The Buffalo Bill Dam was designed by engineer Daniel Webster Cole and built between 1905 and 1910. It was one of the first projects undertaken by the U.S. Reclamation Service (later known as the Bureau of Reclamation). The dam sits between Cody, Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park, up the south fork of the Shoshone river. It is surrounded by Rattlesnake, Spirit and Sheep Mountain.
Shoshone Dam was the original name for the massive structure. “The name ‘Shoshone’ comes from Sosoni, a Shoshone word for high-growing grasses. Some neighboring tribes call the Shoshone “Grass House People,” based on their traditional homes made from sosoni. Shoshones call themselves Newe, meaning ‘People.’1 In 1946, the dam was renamed Buffalo Bill Dam after the famous William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who founded the nearby town of Cody, Wyoming.
The small town of Marquette was nestled where the Buffalo Bill Reservoir now resides. The town had a dance hall, post office, barbershop, saloon, and a general store. “Buffalo Bill Cody owned a small 80-acre tract in Marquette that was separate from his sprawling T.E. Ranch on the South Fork. The government paid him $3,900 for the property, or about $86,000 in today’s dollars.”2 Most of the buildings in Marquette that could be salvaged were moved, with many becoming part of the new town of Cody.
Many of the laborers who worked to build the dam were immigrants. They faced considerable challenges. Tools at their disposal were rudimentary – shovels, buckets, 2-man hacksaws and wooden ladders. The men were dwarfed by the canyon and by the dam as it went up.
The deep granite canyon was sometimes flooded by unpredictable Shoshone River flows rendering work on the dam impossible. And the site lacked natural deposits of sand and gravel needed for construction, so granite boulders were placed into the cement by hand. The remote nature of the canyon meant it was hard to find and keep laborers. Workers on the dam were responsible for what may have been Wyoming’s first labor strike. They demanded and received more than three dollars a shift.
“The Shoshone Dam was one of the most impressive engineering feats of the early 1900s, and it later served to inspire the world-famous Hoover Dam.”3 At the time the dam was finished it was the tallest dam in the world. Standing 325 feet tall, “it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and named a National Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1973.”4
Laborers poured the last bucket of concrete on January 15, 1910, with freezing temperatures reaching 15 below zero. In all, they had poured 82,900 cubic yards of concrete. The successful construction of the dam came along with its own sacrifices. Besides the ruthless weather to contend with, working conditions were extremely dangerous – workers were often suspended above water and on rocky cliff sides. Sadly, seven workers died during the construction of the dam.
Once complete, the dam made it possible to irrigate the Bighorn Basin, turning it from a desert sagebrush landscape to productive agricultural land. This was crucial for the livelihood of the people calling the surrounding areas home. The dam also played a significant role during World War II by supporting more fertile farmland for the Japanese American internees in the Heart Mountain Relocation Center. “At its peak, the Heart Mountain Relocation Center housed 10,767 people, many of whom worked on sections of the canal system originally slated for contract work, but which now supplied water to irrigate fields of the internees. Internees succeeded in growing a cornucopia of vegetables including green beans, peas, carrots, spinach, beets, corn, tomatoes, and potatoes, as well as barley and wheat.”5
Today, the dam irrigates more than 93,000 acres. The farms in the surrounding area still grow beans, alfalfa, oats, barley, and sugar beets, providing job opportunities for the tightly knit communities. On the west side of the dam, you will find Buffalo Bill State Park and a reservoir where locals and tourists can camp, cliff jump, hike, fish, and boat.
This blog post is based on a Virmuze virtual exhibit curated by American Heritage Center archives aide Amanda Wells.
Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.
 Loether, Christopher. “Shoshones.” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains accessed 21 May 2020. http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.na.105
 Prevost, Ruffin. “Dam doomed tiny town of Marquette.” Billings Gazette, 15 November 2015. https://billingsgazette.com/news/state-and-regional/wyoming/dam-doomed-tiny-town-of-marquette/article_eddaf432-f1a6-5155-8317-d3a0d3436fea.html
 Margaraci, Kim. “Most People Don’t Know the Tragic History of Wyoming’s Most Famous Dam.” Only In Your State, 26 September 2018. https://www.onlyinyourstate.com/wyoming/buffalo-bill-dam-wy/
 The National Park Service. “Buffalo Bill Dam, Wyoming.” WyoHistory, 8 November 2014. https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/buffalo-bill-dam-wyoming