Editor’s note: This story on the history of the Lahontan Dam ran 25 years ago as part of the 75th anniversary celebration.
Constructed to store late season irrigation after for the growing farms, the Lahontan Dam rose from the Nevada desert to make this area one of the leading agricultural regions in the Silver State.
According to author John L. Townley, the U.S. Reclamation Service made plans to build Lahontan Dam beginning in January 1911, a year after plans had been formulated. Original estimates had place construction at two years, but in reality, the entire project took twice as long.
Specifically, the Secretary of the Interior had authorized the construction of the dam by the government of the final day of 1910.
Francis G. Newlands, for whom the project is named, sold the land for the site that would provide almost 300,000 acre-feet of water in a year.
By the end of 1912, work had reached a stage that had been anticipated by project engineers and consequently provided by a construction timetable.
A 1912 annual report stated, “The river diversion plan had been carried out and all subsequent work completed. The temporary structures had served their purposes and were being dispended with, while the permanent base of the dam had been placed to the required elevation.”
D.W. Cole, project manager, said the most difficult work had been completed during 1912 and that he erected the dam to be completed during the summer of 1914 “without mishap unless difficulties arise which are not to be expected.”
The engineering corps had arrived at the site of the dam on Feb. 7, 1911, whereby work was done in locating a camp, railroad siding, water works and sewer system. During the first year of the Lahontan Dam project, the survey work was completed.
For example, the July 1911 monthly report indicated the engineers “had completed location of the left spillway, located right spillway, construction lines for power plant, conduit, canal lining, cableway tower and track system, belt conveyor system, ran line of levels of Truckee Canal.”
By the end of the year, the dam site had been laid out in 100-foot squares, and the entire area had been cross-sectioned and plotted.
In 11 months’ time, the construction force had grown from 50 men to 200 men with the average laborer earning $2 a day. Approximately 39 buildings had been built at the main camp, and electric power was turned on at the cam by mid-November. For the first year of construction, the project had amassed a bill of about $298,000.
Ad for equipment, mot of it had arrived during 1911 except for a large shovel to operate in the Borrow Pit, which furnished material for the dam.
Excavation and construction moved a little behind schedule in 1912. A work record form the 1912 annual report indicated in January, flow over-model spillway steps were built in a Truckee concrete chute, and during February, plans for concrete hopper tower, concrete chutes and conduit forms had been accomplished.
As the year progressed, hydraulic experiments were undertaken, and by October, final contours for a large construction map had been surveyed and plotted. Details of siphon joints, chutes for dam material and a sand-cement plan were accomplished, and an efficiency test was made on an electric shovel.
The annual report highlighted the work features for 1912:
“During June and July, the Marion Steam shovel, which had been excavating Right Spillway. Stripped along the right bank of the river excavating the old Rock Dam Ditch … During August, the river bottom with the exception of upstream from the cutoff wall was stripped by wheelers and hand mucking into wagons … Stripping upstream from cutoff was in river bed commenced Oct. 1, 1912 and was competed Nov. 12, ’12.”
Several highlights of 1913 indicated by Feb. 15, the tunnel in the right abutment of the main dam had been filled, and a log boom had been placed across the inlet to a conduit. Two months later, water from the Carson River spread over the top of the dam and spread over into the pool by the end of August.
In June engineers were checking the structural steel and placing control and reference points for the tower. The monthly report for 1913 indicated that in July, the busiest month, crews “placed goose-neck” castings and left cylindrical valve at Outlet Tower center line profile of siphon — checking structural steel. Plans for tower details, templates. Plans for dike and siphon with revised estimate of same accomplished. …”
By the end of the year, engineers and crews had the dike cross-sectioned and staked, and project supervisors had revised quantity and cost estimate of the dam. The spillway bridge was also designed.
Nevertheless, the Lahontan Dam project ushered in 1914 with a fury.
The annual report reviewed the work features of the project, concentrating primarily on the progress of the main dam. Stripping of the dam site had been accomplished ahead of the embankment. Excavation was 100 percent complete by Sept. 30.
The embankment, wet and rolled, and gravel fill were also 100percebt complete. By Jan. 6, crews started to demolish the 900-foot conveyor trestle across the left spillway and erected a new one to a higher elevation. On Dec. 15,the elevation of the mixed embankment had reached 4,174 feet above sea level.
Other completions in 1914 showed that the placing of gravel under the riprap was completed, and paving was 99 percent finished. Before autumn, crews had finished the cutoff wall that was upstream from the left spillway.
As for the left spillway, a progress report stated, “The left spillway has been concreted to completion this year, having been completed Elev. 4,106 on first riser of main series of steps in 1913 and having 90 percent of buttress walls completed in 1913.”
By December 1914 all forms had been removed, and the left slope had been rock paved.
The right spillway’s completion was also on schedule. In May, the right wall had been formed with a concrete base, and a left wing wall had been completed by Sept. 1. The progress report indicated, “No more work on right spillway except backfilling and paving alongside walls which was carried on at intervals — All work completed by Dec. 31.”
Water elevators were installed on the spillway pools in November and December. A project engineer reported, “The water elevator worked satisfactorily.” By the end of the year, the Outlet Tower was complete and in December, all the gates were painted with red lead and oil, and the gates were eventually opened and supported from the top by timbers.
The work force began to dwindle in 1915. From 267 men working on the dam in July 2014 to 170 on the project in January 1915, crews slowly disbanded for the first half of the year.
Final touches to the project were accomplished in 1915. Crews finished paving the left sloped of the left spillway by Jan. 31, a month after a similar task on the right spillway. The sand cement coping adjacent to the left spillway was resurfaced in June.
Engineers double-checked valves and hand wheels, and the water elevator system was braced. Equipment was also examined and serviced in the Outlet Tower as described in the annual report.
“All cylinders taken apart and cleaned, Feb. and March. Both cylindrical valves were overhauled, new guides placed, and 8-inch temporary air pipe to top of valve, installed in April and May.
“All metal work ahs been painted, gages placed, new stem clamps made and placed, lugs on cylinders shied up, permanent 120-inch air pipe connected to cylindrical valve domes installed and while tower, house, and operating equipment in first-class shape on June 30, 1915.”
With the completion of the Lahontan Dam, the valley began to flourish for a chief agricultural region for Nevada. The distribution services system, which gets its water from the Lahontan Reservoir, encompasses 700 miles of canals, lateral and open drains. With the steady increase in agricultural productivity in the Lahontan Valley since the completion of the dam 100 years ago. Fallon has also earned the nickname, “The Oasis of Nevada.”