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SCOUTING YESTERDAY: Oahe Dam project brings tens of thousands to Pierre area, prompts visit from JFK
This week in South Dakota history: Sept. 13-19
Construction of the Oahe Dam officially started Sept 16, 1948, according to the Lead Daily Call. Thousands attended the groundbreaking and dedication ceremony held at a nearby bluff overlooking the dam site.
Keynote speaker Maj. Gen. Lewis A. Pick, co-founder of the Pick-Sloan plan for river development, championed the project saying, “The benefits which it will bring in good seasons and in bad ones will, I am convinced, pay back over and over again the investment of funds required for its construction.”
Also speaking at the ceremony was South Dakota Congressman Francis Case, who led several campaigns before the House appropriations committee to obtain funds for the project. Case urged the state to develop plans to make use of the resources provided by the dam. Of the electricity generated, Case said, “These dams are being built with taxes paid by everyone. And everyone in South Dakota … should share in the benefits.”
Costing an estimated $221 million, the dam would exceed all funds ever appropriated by the state Legislature. Col. L.W. Prentiss, Omaha district engineer, stated an estimated 10,500 employees and their families would relocate to the Pierre area during construction, according to The Daily Plainsman.
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The Lead Daily Call reported the dam would be the second largest dam in the world when constructed. Using 92 million cubic yards of rolled earth, the dam was to be 230 feet high and 9,300 feet long and would hold back 21.8 million acre feet of water. An annual average of approximately 21 million acre feet of water passed through Pierre between 1898 and 1948.
Closure of the dam on Aug 3, 1958, flooded the Missouri River valley creating Lake Oahe, the fourth largest man made reservoir in the United States, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A dedication ceremony was held in 1962 featuring President John F. Kennedy when the first two of the dam’s seven turbines went online.
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Approximately 370,000 acres were flooded following the damming of the river, which has led to a variety of legal issues for the Army Corps. Nearly 105,000 acres of the land flooded belonged to tribes or members of tribes, according to Native Sun News. The federal Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Equitable Compensation Act of 2000 provided $290.7 million plus $144 million in back interest in recognition that the federal government unjustly compensated the tribe for the Oahe dam and reservoir construction.
A lawsuit was filed in 2014 claiming the Army Corps violated constitutional protections against taking property without just compensation during the 2011 flooding. The lawsuit claimed the Army Corps adjusted how it managed the Missouri River’s flow to prioritize protecting endangered fish and birds. The federal government in 2020 was ordered to pay landowners for years of flooding, crop losses and damages, according to the Associated Press.
During normal operation, more than 400,000 gallons of water pass through the dam’s tunnels each second to generate up to 780,000 kilowatts of electricity, according to the Army Corps. Operators have the ability to move more than 3.1 million gallons per second using additional tunnels and spillway gates. The highest volume of water to ever pass through the dam was 1.2 million gallons per second in June 2011.
Notable happenings in South Dakota history
Sept 13, 1923 — 101 schools in Pennington County are open for the school year, according to the Rapid City Journal. 50 other county schools which have eight-month terms will be open before Oct 1, as required by law.
Sept 14, 1973 — Three 15-year-old Mitchell boys have been missing from their homes since August 9th, according to The Daily Republic. The boys were found in October, living and working in Kansas City, Missouri. One boy phoned his mother, who happened to be an employee of the Davis County sheriff and was able to have the call traced.
Sept 18, 1998 — South Dakota proclaims the day POW/MIA Recognition Day, according to the Argus Leader. The proclamation called on President Clinton to press Vietnam in its search for the remains of 2,086 missing U.S. soldiers, including eight South Dakotans.
Sept 19, 1948 — The Rapid City Journal reports Lyle F. Watts, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, was the featured speaker before a crowd of 4,000 for the 50th anniversary of the Black Hills National Forest in Nemo. Watts championed the Black Hills conservation program saying, “very few of our national forests anywhere in the United States are in as good condition as the two in the Black Hills area.”