First Dam… on the Colorado.

Alice and I have long enjoyed roadtrips into the back country. Recently, during one of these trips along California’s CR S24 in Imperial County, we came across an old Dam located on the lower Colorado River… that somehow looked familiar.   Sure enough – turns out just the night before we had watched an old 1936 Gene Autry Cowboy movie titled ‘Red River Valley’… about a ‘new’ irrigation Dam in the old west… Yep – it was the same Dam!   We were intrigued… and made plans to come back.

A few days later, after having done a little investigative research, we returned with friends Al & Barbie Rupiper to walk the Dam’s grounds.   Turns out this Dam, the Laguna Diversion Dam, was the first ever constructed across the mighty Colorado River.   This humble old Dam… not the upstream Imperial Dam… or the Parker Dam… or the Davis Dam… or the Hoover Dam… or the Glen Canyon Dam…   This old Laguna Damlocated 13 miles Northeast of Yuma, AZ… had the honor in 1909 of being  the first Dam  across the mighty roaring Colorado River – when it still roared in these parts.

The Colorado River headwaters are 1,350 miles upstream, in the 2-mile high mountains of North-Central Colorado, close to the Rocky Mountain National Park.   It flows mostly Southwest thru Utah, the Grand Canyon, and then south along the Arizona-California state line crossing the Border into Mexico’s Gulf of California.   In 1902 Congress passed the Reclamation Act which provided funding for Western River irrigation projects…such as the Yuma Project (1903 – 1915).  This Project was designed to provide irrigation services for 68,000 acres of farmland in the Yuma Valley and California’s Imperial Valley, which receive only 3.5 inches of rain a year and Summer temps in the 115-120 range.   But given water, these Valleys become a year round fruit & vegetable greenhouse…   The Project’s Laguna Diversion Dam did just that.

 

The Laguna Diversion Dam is old… construction started in 1903 and completed in 1909 after much difficulty.   At that time, the Colorado River was huge… over a mile wide in some places.   The dam was built to raise water levels in order to divert water to new irrigation canals like the new ‘Yuma Main Canal‘.   This canal, beginning on the California side of the river, carries water southwest to fields in Imperial County, California, and the Yuma Valley in Arizona.

Laguna Diversion Dam, National Archives Picture, Circa 1910.

Colorado River water rushing over the Laguna Dam

Click on picture to open up a larger high-resolution image.   Colorado River water rushing over the Laguna Dam, with California sluiceway, sluice gates, and Yuma Main Canal in the foreground. Circa 1910. (National Archives and Records Administration)

The Laguna Diversion Dam is located on the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Reservation, bordering three states: Arizona, California, Baja, California (Mexico).   Signs like this one below, cautioning about Hunting & Fishing, are commonly found along CA-S34…  

The Laguna Dam is located today on the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation, Quechan Tribe of Indians.

The Laguna Dam is located today on the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation, Quechan Tribe of Indians. Click on picture to open up a larger high-resolution image.

The Dam as it looks today… this is the California side with three sluice gates.

Laguna Dam, as seen from Eastern side.

Laguna Dam, as seen from Eastern side.   Click on picture to open up a larger high-resolution image.

The Dam from its upstream back side.

The Dam from the upstream (back) side.

The Dam from the upstream (back) side.   Click on picture to open up a larger high-resolution image.

Behind the Dam, a walking path with benches.   A pleasant place to sit and contemplate the wondrous magic… of desert, water, sunshine, and palm trees coming together.

Looking North (upstream) of the Dam.

Looking North (upstream) of the Dam.   Click on picture to open up a larger high-resolution image.

We do not know what the building below was used for…   It shows up in available pictures, even the National Archives 1910 Circa picture.   Perhaps some kind of onsite Administration Building for the Reclamation Bureau?

Old building... do not know what it was used for

Old building… we do not know what it was used for, but it was here when 1936 movie was made.   Click on picture to open up a larger high-resolution image.

Over thousands of years, the Colorado River had deposited so much sand & silt that it seemed impractical to Engineers in 1905 to dig the Dam base down to bedrock. To address this, the Laguna Diversion Dam’s design was modeled on an “Indian weir design“, selected after engineers studied dams in other countries where foundations were built on sand and silt. A Weir is a relatively small impoundment wall that has no control structures to permit passage of water through the wall. Any excess water goes over the top. Measuring only 43 feet high with nearly two-thirds of the dam below the riverbed, the Laguna Diversion Dam resembles the ‘Okla Weir’ across the Jumna River in India.

Below looking from the Western (California) side… the 4,780 ft weir.   In the distance is the single gate Arizona side… with a small bridge that inspired WW2 Rumors of German saboteurs coming upstream in a submarine… to attack Hoover Dam. 

Looking th the East, the 'weir' is 4,780 feet long

Looking towards the East, the ‘weir’ is 4,780 feet long and constructed of Concrete.   Click on picture to open up a larger high-resolution image.

Below, the reverse view… the three-gate California Dam site seen at a distance from the Eastern (Arizona) side. 

Looking across the 4,780 ft. 'weir' back towards the West...

Looking across the 4,780 ft. ‘weir’ back towards the West… the Dam is in the distance, with Mittry Lake water detained on the right.   Click on picture to open up a larger high-resolution image.

Nazi Saboteurs?

The bridge below at the East end of the dam has Nazi Swastika’s molded on it’s side… This was the cause of several rather sensational ‘rumors’ during WW2 about Nazi Saboteurs traveling up the Colorado river to the Laguna Dam via submarine… to blow up Hoover Dam!  

A bridge located on the East side of the 'weir'... that caused rumors of Nazi Collaborators during WW2.

A bridge located on the East side of the ‘weir’… that caused rumors of Nazi Saboteurs during WW2.   Click on picture to open up a larger high-resolution image.

The 'Nazi' symbols...

The Nazi Swastikas close up… Click on picture to open up a larger high-resolution image.

Note the Nazi Swastika symbols molded on the bridge’s side… this caused rumors in WW2 that the Laguna Dam was a rendezvous site for Nazi saboteurs.   The facts are, that the Engineers who went to India in 1903 to research ‘weir’ dam structures noted the images… liked them, and incorporated them into their design to provide reference to the India Dam predecessors.   This predated Nazi German use by 30 years.   

A couple great narratives about this story are available from the  internet… as noted below.

  • ‘Swastika Dam’ Posted by Walter Smoter Frank.
  • ‘Laguna Dam’    Posted by ‘The Wanderling’… a truly prolific writer & internet poster. Take a moment to read this gentleman’s stories which reflect much of history and his recollections of life in the 1940’s.   Note – I can not vouch for the accuracy of this gentleman’s writing… but he is very entertaining and reasonable.  

Lastly is the channel outlet for Mittry Lake… located behind the weir, and watered by drainage from the canals around Laguna Dam.   It is well known for it’s birding and wildlife viewing, as well as fishing, camping, and sunsets.

East side of Dam, small channel

East side of Dam, small channel.   Note the white Heron on the left shoreline… Click on picture to open up a larger high-resolution image.

This completes our post on the Laguna Diversion Dam.   We find this area along the lower Colorado River to be fascinating and full of History.   We have spent many evenings on Jetty’s in Mittry Lake, catching the sunset… watching the birds flock… ducks quacking… fish jumping.   This is a  Water – Winter Wonderland for sure.

Not at all what you would expect in the desert!

Thank you for reading.   Any questions or comments please feel free to contact us!  

Thanks,
Jim & Alice LaPeer

 

 

3 thoughts on “First Dam… on the Colorado.

  1. Hi! Brad and Elaine here. We met a couple of years ago at Hart Ranch and spent time with you around your campfire talking until midnight. We arrived at Hart yesterday and will be here for about 2 months. Will you be heading this way? Would love to re-connect!

  2. Hi Bill – Good to her from you!

    Yes, Lord willing, next Winter we may see you at the Demming SKP park, as we always stop there for a couple days on our way out West.

    Wish you and Dixie well.
    Jim & Alice.

  3. Very nice- thanks for sending. I spent a lot of time around Yuma in the past. Great weather in the winter. We may get out west next winter-Lord willing. We had to stay in Michigan this winter. Might catch y’all next winter if you get to Deming @ Skip park.
    Bill & Dixie

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