It’s About Dam Time!

J.L. Savage Papers

Have you ever passed a dam and paused to think of how it came to be? In the early and mid 20th century, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation industriously set to altering much of the hydrological landscape of the American West to provide irrigation, power, and flood relief to residents. The AHC has collected the papers of many of the most important engineers and employees of the Bureau who strove to accomplish hitherto seemingly impossible feats of engineering. Six new finding aids have been created this year for those associated with the widespread activities of the Bureau.

1945 concept drawing of a Yangtze River dam, China, J.L. Savage Papers

Perhaps the most illustrious achievement of the Bureau’s engineers was the Hoover Dam, previously referred to as Boulder Dam. Prior to its construction, a dam of its size and makeup had not been built. John Lucian Savage was the supervising engineer for the Hoover Dam, and was the Bureau’s first designing engineer. Savage worked on other projects for the Bureau, including the Grand Coulee, Parker and Shasta Dams, and Washington State’s Columbia Basin Project. He also served as a consultant for international engineering projects in Mexico, Australia, and China, as well as many other countries.

One of Savage’s colleagues was Sinclair O. Harper, who spent nearly forty years with the Bureau. Harper served as general superintendent of construction and later chief engineer in 1940. Additionally, Harper served as the chairman and U.S. representative for the Rio Grande Compact Commission, a treaty signed in 1938 between the states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas that fairly apportions the water of the Rio Grande Basin. After retiring from the Bureau in 1945, Harper became a consultant with Kaiser Engineers and worked on projects for the Army Corps of Engineers and abroad in countries such as Egypt, India, and Afghanistan.

Harry W. Bashore also worked with Savage and Harper, serving as Commissioner for the Bureau from 1943 until retirement in 1945. Preceding his appointment to Commissioner, Bashore served as Assistant Commissioner and was responsible for all irrigation projects in the West. After retiring, Bashore consulted on irrigation projects in Israel and worked to produce a treaty between Pakistan and India over use of the Indus River.

T. W. Mermel worked for the Bureau from 1933-1973 on major water projects and eventually served as Assistant to the Commissioner for Scientific Affairs. Mermel was very active professionally and internationally, serving as Chairman of the Committee on the World Register on Dams and Dam Terminology for the International Committee on Large Dams (ICOLD), as well as holding positions in several other organizations. Fred A. Houck worked for the Bureau from 1931-1958 as a civil engineer, assisting in the building of the Kortes Dam and Power Plant, the Hoover Dam, and the Glen Canyon Dam. He also joined Engineering Consultants, Inc. of Denver and worked on several overseas projects. Henry J. Tebow also worked for the Bureau, but in a different capacity than the other engineers. Tebow specialized in the use of high speed computers for engineering and other data processing activities. He wrote a book about his experiences titled My Love Affair with the Bureau of Reclamation.

The work of arranging and describing these six collections, so significant to the history of water resources in the West, was made possible by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), a unit of the National Archives and Records Administration.  In sum, the NHPRC grant is supporting the processing of more than 2000 cubic feet of material related to the Great Depression.

-Kathryn Brooks, Project Archivist

This entry was posted in environmental history, grants, newly processed collections, water resources. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply