ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Have you ever heard of New Mexico’s Engle Dam, which was once the second largest dam in the world?
Yeah, me either, but maybe in some parallel universe the name stuck. In this universe, we call it Elephant Butte Dam. The dam created the state’s largest lake although recreation was not its original purpose. The dam serves as a way to ease flooding, control irrigation and provide electricity.
Talk of a dam began in the 1880s after farmers in southern New Mexico, Texas and Mexico began to complain that they were not receiving their fair share of water. A legal battle over the water and where the dam should be built delayed its construction.
Engle was the name of the closest railroad stop and had been so named to honor construction engineer R.L. Engle. The railroad company would throw another spur into the whole matter by renaming – without consulting locals – the stop Engel, after Santa Fe Railroad vice president Edward Engel. New Mexicans even went so far as to complain to Congress about the name change but their complaints went nowhere. The railroad stop’s chosen spelling of Engel remained.
Eastern newspapers, most likely accidentally, dubbed the structure Eagle Dam and another name was floated around before it was completed.
A post in the May 16, 1916 El Paso Herald said that “a strong movement will be launched to name the dam ‘Woodrow Wilson Dam.’ ” Although newspapers across the country that ran a story about the dam’s October 1916 dedication called it the Elephant Butte dam, one paper did not. The Rio Grande Republic, which is now the Las Cruces Sun-News, ran a small brief saying the dam “shall henceforth bear the name of the President of the United States – Woodrow Wilson.”
So where did the name Elephant Butte originate? In the late 1800s, local newspapers were already referring to the area where the dam would eventually be built as Elephant Butte after a rock formation resembling an elephant. A butte is an isolated hill with steep sides. That butte resembling an elephant is still there but is now surrounded by water.
Sierra County historian Sherry Fletcher said the dam’s elephant shaped butte is a volcanic plug, which occurs when volcanic magma hardens. Over time, the environment erodes the surrounding land and reveals the plug.
Crews began construction on the dam in 1911. Fletcher said at peak construction, there were about 3,500 workers. Upon its 1916 completion, Elephant Butte Dam was the second largest dam in the world, and had created the largest reservoir in the world. It was considered an engineering marvel for its time and was two decades ahead of the now famous Hoover Dam that straddles the Arizona-Nevada border.
The workers who built the dam lived in two sections.
Upper Town was designated for what was considered the higher class and more skilled workers, including engineers and supervisors.
Laborers and their families lived in Lower Town camp and that was even further segregated with Mexicans and Americans separated into different areas.
There are many legends tied to the dam and its reservoir including giant catfish, dead bodies and submerged structures. In 2019, a 9-year-old boy caught a 42-pound blue catfish there.
As for submerged structures, those too exist. Fletcher said unincorporated farming communities had formed along the Rio Grande river bank in the area. All were condemned to make way for the dam and its lake. A Dec. 10, 1910, Rio Grande Republic article had this dramatic headline: “Towns Soon to be Wiped off Earth.” The article went on to explain that more than 2,000 people would be displaced when their 200-to-300-year-old villages were “obliterated” by the Elephant Butte reservoir. Fletcher said she believes the villages’ structures were left in place, including stone houses, and now sit at the bottom of the lake.
Sadly, several people have lost their lives in the waters surrounding the dam. In March of 1943, four Boy Scouts drowned when a strong wind capsized their boat. A six-foot wave would capsize another boat in March of 1984. Four children, a woman and three men drowned. Through the years, others have drowned there and law enforcement officers even searched the lake for victims of serial killer David Parker Ray.
Coincidentally there is evidence that actual prehistoric elephants roamed the area. In 2014, a group of men enjoying a weekend bachelor party at the lake discovered the skull and tusks of a 3.2 million-year-old stegomastodon. Other stegomastodon fossils were discovered there before that time, but none as complete as the 2014 find.
Elephant Butte Lake became part of New Mexico’s state park system on July 1, 1964. It’s used by thousands every year for fishing, camping, boating, swimming and an escape from the routine of every-day life. The American Society of Civil Engineers has designated the dam a National Historical Engineer Landmark. Next time you’re cruising around the lake, give a wave to the elephant and a nod to the structure that made it an island.
Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email staff writer Elaine Briseño at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-823-3965 as she continues the monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?”