During the 1930s, the famed Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a Depression-era government work program, embarked on a staggering number of public works projects in the state of Nevada. One of the more impressive was Wild Horse Dam in northern Elko County.
The dam was built in 1937 and behind its concrete walls formed Wild Horse Reservoir, a massive pond of water that covered what was once known as Owyhee Meadows. The name, Wild Horse, derived from the large number of wild horses that roamed the area at the time.
Beginning in 1869, Owyhee Meadows was a stop on the Elko-Idaho Toll Road, according to Nevada historian Shawn Hall.
As an aside, the CCC reportedly completed some 59 projects across the state of Nevada, which was the largest recipient of CCC assistance. According to historians, the CCC employed nearly 31,000 men during the 1930s in Nevada, largely benefiting from having so much land owned by the federal government (some 85 percent) and as a result of having two long-serving, influential U.S. senators (Key Pittman and Patrick McCarran) at the time.
Wild Horse Dam stands 87 feet high and has a width of 458 feet. The reservoir is fed by the Owyhee River, a tributary of the Snake River that flows through Northern Nevada, southwestern Idaho and southeastern Oregon. The river stretches some 280 miles from north of Elko to the Snake River at a point near Nyssa, Ore.
The water stored behind the dam, which was reconstructed and enlarged in 1969, is used for agriculture on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation (the dam was built under the auspices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs). When completely filled, the water surface area of Wild Horse is 2,830 acres and contains some 73,500 acre feet of water.
In addition to its irrigation uses, Wild Horse, which is open throughout the year, is a state recreation area that serves as a popular fishing site (rainbow and German brown trout, small mouth bass, yellow perch, and catfish can be found).
In the winter, Wild Horse is one of the coldest spots in the state, which makes it ideal for ice-fishing and ice-skating.
About 32 miles north of the reservoir is the community of Owyhee, heart of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation. The name, Owyhee, was bestowed on the area in 1819 by three Hawaiian trappers working for the Hudson Bay Co. Originally intended to be the phonetic spelling of “Hawaii,” the pronunciation was corrupted by later white settlers.
The Duck Valley Reservation is home to both Shoshone and Northern Paiute people, who were relocated there in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In 1863, the Shoshone or Newe people signed the Ruby Valley Treaty of Peace and Friendship, but the federal government did very little to live up to the terms of the agreement.
The tribe, however, persisted, attempting to establish Duck Valley as their new home. In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes finally signed an order guaranteeing the land to the tribe but promises to provide needed goods and other assistance were unfilled (and diverted) due to corrupt Indian agents.
The situation slightly improved in the early 1880s, when a new agent arrived, and the town of Owyhee became more established. A school was built in 1881 and later in the decade Northern Paiute were added to the reservation. A post office opened in Owyhee in 1899 and telephone service began in 1904.
Disputes with local ranchers over water rights became an ongoing issue during the next decades, with the situation only resolved when the Wild Horse Reservoir was built in 1937.
Today, Owyhee is a largely agricultural community with a population of about 1,000 people.
The Wild Horse State Recreation Area offers a campground with 34 sites that each include a table, shade, fire pit and a camping pad. While there are no hookups, the campground has restrooms and showers year-round and there are centrally-located water faucets and a dump station in the summer.
Those looking to spend a day at the reservoir will find a picnic area with tables and grills as well as a boat ramp next to the day use beach.
For information go to http://parks.nv/gov/parks/wild-horse.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.