Since July 4, my wife and I have had two opportunities to drive across Garrison Dam. The first trip’s destination was Rapid City and the second, Beulah. I drove the first time and she drove the second time.
Have you ever taken a close look at that dam? It’s an incredible feat of engineering. Because I was the passenger the second time, I looked at things I don’t normally get to see as a driver. And as we passed from McLean County into Mercer County, the only thing I could think of is the pressure of the water against the dam itself.
As most of us all know, the dam was built in the late 1940s and very early 1950s. At the time, it was a gargantuan, Panama Canal type of project.
My uncle Troye Kiefer, who is in his 90s and now lives in Yuma, Ariz., worked on the dam in the late ‘40s. What’s interesting about Troye is his memory is really good for someone that age and he has told us some of the things he saw and did while building the dam.
His responsibility was to take soil to the site and drop it off in building the dam high above the water line. At that time, it was just like anyplace else on the Missouri River. But, as Garrison Dam continued to get built, the water level became deeper and deeper. Now, it is supposedly 60 or more feet deep near the dam.
Troye and many of the workers stayed on the McLean County side of the river in a camp just off the river. There were actually several camps at the time, but the one he stayed in became the town of Riverdale. On the Mercer County side is the town of Pick City.
When I was younger my friends and I often talked about creepy scenarios and one of them was, what would happen if Garrison Dam broke loose?
First off, it’s not going to because it was built to actually hold back the pressure of the water and secondly, the dam is constantly being monitored for any change in activity.
One thing I will say, is immediately after 9/11, the governor dispatched the North Dakota Highway Patrol to seal off the dam just in case someone would try to sabotage it.
The National Guard was activated at the same time and many of us assumed we’d be going to Garrison Dam, but it was the Highway Patrol. We were dispatched to monitor public buildings.
The building of the dam created a fishing mecca that has brought a lot of revenue to Pick City, Riverdale, Garrison and even Stanton and Hazen over the years. Fishing tournaments are held with prizes for the largest northern pike etc.
I’ve also heard about the downside of the building of Garrison Dam. That is, communities such as Sanish and Elbowoods were submerged in the flood water and people had to relocate to a new location outside the valley that became known as New Town.
There’s always been a spirited debate between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Three Affiliated Tribes regarding that, however, in recent years the tribe has received generous compensation that has helped on the reservation, most notably the New Town public school system.
The dam also inundated a lot of Missouri River valley farmland. I’m assuming property owners were compensated for their loss, but you can’t beat the productivity of river bottom farmland.
Regardless of how you feel about Garrison Dam, it is a marvel to behold. It is one of those high-profile spots in North Dakota, much like the International Peace Garden or the town of Medora.
It’s been part of who we are now for more than 70 years and the best part about it is the tourism draw, the fishing and the photo opportunities.
One really interesting thing about the dam is as you cross the county line in the middle of the dam, your digital clocks will change immediately from Central Daylight Time to Mountain Daylight Time or vice versa. Even though Mercer County observes Central Time, clocks will change like, no pun intended, clock work.