Buffalo Bill Dam celebrates a century Saturday

Posted 1/14/10

It was one of the Bureau of Reclamation's first engineering feats, Churchill said last week.

“Solid as a rock,” is what engineers say to this day.

But the dam had humble beginnings.

“It was fleshed out on what we could …

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Buffalo Bill Dam celebrates a century Saturday


{gallery}01_12_10/bbdam{/gallery} In 1993, Buffalo Bill Dam, west of Cody, was raised 25 feet. The original 325-foot dam was completed Jan. 15, 1910. Its first century will be celebrated Saturday at the dam's visitor center, beginning at 9 a.m. Courtesy photo/ U.S. Bureau of Reclamation A magnificent engineering achievement by anybody's standards, the Buffalo Bill Dam is celebrating 100 years this month with a commemoration and public centennial photograph on Saturday, Jan. 16.Esteemed as the bearer of water to farms in Powell, the dam is registered as a National Historic Structure. At the time of its completion, the 325-foot dam was the tallest concrete structure in the world, said Beryl Churchill in her 1986 book, “The Dam Book.”

It was one of the Bureau of Reclamation's first engineering feats, Churchill said last week.

“Solid as a rock,” is what engineers say to this day.

But the dam had humble beginnings.

“It was fleshed out on what we could call brown wrapping paper,” Churchill said.

D.W. Cole was the construction engineer for the bureau, and though Cole only had a high school diploma, Churchill said he was considered the foremost dam builder in the world even before the dam was done.

The dam originally was called the Shoshone Dam, then renamed the Buffalo Bill Dam in 1946.

It was Buffalo Bill Cody's aim to irrigate the northern Big Horn Basin, but he never dreamed of raising a massive dam to achieve that goal.

The U.S. Reclamation Service (now the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Service) took over, planning a dam within the constricted granite confines of the Shoshone Canyon in 1903.

In 1904, crews began drilling through the nearly impenetrable rock to form the dam's base, Churchill said in her book.

Dam construction began in 1905 and was completed after five arduous years of floods and fleeting contractors.

Although the dam was built to deliver irrigation water, outlet pipes were installed at the base of the dam to supply water to power electrical plants. The first power plant began generating in 1922. Today, there are four power plants just downstream of the mega levee, exploiting the energy of the water as it is channeled through the dam.

Dam construction was confined to the winter to sidestep spring floods. And those winters were long and brutal, with temperatures dipping well below zero for days on end in the shady, icebox-like canyon.

To keep the concrete fluid during the bitter winter days, mountains of coal were used to keep the mixture warm. Lignite coal, at $7 per ton, was hauled in from 150 miles away by four-horse teams.

Materials for the concrete were gathered nearby, although barrels of cement were brought in, Churchill wrote.

According to a Web site posted by the Buffalo Bill Dam and Visitor Center, the total project cost was $929,658.

It was bitterly cold in January 1910 when the last of the concrete was poured.

“But despite the frigid conditions, determined crews struggled their way to completion,” wrote Churchill. “Cheers echoed through the canyon at 11 o'clock Saturday morning, January 15, 1910, when the last bucket of a total of 82,900 cubic yards of concrete was placed. The temperature was 15 degrees below zero.”

From start to finish, seven men were killed, mostly due to dynamite mishaps. Three others lost limbs, three were blinded and 28 more were severely crippled or mutilated on the job, Churchill wrote.

Tales of men entombed in the dam's concrete persist, but government officials say those accounts are unfounded, Churchill wrote.

Core samples were taken when the project to raise the dam began in the early 1990s.

Churchill brings out a core sample about four inches long, drilled out in the 1980s to test the integrity of the concrete in the dam. It resembles a heavy, smooth cylinder of marble with black streaks, presumably of aggregate, swimming just below the surface. After 100 years, it is as solid as a chunk of stone chiseled from the Rock of Gibraltar.

“And (Buffalo Bill Dam) is just as solid as it can be,” Churchill said.