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John Martin Dam: 75 Years of History

By Nancy Miller

September 19, 2023

The following story mainly comes from an article I wrote for the Bent County Democrat in 1998 following weeks of research.

This year will mark the 75th anniversary since the John Martin Dam, between Lamar and Las Animas, was constructed. An anniversary celebration will be held there on October 21.

Although time and space forbids a complete index in the story of the John Martin Dam, it will be attempted. The information derived for this story comes from reading past articles from several area newspapers.

Area people were fighting to have a dam built long before Franklin D. Roosevelt stated, “We will build Caddoa Dam” while in La Junta campaigning for his presidency in 1936.

A natural dam site was found at the location where John Martin Dam now exists. The dam was necessary to capture the water to use for supplemental irrigation water and also to prevent flood damage downstream. It also provided recreational opportunities and its construction was supposed to end the 30 year water fight with Kansas.

Several key members of the Caddoa Dam committee, such as Arthur S. Dean, fought for the considerable task of building the dam long before funds were available. In 1937 three banks in Las Animas set up accounts so that community members could contribute towards the project. At this time the government had already spent approximately $100,000 to conduct surveys of the area and felt $6,000 should be provided by the farmers and any other willing citizens.

Six months later the amount increased. Now area citizens were told they would have to figure out how to pay $5 million before the government would chip in $7.6 million for the project.

Two men lobbied locally and in Washington to get the federal government to foot the bill. Dean fought from Colorado and Colorado Congressman John A. Martin fought from Washington.

It has been said that FDR passed near the site for the dam in the middle of the night on a train and several locals had a fire going to catch his attention. Perhaps this helped in his signing a bill on June 29, 1939, to allocate $3,550,000 for Caddoa Dam to begin construction. The people would get the dam at no cost to the farmers.

The project approval meant many changes to the area. The town of Caddoa with a population of 40-50 would be the future site of the reservoir area so it was to be moved, including its cemetery. Congress would spend millions on buying 20,648 acres of land from current owners and nearly $2 million would be spent to move 21 miles of Santa Fe Railroad tracks.

As soon as news of FDR signing the bill broke, an impromptu celebration was held in Las Animas and then a more formal gala was held on October 13, 1939. The celebration brought in over 11,000 participants and included a formal program, carnival rides, two big jitney dances and a football game against high schools in Las Animas and Lamar.

Announcements and meetings were held to let citizens know the project would begin in the fall and take four years to completion. During peak periods, 1,000 men or more would be working on the dam with three shifts to ensure constant work. Citizens were warned they should be setting up temporary communities that offered housing, sanitation and schools. They warned it would be foolish to prohibit the sale of liquor in Caddoa or Hasty. It would be more dangerous for the men to drive to Las Animas or Lamar to drink. Despite opposition from churches and a group led by Willard J. Allen, liquor establishments were permitted.

Immediately after the meeting a building spurt began in Las Animas, Hasty and Caddoa. Before long new homes and businesses were sprouting up everywhere – especially in Caddoa and Hasty which was then dubbed “The gateway city to the Caddoa Dam project.” In Hasty, several new businesses were opened including over 10 dining places, a roller rink and the Haca movie theater. Haca was used because it was the first two letters in Hasty and Caddoa.

Eventually it was decided to change the name of the dam Instead of Caddoa Dam, it would now be called John Martin Dam, after the congressman who battled in Washington for the project. Unfortunately, he never saw the completion of the project as he died in 1939.

Santa Fe Railroad Moved

Bids were taken to relocate approximately 21 miles of the railroad. The company was not enthused about moving the railroad because they felt the dam would eventually be useless. Western Contracting Company of Sioux City, Iowa, had the lowest bid of $1,058,668. The company had also agreed to begin work within 20 days and completing it within one year. As soon as Western Contracting Company set up an office in Caddoa, there were approximately 1,200 people applying to work. At the peak of construction, it employed 350 and work continued 24-hours per day. The American Federation of Labor began trying to organize unions but these attempts were voted down by the workers.

The sand dunes and rats were two serious problems faced during the moving of the railroad. Nearly 500 acres in the 1,296 acre area was purely sand dunes with the remainder being sage brush. Experimental steps were taken to successfully add vegetation to halt the shifting sands. Several varieties of grass were planted in the sage brush area and thousands of sand rats were killed using poison.

By May, 1940 the project was ready to be turned over to Santa Fe to lay the tracks and construct the signal system.

Bids for Dam

Nine bids were received and Colorado Portland Cement Company was awarded the contract for cement. It was to be hauled in by train by Santa Fe utilizing 50 special cement freight cars.

The bidding period to construct the dam was during the summer of 1940. People celebrated with dances and a carnival at the prospect of the dam portion of the project finally beginning. The contract was awarded to two companies that had bid jointly as the Caddoa Constructors. The bid amounted to $7.1 million and the project was to begin within 20 days.

Western Contracting had completed the railroad project and then sub-contracted other work on the dam. A retainer wall was built by Western Contracting above the dam site to cut off the underground flow of water. Behind this wall the workers dug until reaching bedrock on which the base of the dam would rest.

Project Completion

In March of 1943, nearly three years into the project, the dam was put on hold due to World War II. Only some guards and a skeleton crew remained. Caddoa Contractors once had 1,200 employees and now only a handful of them were left to remove equipment.

The project was back on track three years later with the Morrison-Knudson Company of Boise, Idaho constructing it. Work was to begin in June of 1946 for approximately $1 million.

The dam was finally completed in October, 1948 – 75 years ago. Formal operation of the dam was not until April 1, 1949, following a special grand opening ceremony. Approximately 5,000 people from Colorado and Kansas braved freezing wind and snow to attend the grand opening ceremony. Addresses by Governors Lee Knous of Colorado and Frank Carlson of Kansas dealt mainly with the recently approved Kansas-Colorado water compact. Both officials pointed to this action as the beginning of more amicable relations between the two states. Unfortunately, the dam did not the end the water troubles between Colorado and Kansas as hoped. Thousands of gallons of water roared through the gate of the dam as Mrs. John A. Martin pressed an electric switch formally opening the structure which her late husband had done so much to make a reality.

John Martin Reservoir Today

For the past 75 years, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has maintained the dam and John Martin Reservoir. In the past couple of years, more than $10 million in updates have been made. Currently, a large scale dredging project is underway as well as concrete repairs on the dam bridge.

For the past 55 years, a majority of the reservoir south shore, west end and part of the north shore were licensed to Colorado Parks and Wildlife (previously known as Colorado Division of Wildlife) and managed as a state wildlife area. This arrangement ended on September 1 of this year but CPW will continue to ensure that those hunting or fishing these 19,471 acres have the appropriate state licenses. The Corps of Engineers has resumed control of the areas previously designated as state wildlife areas around the reservoir. Due to federal-wide USACE policies, dispersed camping will no longer be allowed on any of the former wildlife areas. Visitors may continue to hunt, fish, swim, picnic, etc. on this portion of the reservoir. The only fees associated with these areas will be licenses to hunt or fish. A wildlife pass is no longer necessary to access the wildlife areas.

In 2001, Gov. Bill Owens signed an agreement with the USACE to assume management of the recreational areas. According to the USACE website, the recreational facilities at Lake Hasty and on the north shore of the John Martin Reservoir, including the boat ramps and campgrounds, are leased to and managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife as a Colorado State Park. When changes were made last month to the wildlife areas of the reservoir, no changes were made to the 25-year agreement USACE has with the Colorado State Park portion of the reservoir where fees are collected for entry and for camping.

Up until 2001, locals were fortunate to access all areas of the reservoir without any entry fees. USACE only charged those utilizing the developed campground at Lake Hasty. Aside from fishing and hunting license costs, the reservoir had been a low-cost recreational activity for the public to enjoy.

John Martin Reservoir State Park received approximately 250,000 visitors in fiscal year 2022 according to its website. Visitors enjoy fishing, boating, camping, hiking, bird watching, and more.

USACE can be contacted to request tours of the dam or to rent its pavilion for special occasions. An 18-hole disc golf course and interpretive trail is also available on the south side of the river, downstream from the dam, near the USACE office.

Watch for further information on the 75th anniversary celebration to be held October 21. Colorado State Parks will be waiving all entry fees that day. More information can be obtained on Facebook at USACE John Martin Reservoir.

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