Water in the West is a complex issue.  Many state, federal, and occasionally international players and agencies are involved.  Throughout the 19th century, the Federal Government and the American people were driven by a desire to expand and settle.  When the General Land Office (GLO) introduced homesteading, settlers rushed to find land with a solid, dependable water source.  Without water, homesteads failed, disputes occurred, range wars began, crimes were committed, and people were sometimes even killed.  Water was the key ingredient to success or failure.  Settlers on submarginal lands tried to make things work by diverting streams, drilling wells, and collecting rainwater, but eventually their needs outstripped the resources.  By the turn of the 19th century, it became apparent that a more comprehensive solution was needed at the federal level.

 

NN375230 Photo Albums, 1903 - 1972, Salt River Project, box 41 https://catalog.archives.gov/OpaAPI/media/294694/content/arcmedia/media/images/38/30/38-2903a.gif

 

As a result of pressure from western states and grassroots organization, Congress established the Reclamation Act of June 17, 1902.  This Act required water users to repay the construction cost of irrigation (or reclamation) projects.  Reclamation, the Federal Government argued, would open up more unused western land to settlement.  President Theodore Roosevelt supported the push for more settlement in the West and, under the authority of the Reclamation Act, established the United States Reclamation Service within the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).  By 1907, the Reclamation Service was separated from the USGS, and by 1927, it was renamed the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), the same name in use today.

 

The Bureau of Reclamation was made up of like-minded Progressive Era technocrats who saw the undammed water of the West as a wasted resource.  They believed that American strength lay in its land and natural resources, and the ability to harness them.  They believed that by damming unclaimed water they could change arid lands and reform society.  There was no greater supporter of this idealism than John Savage, Chief Design Engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation. 

 

John Lucian “Jack” Savage personified the Bureau of Reclamation in the early part of the twentieth century.  Known as the great dam builder, or the “Billion Dollar Beaver” (The Dams that Jack Builds, Newsweek; New York Vol. 25, Iss. 14, (Apr 2, 1945): 50.), Savage worked with and for the Bureau on and off from 1906 until 1949.  He was one of the major designers of the Grand Coulee and Hoover Dams.  He worked with foreign countries, including Australia, China, and Mexico, assisting them with their hydroelectric projects.  Like many other engineers in BOR, Savage saw an undammed waterway as a wasted resource.

NRG-115-05-088 Case Files on Yangtze Gorge and Three Gorges Dam, China, 1943 - 1996, box 3 photo 2

 

The records of the Bureau of Reclamation reflect the agency's drive to manage water.  Employees saw their mission as critical to the growth of the country and in building communities.  Their philosophy went hand in hand with their intrinsic understanding of their place in history.  BOR records are rich and complex in both topic and coverage.  From the grand plans of the Hoover Dam to the daily activities of ditch riders, BOR captured the American experience for future generations.  As an agency focused on the West, BOR’s headquarters sit in Denver, Colorado, and the majority of their archival records are housed at the National Archives at Denver. 

 

Researchers often overlook BOR records, thinking that the records only consist of dry technical reports.  This is not the case.  Because of BOR's bent towards community building, there is a valuable trove of records.  Holdings include sweeping descriptions and documentation of major dam projects in all their engineering glory, candid photographs, stories of the office mascot’s tragic death, and records of average men who worked during the Great Depression in Reclamation camps.  The tapestry of BOR records is rich, with many unwritten stories waiting to be told.

(8NN-115-85-006 Photo Albums, 1903 - 1972, box 56 Image 5645)

 

For more information about the Bureau of Reclamation’s holdings please visit the National Archives Catalog.  You can find a listing of BOR records here.



Sources

Newsweek; New York Vol. 25, Iss. 14, (Apr 2, 1945): 50

“From Cooksville to Chunking: The Dam-Designing Career of John L. Savage.” Rhodes, Benjamin D. Wisconsin Magazine of History. Summer1989, Vol. 72 Issue 4, p243-272. 30p. http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/wmh/id/36984

8NN-115-85-006 Photo Albums, 1903 - 1972, box 56 Image 5645

NN375230 Photo Albums, 1903 - 1972, Salt River Project, box 41 https://catalog.archives.gov/OpaAPI/media/294694/content/arcmedia/media/images/38/30/38-2903a.gif

NRG-115-05-088 Case Files on Yangtze Gorge and Three Gorges Dam, China, 1943 - 1996, box 3 photo 2