Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
The concrete dam that created the state’s largest lake will celebrate its 100th birthday in October, and plans are well underway to mark the occasion.
Neal Brown, who operates Elephant Butte Lake’s three marinas and the Damsite recreation area under an agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, has been splitting his time between renovating the administration building used during the 1912-16 construction of Elephant Butte Dam and planning the dam’s Oct. 12-23 centennial celebration.
“We recognize the history that’s here,” Brown said during a recent tour of buildings in the Dam Site Historic District, which will host a number of events during the celebration. “We’re excited about it, we want to restore it and bring it back. We feel like these things should be appreciated by all people.
“This piece of history … is very significant for our area. All over southern New Mexico, people have benefited from the dam, not only from flood prevention, but also through irrigation,” Brown said.
Centennial events will range from art shows and wine tastings to melodramas and a horseshoe tournament. There will be guided tours of the historic district and the 301-foot-high dam itself – including its electrical generation plant.
There will even be a dinner and dance atop the dam, which has been open to the public only a handful of times since officials closed it in the wake of 9/11.
Updates on the centennial’s events are available at facebook.com/buttecentennial.
The dam impounds Elephant Butte Lake, the largest lake in the state with a capacity of nearly 2.2 million acre-feet of water. When full, the lake covers 36,897 acres, is 43 miles long and has more than 200 miles of shoreline.
It provides irrigation to 178,000 acres of farmland, about 60 percent of which is in New Mexico and the remainder in Texas.
It’s home to Elephant Butte Lake State Park, and offers boating, fishing, hiking and camping.
A dam in the desert
To address the growing water needs of southern New Mexico, Texas and Mexico, Congress authorized construction of the dam on Feb. 25, 1905, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. It was part of the Rio Grande Project, a massive effort to prevent flooding, and provide power and irrigation to southern New Mexico and West Texas.
Initial construction began in 1908, but problems obtaining lands that would be inundated by the reservoir caused delays. Meanwhile, a rail spur from Engle, a railroad town 14 miles northeast of the dam site, was completed in 1911 to ferry workers and supplies to the remote site. Although the dam wasn’t completed until 1916, it began impounding water in 1915.
The dam was originally named Engle Dam for its proximity to the town of Engle, but it was renamed for the volcanic core immediately behind the dam that, viewed from the south, resembles a half-buried elephant.
“This was a colossal dam, the biggest dam in the Western Hemisphere when it was built,” Brown said. “It was a huge undertaking. New Mexico had only been a state for four years, and this was still the wild west.”
When completed, Elephant Butte Dam was the second-largest dam in the world, surpassed only by the Aswan Dam in Egypt.
During construction, two towns sprang up – the “dam site” below the dam, where workers lived and merchants set up shop – and “the hill” above and east of the dam site, where administrators and other officials were housed. There was a hotel on the hill, as well.
At the height of dam-building activity, about 4,000 people occupied the towns – or about half the people living in nearby Truth or Consequences today, Brown said.
“It was a thriving community,” he said. “There were restaurants, an ice cream joint, hotels. There was a lot of sightseeing, too.”
As the dam rose, visitors would ride the train from Engle to observe the work, often picnicking in the area.
Although the dam was constructed to accommodate a hydroelectric plant, sufficient demand for electricity didn’t develop until 1940. Today, the privately owned plant produces more than 38 million kilowatt-hours of power, enough to power 4,800 homes.
The CCC years
As more people were drawn to the remote lake by newly constructed state and federal highways, the Reclamation Service took advantage of a New Deal program, the Civilian Conservation Corps.
In the 1930s, three companies of CCC workers built roads, hiking trails, landscaping, a boat house, a post office, a fish hatchery and lakeside tourist cabins in the Pueblo Revival style.
Many of the structures still bear the mark of the CCC. A bronze statue of a CCC worker stands in the center of the Damsite recreation area in recognition of the young men who worked there. The dam and reservoir are designated National Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks.
Brown’s company, Lago Rico Inc., is working to restore some of those amenities.
The former administration building – simply known as “the office” while the dam was being built – has been converted to eight suites and meeting rooms available for rent. The lakeside cabins adjacent to the Damsite restaurant have also been renovated, and future plans call for restoration of the old boat house and adjacent post office as a museum and gift shop.