On March 18, 1911 Roosevelt Dam was dedicated and opened by former President Theodore Roosevelt. Nearly 100 years has passed since this momentous event, which was the culmination of the hard work of many, including many from Rim Country. Here’s a look at the dam that forever changed Arizona.
Throughout the 1890s, discussion began on the possibility of damming the indomitable Salt River and its nearby tributary Tonto Creek. During early settlement in Arizona, the Salt River posed a challenge for settlers in the Phoenix area. Its rising waters created problems nearly every winter, yet the water was very much needed in the dry desert. If only there was a way to harness nature’s power. It was from this thinking that Roosevelt Dam came.
In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Reclamation Act of 1902 into law. This act is also sometimes referred to as the Newlands Act, after its author Francis Griffith Newlands, a Democratic congressman from Nevada. This federal law provided funding for irrigation projects in a number of western states and territories, including Arizona. On March 13, 1903, Roosevelt Dam became one of five federal projects to be authorized under this act. It would become the first of the five to be completed.
During the next few years, work proceeded on Roosevelt Dam. One of the first tasks was figuring out a road to the dam site. There was some thought to improving the Reno Road, but instead the Fish Creek path, now known as the Apache Trail, was decided upon. A clip from the Sept. 12, 1903 Arizona Republican better explains why.
“One of the most important points against it [the Reno Road], however, is the fact that it is 110 miles to the dam site over that route against seventy-five miles via Fish creek, which represents an extra haul of at least thirty miles on every load of freight that will prove expensive in both time and money. The Fish creek line when once built will be there to stay, will be a scenic route, a short drive in comparison, and one that will naturally be traveled by the thousands who will visit the dam site in years to come. And with further exploration there is no doubt the Fish creek line will be found far less expensive than at first believed, which with the fact that the telephone and transmission lines must go that way give that route a long way the best of it in the argument.”
One of the key elements of Roosevelt Dam was not just water storage, but also power generation. This actually began before the dam was finished. Power generation on a trial basis at the dam began in March 1906 and on Oct. 1, 1909 permanent power delivery to the Phoenix area from the dam was initiated.
Fast forward to March 1911. Theodore Roosevelt had been a national hero. Born in New York State, he became a hero for his role in the Spanish-American War of 1898. He served as part of the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, which became known as the “Rough Riders.” This unit had a number of westerners, including Bucky O’Neill of Prescott, who died in battle. O’Neill was no stranger to the Payson area, as his 1880s newspaper Hoof and Horn published a number of articles touting this area. Roosevelt had signed the reclamation act in 1902 that helped pave the way for the dam and ultimately the dam was being named for him. Newspapers across the country carried accounts of Roosevelt’s visit to the dam. Here’s a clip from the March 19, 1911 Lima Daily News.
“The arrival of the Roosevelt party, who motored seventy-five miles across the desert to attend the ceremonies, was a signal for wild hilarity among those assembled to witness the event. The cheering crowds pressed about the little group of prominent state and government officials to offer thanks and congratulations to the Colonel, to whom in a great measure they owed the successful completion of their project and he repeatedly removed his, ‘stetson’ in acknowledgment of their cordial welcome.”
Amongst Roosevelt’s remarks that day were the following:
“… first of all, I want to thank you for having named the dam after me. I do not know if it is of any consequence to a man whether he has a monument. I know it is of mighty little consequence whether he has a statue after he is dead. If there could be any monument which would appeal to any man, surely it is this.”
Theodore Roosevelt would unsuccessfully go on to run for president again the following year. It was a controversial race, as Roosevelt ended up running as a third party candidate after losing the Republican nomination to incumbent President William Howard Taft. However, while Roosevelt’s political fortunes fell after the dedication, the dam became quite legendary, as this clip from the December 18, 1915 Arizona Silver Belt shows.
“Roosevelt lake is the result of man’s work, but the building that man did was done upon a foundation laid by the Master Hand that time when all these mountains were made and molded into their present shapes. The same Master Hand directed the waters from the mountains to lead the way to the Place and to fall to man the marvelous story of the wonderful benefits that would come to him through building upon that foundation by omnipotence laid a structure for the storage of the water from the hills and valleys above.”
Eventually, Roosevelt Dam was expanded and renovated. A project between 1989 and 1996 raised the dam’s height by 77 feet. Highway 188 was also realigned with a new bridge created so that vehicles no longer had to travel over the top of the dam.
On March 18 and 19 Salt River Project will celebrate Roosevelt Dam’s Centennial. A private event will be held on March 18, during which the time capsule buried in 1961 will be reopened. A public event will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 19 at the Roosevelt Dam Visitors Center. Complimentary shuttle busses will take visitors to the crest of the dam from the visitors’ center on a first-come, first-served basis.