction 1939

When Pensacola Dam joined the Register

As the Grand River Dam Authority continues to celebrate Pensacola Dam’s 80th birthday in 2020, it has been using the space from time to time to share interesting stories and history about the dam’s construction, operation and importance to the region. This week, that series continues with a lookback on the dam’s inclusion on the National Parks Service National Register of Historic Places …

In 2003, after the dam had already played a significant role in the region’s economic development and quality of life for over half a century, the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS) nominated it for inclusion on the historic register. After several months of research and a lengthy nomination process, it was added to the prestigious list that includes such national treasures as the Statue of Liberty, the Lincoln Memorial and the Alamo.

“The main reason for our nomination of Pensacola Dam is because it’s the largest multiple-arch dam in the world,” said OHS’s Glen Vaughn-Roberson at the time. He handled much of the research and authored the nomination for the OHS Historic Preservation Office. “I know there’s a dam in Texas that claims to be longer in terms of being a dam, but that one is not a continuous multi arch; it also includes a lot of earthen dam. Pensacola is the longest multi-arch structure.”

According to Vaughn-Roberson, the nomination of dams to the Register is usually rare- most are not old enough to be considered- but the architecture and historic significance of Pensacola was in a class by itself.  Both its design and impact on the region were key factors.

“You approach the research for these nominations the same way you would approach research for a book or an article,” he said. For Pensacola’s nomination, he spent a lot of time going through the historic files of United States Congressman Wesley Disney and United States Senator Elmer Thomas. Back in the late 1930’s, these two Oklahomans were very influential in securing the funds and approval to build Pensacola. That information, along with the information gathered from GRDA and other sources, all went into a nomination package sent to the Oklahoma State Historic Review Committee.  

Eventually the nomination was sent on to Washington D.C. where the ‘Keeper of the List’ has the final say on whether the nomination meets the criteria. With approval at this level, Pensacola Dam received the prestigious recognition as one of our country’s important historic structures.

About the Photo: Historic Pensacola Dam … A cover shot from a 1950 GRDA-produced brochure, highlighting Pensacola Dam, and featuring the dam’s arches. Those arches and the dam’s art deco features were among the reasons it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.

GRDA 1950 Pensacola Dam brochure

Be looking for more stories here that celebrate the 80th anniversary and the history of the Pensacola Dam, its past, present, and its future.

Some of those stories you may know well, but others will be new. We hope they all are of interest to you.

And, don’t forget about the FREE Pensacola Dam tours that are available daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day and are available throughout the year by appointment. *** Update – There are NO tours of Pensacola Dam in 2020 do to Covid-19 outbreak ***

GRDA is Oklahoma’s state-owned electric utility, funded by revenues from electric and water sales. GRDA strives to be an “Oklahoma agency of excellence” by focusing on the 5E’s: electricity, economic development, environmental stewardship, employees and efficiency.

One response to “Pensacola Dam – Celebrating 80 Years of History in 2020”

  1. […] the way… are you interested in the history of the Pensacola Dam? Go HERE for an ongoing series from GRDA highlighting the history of the dam through stories, memories, and […]

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