1928: Original Scofield Dam nears collapse shortly after being built
(Editor's note: This is the first of two articles about the near collapse of the first Scofield Dam that took place in 1928).
While many people know that the Scofield Dam that exists today was built during World War II, few realize that there was another Scofield Dam built in 1925-26 that existed just a little west of the present dam.
And the second year it was to entirely fill with water, a problem appeared. The dam began to leak, and leak badly.
For years the people of the county wanted a place to store water in the mountains so it could be released as it was needed for the valley below. They also wanted some storage so that in drought years they could have a more regular supply of water for agriculture. The first attempt at such a structure was in 1915-16 when the Mammoth Dam was built in Sanpete County just below where the little Gooseberry Reservoir stands today. In the spring of 1917, that concrete dam collapsed, flooding everything downstream in a disaster it took years to recover from. One woman even lost her life when she fell into the rushing torrent as it passed under a bridge in south Price.
So after World War I, the Price River Water Conservation District began planning for another dam. This one would be built in Carbon county, in Pleasant Valley. In the mid-1920s they sold bonds to fund the dam to the tune of $750,000 (in 2013 dollars that would amount to almost $10 million).
In the first year of operation the dam stored about 10,000 acre feet of water. The second year (1927) it stored about 43,000 acre feet and by the end of that irrigation season, between 23,000 and 30,000 acre feet of water remained in the reservoir to be carried over to the next year.
For that time the dam was large. It measured 435 feet from one bank to the other and was 180 feet thick at its base. It rose about 50 feet above the Lower Fish Creek stream bed. The spillway could accommodate 4,800 second feet of water. At the time of the design this was thought to be more than enough because the largest flood measured up to that time (without counting in the flood from the Mammoth Dam collapse) was 900 second feet.
The winter of 1928 was a heavy snow event and the spring brought some rain. But the increased water coming from the surrounding mountains was not the cause alarm that was sounded on May 21, 1928. It came from a breach that appeared and was found by the dam's caretaker.
"Monday morning was the time of the first announcement that the lives and property of over 12,000 residents of Carbon county were imperiled by the waters impounded in the great reservoir," stated the News-Advocate on the front page, which was covered with stories about attempts to save the dam. "They came when the dam's caretaker, Jack Booth, on his morning inspection discovered that there were an alarming group of leaks at various parts of the rear of the dam."
As he watched the leaks parts of the dam started to give away. He immediately called officials through the Scofield operator in Price, and with that a huge effort to save the dam began. The Denver Rio Grande railroad dispatcher was also informed, because after the Mammoth Dam break, the railroad incurred huge losses as the water washed down Price Canyon and through Castle Gate.
The mines in the area were also notified and they immediately sent workers to help fill in the breech in the dam. Residents of Scofield were also some of the first on the scene.
"(Those workers) started carrying sacks (of fill) to reinforce the dike as much as possible," reported the paper. "The initial efforts at reinforcing the dam were rather frenzied and disorganized."
Over the next few hours about three fifths of the front of the dam collapsed, making more water rush out through the back of the dam. A lot of fill that had been used to reinforce the dam was lost. A road engineer from the Carbon County Road Department arrived and got the workers organized in to companies and he began to have them the fill in the areas where the most water was running into. By 10 a.m. that morning a special train with fill materials and bags was dispatched from Price. However the trains crew discovered a wash out of the tracks near Colton that needed to be fixed before the train could proceed. When the train arrived the crew found a small group of workers tired, discouraged and out of materials. They resumed their work as soon as the supplies got there, but within a short time reports from those on the spot later reported that another collapse on the front of the dam made the whole structure "quiver."
"(To the workers) The labor expended appeared lost," stated the Wednesday paper. "And the fight to save the lives and the homes of the inhabitants below the dam was apparently wasted."
As night approached the resolution of the workers trying to save the dam "began to wane" said the paper. The darkness of the mood of the people matched the night that was falling around them. Some reinforcements had arrived but the water was taking its toll on both the dam itself and on the men and women working to reinforce the structure.
By 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning the fight appeared lost. The dam was leaking badly and there just weren't enough people to fill in the gaps.
It was a challenge that the entire county would need to take on.
Cutline for photo: This is a scene that many who worked to save the first Scofield Dam in 1928 wanted to avoid. The photo shows some of the damage the flood from the Mammoth Dam collapse in 1917 wrought on the town of Castle Gate.