50 Facts About Theodore Roosevelt Dam

Last updated on December 2nd, 2022

The American West had a water problem. Rivers flooded in the spring, but the land was dry for the rest of the year. It was not ideal for agriculture. Many were reluctant to settle in such hostile conditions. Fortunately, others focused on finding solutions, including some influential people in government. The Roosevelt Dam proved that barren deserts could turn into prosperous cities with excellent infrastructure. It was the first in a series of projects that irrigated the land and developed the Western States.

Read on to discover 50 interesting facts about the Theodore Roosevelt Dam.

Basic Information and Comparisons

1. What is in a Name?

Originally called Salt River Dam #1, the current name honors the 26th US president. Theodore Roosevelt made the project possible by including it in his federal reclamation program – something his predecessors refused to do.  

2. Claim to Fame

Upon its completion, the Roosevelt Dam stood as the highest masonry dam in the world. It is a wall of large sandstone blocks, unlike most modern structures that use poured concrete. 

3. Annual Output

The energy was always secondary. The dam has a modest installed capacity of 36 megawatts – good enough for local needs but a far cry from the 22,500-megawatt rating of the Three Gorges Dam. 

Theodore Roosevelt Dam
Theodore Roosevelt Dam. Photo © Joe Sohm

4. Project Timeline

It took much longer than expected. Construction began in 1903 and finished in 1911, four years after the projected deadline. In 1989, the aging dam underwent an ambitious expansion and renovation to ensure safety. 

5. Dam Type

It is an arch-gravity dam. Like the Hoover Dam, it curves upstream for better resistance against water pressure. The canyon walls provide additional support. Gravity also helps it stay put with its substantial weight.

6. Construction Cost

It was a grand project. The estimated construction cost is $10 million, which may not seem much compared to current budgets. However, the inflation-adjusted equivalent is over $300 million in 2022. 

7. Dam Height

In 1911, its 84-meter wall broke previous records. It has since grown to 109 meters, but it now lags behind similar structures in the US, like the Grand Coulee Dam (168 meters), the Hoover Dam (221 meters), and the Oroville Dam (235 meters).   

8. Dam Length

The wall rests on a narrow canyon. Surveyors chose the site to reduce material and labor requirements. It is only 369 meters long – comparable to the span of the Hoover Dam. 

Theodore Roosevelt Lake bridge and dam.
Theodore Roosevelt Lake bridge and dam. Facts about Theodore Roosevelt dam. Photo © A320sna

9. The Reservoir

Roosevelt Lake takes care of flood control. Its maximum capacity of 3.59 cubic kilometers is adequate for local needs, but it pales in comparison with the Kariba Dam’s 180-cubic kilometer reservoir – the largest in the world. 

10. The Spillway

What comes in must come out. Its total spillway capacity is 4,200 cubic meters per second – equal to the maximum flow rate of the controversial Oroville Dam spillway in California. 

The History of the Theodore Roosevelt Dam

11. Primitive Irrigation

How do you make the Arizona desert habitable? The Native Indians and early European settlers used irrigation canals to water their farms. However, these canals had a limited reach. They were also helpless against floods and droughts. 

12. A Better Solution

Arizona needed a dam. A tall wall could block flood waters, prevent crop damage, store water, and provide continuous irrigation. In 1988, Billy Breakenridge surveyed the Salt River and identified Box Canyon as the ideal location.

13. Looking for Allies

Locals couldn’t build it on their own. Maricopa County representatives went to Congress hoping to gain allies for the dam project. Unfortunately, federal legislators showed little interest and went about their business.

14. Comprehensive Studies

Give up? Never. They doubled their efforts led by influential irrigation advocates. In 1901, they persuaded the Geological Survey to conduct studies. Two years later, they obtained complete plans for a dam and water facility. 


15. The Federal Government Helps Out

Theodore Roosevelt, a more sympathetic president, wanted to help the arid west with their water problem. He used his powers to push for the National Reclamation Act of 1902 – a law that allocated funds for large-scale irrigation projects. 

16. Valley Residents Unite

The Salt River Valley farmers rejoiced! Their dream dam was part of the first five federal reclamation projects. In an unprecedented show of unity, everyone put up their land as collateral to secure the funds. 

17. The Reclamation Service

You can’t build a dam right away. In 1903, engineers from the Reclamation Service began the preliminary work. They built support structures, such as logging and milling camps. 

18. The Trail Blazers

The canyon was in the middle of nowhere. Workers had to create a 60-mile road across the rugged Superstition Mountains to facilitate the movement of people and supplies. The “Apache Trail” follows the path used by the Apache Indians for centuries.  

19. Onsite Power

The site didn’t have to rely on outside power. The crew built a small diversion dam and a power canal for hydroelectric energy production before working on the Roosevelt Dam – good enough for lighting and other needs.

20. Quarrying Operations

They did not have to look far. Much of the materials came from the land around the dam. Quarries provided massive stone blocks and other essentials. According to estimates, the dam contains 344,000 cubic yards of masonry.

Arizona Highway 188 and the Roosevelt Bridge.
Arizona Highway 188 and the Roosevelt Bridge. Facts about Theodore Roosevelt dam. Photo © Mike Helfrich

Technical Challenges

21. The Dam Contractor

It was time to look for the lowest bidder. In 1905, the contract went to the Texas-based John M. O’Rourke and Company, which pegged the cost at $1,147,600. 

22. Creating Cofferdams

The first task: isolate and dehydrate. The contractor made temporary upstream and downstream cofferdams, then channeled water around the site. After the riverbed dried, they dug into the solid bedrock for the foundation. 

23. Construction Delays

The contractor pledged to finish in two years. Mother Nature had other plans. Devastating floods washed away tools, equipment, supplies, and structures, forcing the crew to start from scratch a few times.

24. Pressing On

Workers were undeterred. They rebuilt the damaged cofferdams and set the cornerstone by 1906. Over time, the wall grew taller, with cables moving 10-ton stones around the site. 

25. Around-the-Clock Operation

They had no time to waste. Electric lights kept the busy site illuminated at night. By June 1909, the wall was 75% complete by volume. The southern end reached 170 feet, while the northern portion rose 100 feet. 

26. Hydroelectric Power Plant

The Roosevelt Dam was ready to produce power. In August 1909, government workers installed three generating units and finished the transformer house. They dismantled the temporary power unit and switched to the permanent power plant.  

27. Dam Completion

Grit paid off. By 1910, the wall was almost complete. A smaller crew remained to take care of the finishing touches. They worked on the spillways, parapet walls, and reinforced concrete bridges. They laid the final stone on February 5, 1911.

28. Official Dedication

President Theodore Roosevelt was the guest of honor. On March 18, 1911, he traversed the Apache Trail and marveled at the rugged terrain. After his speech, he pushed the switch to open the sluice gates.

29. First Spill and Celebration

The reservoir took four years to fill up. In 1915, 30,000 people came to cheer for the dam’s first spill. A copper flask captured some of the water, which later appeared in New York for the christening of the USS Arizona. 

30. Full Capacity

In 1916, the dam was ready to show off. It had six dynamos generating electricity, 208 miles of transmission lines sending power to nearby communities, and nine pumping stations irrigating 10,000 acres of land. 

Theodore Roosevelt Dam at Theodore Roosevelt Lake, AZ
Photo © Joe Sohm

Renovation and Expansion

31. Everything Changes

The dam spurred economic development. Communities thrived in the irrigated land, making the valley a prosperous town. By the 1980s, it was one of the best cities in the country. The booming population needed more water and power. 

32. Improving the Design

Engineers kept watching. They realized it could not withstand a strong earthquake or a devastating flood. They sought modifications to increase its longevity and make it more dependable for affected communities.  

33. Gaining Approval

The paperwork comes first. In 1984, the US Secretary of the Interior approved the renovation proposal. The Roosevelt Dam was to undergo a drastic makeover, along with three other projects: a highway realignment, a tunnel development, and a power plant renovation.  

34. Project Contractor

It was a $430 million contract. The winning bid was from the J.A. Jones Construction Company of North Carolina. Among the company’s notable projects are the Petronas Towers of Malaysia and the Independence Building in Charlotte. 

35. Stretch and Resurface 

They had two tasks: increase the dam height and enhance the surfaces. The dam got taller by 77 feet or 23 meters, effectively increasing reservoir capacity by 20%. The walls also obtained a new concrete surface.  

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