There has been little written about the man who fulfilled Henry Holderman’s dream that ultimately resulted in construction of the Pensacola Dam. Holderman began his quest in 1895 floating on a raft down the Grand River with two friends and actually selected the eventual site of the dam. His persistence has become well known locally, years of seeking funds and organizing entities to actually construct it, but always falling short. Eventually Henry Holderman’s dream came true and he lived to see it accomplished. Recently his endeavors were honored with an appropriate ceremony and placement of monuments at both ends of the lake. Conversely, there are few reminders of the man who finally completed the task, Civil Engineer William Holway.
Holderman and Holway couldn’t have originated from more opposite backgrounds. Henry Holdernan’s life has been well documented. Born in 1892, a Cherokee farm boy with a fifth grade education obtained at the Wyandotte Mission, he spent nearly everything he had in his lifetime pursuing his dream. Holderman died in 1951 and is buried at Wyandotte. William Rea Holway “came from the other side of the tracks.” Born in 1893 in East Sandwich, Massachusetts, on Cape Code Bay In 1910 he entered Dartmouth College, then transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduating with a degree in Civil and Sanitary Engineering. Shortly thereafter Holway married and moved to Tulsa where he served as Waterworks Engineer and first gained local notoriety supervising construction of the Spavinaw Dam and pipeline that brought water to Tulsa in 1924 by gravitational flow.
In 1935, right in the middle of the Great Depression, Holderman’s long sought quest obtained official state status when the Fifteenth Oklahoma Legislature passed the Grand River Authority Act. In addition to establishing the organization, the Act initiated efforts to obtain a federal grant to underwrite the cost. The political games that ensued within the state, combined with the efforts of the GRDA Board of Directors to obtain funds through trips to Washington consumed the next four years. It was during one of these trips in 1937 that Holway, who had a previous appointment with Representative Wesley Disney to discuss other matters, encountered several GRDA directors. They wanted to talk with him about “the Pensacola Project” wanting to know if he would be interested in the engineering aspect. His response typified the no nonsense relationship he had with the Board for the next four years. According to The History of the Grand River Dam Authority Holway replied “I said that I had never taken this project seriously and doubted that it would ever be built; but if it were built ever, I should be glad to consider the engineering work.” Shortly after, President Roosevelt approved $20,000,000 for construction of the dam and the Tulsa engineering firm of Holway and Neuffer were retained. The project was started February 1, 1938. Henry Holderman’s dream was about to become a reality.
But dreams can become nightmares and, as if constructing a mile-long dam wasn’t challenging enough, other distractions emerged, some involving graft or political favors. Holway relates the following stories. “A man came to my office and stated that a prominent State Senator was attorney for a large estate and this estate owned large deposits of gravel in the Grand River. He was interested in using this gravel deposit for the concrete on the dam. My visitor stated that if I would approve this gravel, I would receive ten cents a cubic yard for every cubic yard of gravel used on the project. The gentleman left my office hurriedly.” Another visitor stated he was trying to raise a large sum of money for a political campaign and “wanted an Oklahoma City cement contractor to have the spillway contract.” He also departed quickly.
While these “opportunities” occurred fairly frequently, Holway’s major headache became Oklahoma Governor Leon “Red” Phillips, elected in 1939, whose one four year term was filled with controversy. The roads and highways slated to be inundated by the lake were narrow, crooked and of low-grade construction and the bridges were worse, but Phillips regarded them as a “cash cow” for the state coffers. Valuable time was wasted in litigation and ultimately an injunction was obtained against the governor. In fact, a final settlement wasn’t reached until 1959, nineteen years after the dam was completed.
The governor’s interference reached dramatic heights when, still fighting for his “road money,” he ordered the state militia to patrol the nearly finished dam so the last gate wouldn’t be closed and the roads wouldn’t flood. Unbeknown to the governor, members of the federal Secret Service were also present and troops at Fort Sill available, ready to enforce a federal restraining order if the Militia interfered. However, Holway interceded ordering the final gate closed the evening of March 21, 1940 and the lake began to fill.
Two monuments now exist near the Pensacola Dam, one commemorating Henry Holderman who dreamed of its construction, the other, a composition dedicated to the labor that created the dam. Perhaps it’s time to erect one recognizing the man who built it.
Author's note: Four books relating to the history of Northeastern Oklahoma are available on Amazon.com and BARNES AND NOBLE.com
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.