Although the last stop log was dropped in place in March of 1940, sealing the Pensacola Dam and creating Grand Lake, the recognized birthday month of our great lake is considered to be August. Oklahoma's governor at the time, Leon C. Phillips, was opposed to the closure of the dam in March due to the number of state highways which would be inundated by the water.
With the controversy put aside, Phillips was present for the opening and dedication of the road across the dam on Aug. 13, 1940. Many of the so called experts at the time estimated it would take a minimum of five years to fill the lake. But by summer's end of 1940, the experts were proven wrong as the lake was full and Grand Lake had become reality.
I don't imagine there was much of a "Tea Party" movement or laws passed by state politicos demonizing the federal government in those days. The construction of the Pensacola Dam, a Works Progress Administration project which brought thousands
of workers to the area and created the towns of Langley and Disney, spawned an economic engine never seen before in one of the poorest parts of our state.
The absence of champagne, balloons, fi reworks, politicians and a grand salute to those responsible for making this great lake possible is a question worth asking.
At now 71, Grand Lake O' The Cherokees has never looked better. Rapidly expanding shoreline development, yacht clubs, state-of-the-art marinas and luxury resorts with plush golf courses weren't even a gleam in the eyes of visionaries back in the 1890s when the idea for construction of a power generating dam was first conceived.
Today, Grand Lake is Oklahoma's number one tourist attraction, enticing visitors and residents alike to the pleasures of boating, fishing, swimming, skiing, scuba diving and more. But we need to measure our lake in more ways than just appearances as documented by the events of this summer.
The first hydro-electric system in Oklahoma, the dam and lake also provide flood control for the Grand Neosho River, and produce power for the Grand River Dam Authority for service in 24 Oklahoma counties, and businesses both in and out of Oklahoma.
While riding herd on his dad's cattle about the turn of the century, Henry C. Holderman first envisioned building dams on the Grand River to provide power to the Cherokee Nation.
A few years later, he and his brother Bert, and two engineering students from Spaulding University in Muskogee, constructed a houseboat and floated down the river in search of suitable Dam construction sites. They are recognized as the first to complete an engineering survey for the dam. But it was still just a dream.
For years, Holderman looked for financing. In fact, as part of a loosely organized lobby group called "The Rainbow Chasers," he made more than one hard trip from Oklahoma to Washington, D.C. to attempt to secure funding for the dam. Jack Rorschach and George Schaefer of Vinita, along with Clay Babb and Owen L. Butler of Grove, made up the remaining "rainbow chasers." Then, as now, funding was a function of being at the right place at the right time.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought his whistle-stop re-election
train tour through Oklahoma, Vinita wasn't one of the scheduled stops, but it soon would be. In a neverending and creative attempt to get presidential attention, George Schaefer managed to get a city ordinance approved in a hastily-called town council meeting requiring all presidential trains to stop in the Vinita. Reportedly, the president was amused and impressed with the town's new ordinance. It worked and President Roosevelt was greeted by a large crowd and a huge banner strung along the north end of the train station read, "Let's Build Grand River Dam." Some accounts say he was even presented with a stringer of catfish freshly caught from the Grand River. The Presidentthanked the gathering of Grand River Dam supporters for arranging the unscheduled stop, and indicated he would see what he could do about funding the dam. With the help of U.S. Representatives Wesley E. Disney and W.R. Holway, funding was approved in
Jack Rorschach later recalled, "We always heard that Roosevelt got a huge kick out of somebody who had the guts to stop the presidential train. We all thought that had a lot to do with getting the funding approved, but we never could prove it."
In October, 1937, consulting engineer W.R. Holway and others started the preliminary work for the dam's construction. Massman Construction, based in Kansas City, Mo., was the lead contractor, and the construction got underway in December, 1938. Unbelievably, especially considering the equipment of the day, the dam was completed in 20 months. Driven by depression-era labor and unusually mild weather, the 510,000 cubic yards of concrete used in the dam was a 24 hour a day continuous pour.
The final openings in the dam (under arches seven and eight) were closed in March, 1940, and Grand Lake was full by the end of that summer.
The Pensacola Dam remains today as a true wonder, still the largest multiple arch dam in the world. The naming of the project was a story all its own. When the Corps of Engineers made its first report on the river in 1935, they looked for the nearest settlement, which was Pensacola, for a project name. The State Legislature was considering the Grand River Dam Enabling Act and Legislative Committee Chairman D.E. Martin lobbied to retain the name Pensacola for the dam. History reveals it was his great grandfather, Joe Martin, who came to this area, from Georgia, in 1840 and named his plantation Pensacola. Politics doesn't seem to have changed much in seventy plus years.
Spanning 5,145 feet with 51 arches and 42 total spillway gates rising 150 feet above the riverbed, the dam holds back the waters that form Grand Lake. For years, we were told there were 1,300 miles of shoreline, but current day surveying methods tell us that is an exaggerated number of miles, but that doesn't take away from the magnifi cent playground it provides or the economy it creates. A truly Grand Lake worthy of a massive birthday celebration each and every year.
See Ya' Around