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 Dam, located 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.
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 Dam as it looks today… this is the California side with three sluice gates.
The Dam from its upstream back side.
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.
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?
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.
Below, the reverse view… the three-gate California Dam site seen at a distance from the Eastern (Arizona) side.
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!
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.
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!
Jim & Alice LaPeer