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War footing brings new dam to Scofield

Sun Advocate publisher

The American ships in Pearl Harbor were still smoldering when government officials realized that a shattered Scofield Dam could create a problem for the national defense effort.

Before Dec. 7, 1941, plans were in place to build a large steel plant near Provo. Geneva Steel occupied a key position in national defense after the plant started producing in 1943. Even if a West Coast invasion had been planned, at the time the Japanese had no planes capable of flying 800 miles inland to bomb Geneva Steel. But the plant was still constructed to withstand potential attacks.

The roof tops on the buildings were designed to take direct hits from 1,000-pound bombs and not give way to allow penetration through to the floor of the plant.

In addition, the majority of the natural resources required to produce high grade steel to armor battleships and cruisers in the United States Navy were located within several hundred miles of the Geneva operation. One of the most important resources was high grade coal from Carbon County. The black resource was transported to the plant by steam engines traveling through Price and Spanish Fork canyons.

But war economic development planners looked back 25 years and worried. When Mammoth Dam collapsed in 1917, more than 10 billion gallons of flooding water rushed down the canyon. It had taken the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad almost one month to repair the related flood damage in order to get the steam engines back on the tracks.

In 1942, the old Scofield dam, in the structure's 1926 configuration, stored almost three times as much water as Mammoth had when it collapsed. It was also much closer to the tracks that transported the coal to the Utah county steel plant. The engineers surmised that a structural failure at the existing Scofield dam could result in triple the amount of flood-related damages as the Mammoth collapse, halt the transportation of high grade coking coal and virtually cripple the operations at the Geneva Steel plant.

With the U.S. War and Interior departments behind the push to construct a strong large dam, it appeared Carbon County water concerns would obtain full federal backing to create a reservoir that could store 75,000 acre feet of water safely.

At that time, most historical documents indicate that the Carbon and Sanpete water development projects separated, primarily because Scofield Dam had national defense ramifications and Gooseberry did not. So in January 1942, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation claimed the Scofield dam development as a national defense project and actively started preparations to build a new structure.

Up until that time local officials thought the Civilian Conservation Corps would provide the principal labor force to construct the structure. But with America's entrance into the war, the CCC disbanded as jobs became plentiful or the men went in the U.S. military service. In fact, labor shortages would plague the entire country in general and the Scofield project, in particular, throughout the war.

On Jan. 22, 1942, the Sun Advocate reported that the Price River Water Conservation District and the Sanpete residents who agreed to pay approximately $70,000 or 40 percent Scofield's building costs in exchange for Gooseberry support decided to pull out of the project. The PRWCD members decided that if Sanpete wanted to buy back into the project it would cost them at least $116,000 to do so.

According to the newspaper report, the Price district felt "this would entitle them to the use of some of the water from the watersheds."

Because of Sanpete's pullout PRWCD determined at the time that it would have to come up with more money. Because of that the district would have to obtain approval from Carbon County voters to increase the mill levy from .2 to .3.

Less than two weeks later, PRWCD forwarded a resolution to the U.S. Congress through the Utah delegation requesting federal assistance to build the dam in Pleasant Valley. The resolution indicated PRWCD would "with the full intention of setting up a legal organization that can and will participate in the paying back ... the proportion of funds which the federal government might advance at this time for immediate construction of this dam."

But despite BOR's concerns regarding the old Scofield dam, the wheels of government turned slowly. The construction of the dam was delayed not by labor or material shortages due to the war, but by the political and legal ramifications of the project.

The funding had been approved by the federal government, the courts had ruled that the Carbon Water Conservancy District could tax citizens of the area to repay the $213,000 they would owe in loans, and the public had given it's overwhelming support in a February 1944 election saying the Scofield dam should be built. It seemed all the hurdles had been overcome and the dam would be well on its way to completion by the end of the summer.But that wasn't the way it was to be.

Beginning May 1, the work on the structure itself was proceeding well. The contractor, W.W. Clyde of Springville had jumped on the project and was moving along at good speed. But there was one major problem; the company had less than half the workers they needed to get the job done.

A hot-war time economy and large numbers of men in the military drew away many of those that would normally have run the heavy equipment and done the solid hand labor needed to complete the dam. It's hard to imagine in today's economy, but there was a labor shortage.

When the high schools in the county released students for the summer, the county and the contractor recruited many of them to work on the project. With that added youthful help the dam construction began to progress much faster. In fact, even though work was far behind on June 1 of that year, on July 18, just three days past when it was originally planned to be finished, the work crews had completed the outlet works. This was a horseshoe section five feet in diameter that would eventually carry 210 cubic feet of water per second and was designed to allow the water to flow around where the dam was actually being constructed. At that point the cut off trench, where the dam would be located, was being pumped out so work could proceed on the base of the new dam.

During the rest of the summer and into the early fall the dam site was excavated down to 63 feet below the old water level in the river. This was done because the old Scofield dam upstream had almost failed fifteen years earlier because it was not attached solidly to bedrock. Over 4,000 bags of cement were used to fill bore holes to anchor the dam to the bedrock.

At the time it was hoped that the actual earth fill and concrete structure could be mostly finished by the fall, but as soon as school opened the construction company lost most of its school boy help, slowing things down immensely. It turned bitter cold in early November and the work had to be halted.

Work then resumed in late April of 1945 and continued through the fall. Workers to labor on the project were still in short supply, even though the war was winding down with the fall of Germany in the spring and finally the surrender of the Japanese Empire in September. Work stopped once again in late October as early snows and cold came, but by that time the dam was almost completely finished with only clean up work and fine tuning needing to be done.

In the spring of 1946, with veterans returning and the country still on many kinds of rationing due more to domestic shortages than to the recent war, finish up construction began on the site. The highway over the dam was finished and the railroad tracks moved to where they are today. In addition some items like pipe railing, channel excavating and outlet work detail were being finished. The complete job was done by June 15, 1946.

In early July a certificate of appropriation was issued from the state water engineer's office. This certificate covered the water that would be stored in the reservoir each year, and it was based on an original filing from the late 1800s.

At the time the state engineer released a statement that the filing was the longest held certificate in the state.

Editors note: This is the fifth article in a series examining the Gooseberry Narrows project controversy.

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