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1962 Oahe Dam Dedication

Oahe Dam Dedication (timeline image)

On August 17, 1962 President John F. Kennedy addressed a huge, excited crowd at the Oahe Dam dedication. The dam was built 242 feet high. A request by ranchers and farmers owning land along the river that the federal government build a smaller dam and flood less land was ignored.  At the time Oahe was the largest earthen dam in the world.


President Kennedy's speech at the Oahe Dam dedication reflected the popular thinking of the day.  He said, "This dam provides a striking illustration of how a free society can make the most of its God-given resources...Too often we see no connection between this dam and our nation's prosperity...But the facts of the matter are that this dam, and many more like it, are as essential to the ...growth of the American economy as any measure the Congress is considering on taxes or unemployment..."   This attitude -as reflected in the president's remarks- would be slowly eroded as the national environmental movement gained a foothold within American society and achieved political successes. Within 20 years a sitting president would actually question the value of many dams on many of America's rivers, a reversal of the philosophy expressed by President Kennedy.

Before and after Oahe Dam

The construction of Oahe dam destroyed the natural Missouri River in central South and North Dakota.  The characteristics of the river described by Lewis & Clark were covered by a vast sheet of water.  At left is the natural river and its bottomlands. Oahe reservoir (right, behind the dam) covered a total of about 100,000 acres of natural grasslands, 62,000 acres of forests and timber, 17,000 acres of croplands, and 44,000 acres of wetlands.  Islands, sand dunes, beaches, backwater marshes and great groves of cottonwood trees perished.  The most diverse and richest ecosystem on the northern plains was eliminated, and many species of wildlife, including birds, mammals and fish were harmed. The new, artificial lake -popularly called Lake Oahe- became a valuable recreational resource with government-stocked walleye and salmon attracting anglers and related businesses.  It should be noted that early planners and promoters of Oahe Dam did not anticipate the economic value and recreational potential of Oahe reservoir.