Coolidge Dam

May 18, 2014

In the heart of the San Carlos Indian Reservation and some of the bleakest desert anywhere Arizona is an extraordinary work of public art. It's named for Calvin Coolidge who was President when the dam was inaugurated. Work on the dam was completed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1924-1928, making it one of the oldest major dams in the U.S. It's also the only "multiple dome" dam in the U.S., and the structure resembles three large concrete breasts decorated in over-the-top art deco style and festooned with two giant eagles. We saw not one other person during the 45 minutes we spent photographing and admiring the dam, which magnified the eeriness of this odd structure in the middle of nowhere.The dam was intended to address complaints from Apache Indians on the San Carlos reservation and from Pima and Maricopa Indians on the Gila Indian reservation about the appropriation of increasing amounts of water by non-Indian settlers upstream from their respective reservations. But engineers greatly overestimated the Gila River's average flow, and the reservation never came close to filling in the 1930s. At the dam's dedication, the water level was so low that vegetation was still visible, prompting Will Rogers to quip, "If this was my lake, I'd mow it." However rising waters behind the dam were high enough to flood acres of irrigated farmland along the river along with the town of San Carlos (which was rebuilt upstream at its present location).

The symbolism of the giant eagles facing downstream, their backsides toward the reservation, was surely not lost on the San Carlos Apache.


Photos from an earlier trip to this area on May 6, 2011