JFK Dedicates the Dam

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.

Oahe Dam Dedication

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.

Oahe Dam built big for irrigation project

Oahe Dam is one of the largest dams in the world. Consider these dimensions: The dam is 9,300 feet long, 242 feet high, and 4,000 feet wide at its base. This massive dam created a huge artificial lake –fourth largest reservoir in the nation- measuring 230 miles long, with a width reaching up to 20 miles, and an overall shoreline exceeding 2,200 miles. The reservoir permanently flooded 225,000 acres of land, contained water at depths of up to several hundred feet, and holds 23.5 million acre-feet of water, enough to cover all of South Dakota with six inches of water. The Oahe dam was built as large as it was in order to facilitate the development of the Oahe irrigation project. A higher dam meant a higher reservoir, and a higher reservoir decreased the expense required to pump water from the reservoir up and over the surrounding bluffs so irrigation flows could be conveyed easterly via gravity more than 100 miles to proposed irrigation areas north of Huron, in the James River valley. Proponents of large scale water development referred to the successful completion of Oahe Dam as proof that another massive water project, an irrigation project serving eastern South Dakota, could be accomplished.

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.  In the images below, 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.

Before and after Oahe Dam