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Historically Speaking: Dam versus irrigation

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Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. The caption reads, "Looking upstream below the spillway. Water may be seen pouring through the diversion tunnel to the right of the spillway bottom. Clovis Evening News — Journal, 1937."

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

New Alamogordo dam versus Pecos Valley irrigation

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

Allegedly, Ft. Sumner’s lake and dam were created initially by the soldiers, Navajos and Apaches held in captivity in 1864. Who would have guessed this? The history of this dam, originally called Alamogordo dam, is amazing. The following story tells of how irrigation in the Pecos Valley got its start.

Clovis Evening News Journal

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“New Alamogordo Dam Is Climax In Drama Of Pecos Valley Irrigation

“First Ditch Dug By Soldiers And Indians At Fort Sumner In 1864

“May 31, 1937

“Ever since radical changes in climatic conditions dried up the great prehistoric rivers of the Southwest many thousands of years ago, water has been most precious, the most sought after thing in the land. More to be desired than gold it is, and man’s efforts to convert this once barren land into a garden spot constitutes one of the greatest sagas of all time.

“Irrigation has played a most important part in this conquest. Streams have been diverted into ditches in many a valley, and thousands of irrigation wells have been drilled in the shallow water belts. The results belie the belief of many people that this section is a veritable desert.

“The Pecos River Valley near Fort Sumner in DeBaca county, 60 miles west of Clovis, is the cradle of irrigation work in this region, and it is today the best example of the wonder that can be wrought with water and unceasing human toil.

“Started in 1864

“In 1864 the North and South were still locked in the bitter struggle of the Civil War, but the war had little or no significance to this expansive, undeveloped section. It seemed as remote as does a South American revolution today.

In that year, Brigadier General James H. Carleton and Kit Carson, famed Indian scout, had just finished corralling 5,000 Navajo and Apache Indians on the Bosque Redondo reservation at the present site of Fort Sumner, and Carleton, seeking to make the Indians self-supporting, started the first irrigation project the country had ever seen.

“Old Plan Still Used

“The soldiers and Indians built a low dam across the Pecos River and dug a canal for irrigation purposes. It is a tribute to the good judgment that two diversion dams have since been built near the site of the original damn and that present ditches follow in part those that were dug under Carleton’s direction.

“From that day to this, industrious farmers of the Pecos Valley have written a history of inspiring progress in spite of occasional setbacks. The climax of this thrilling story is being inscribed even now, as an army of workmen labor to complete the $2 million Alamogordo dam 17 miles up-river from Fort Sumner.

“Fort Sumner Prospers

“Construction of this great earthen dam has brought a mild boom to Fort Sumner due to the size of the payroll, but no more land is to be ‘brought under the ditch’ at present.

“The Alamogordo dam will, however, ensure a permanent, continual source of water for the whole valley, and historians may someday date the beginning of real economic security along the pages from the completion of this big project.

“Average precipitation in the Fort Sumner district is only a little over 17 inches per year, enough for wheat and a few other hardy crops adapted to dry farming methods but not nearly sufficient for the truck gardening that is now the lifeblood of the valley.

“Had Early Reverses

“The first crop planted on 3,000 acres of irrigated land near Fort Sumner consisted largely of corn, and oxen furnished the power. This crop was destroyed by cutworms, but General Carleton was undaunted and had more land ‘broken out’  until 5000 acres were under cultivation. But the 1865 crop was destroyed by cutworms too, and the Indians had to be put on what today would be called a ‘dole’ or ‘direct relief.’ By 1867 the Indian population of the Bosque Redondo reservation was about 10,000 and it cost the government $55,000 a month to feed them.

“Adverse conditions, sickness and other reasons caused General Carleton to abandon his irrigation plans, and in 1868 the Indians were allowed to return to their former haunts. The Navajos went back to their old country in the western part of the state, and there they remain to this day. The Bosque Redondo reservation, said to have covered forty square miles along the Pecos River, was abandoned and old Fort Sumner was de-militarized.

“Maxwell Came Next

“The future of irrigation along the Pecos looked dark indeed, but it was speedily revived. When the Army post was abandoned in 1868, Lucian B. Maxwell sold the Maxwell land grant in the northern part of the state and bought the Bosque Redondo reservation and the old fort.

“Maxwell, used to doing things in a large way, irrigated and farmed the land that had been under cultivation by the Indians. Soon Fort Sumner was known as a great trading center and was known as ‘The Garden Spot of New Mexico,’ and in 1884, Maxwell interested a group of Colorado cattlemen, Daniel S. Taylor, Lonny Horn, and Sam Doss, in the property. They and the New England Cattle Company bought Maxwell out that year and stocked the ranges with cattle. Many of the great groves of trees which caused the Pecos Valley from Fort Sumner south for 40 miles to be known as the Bosque Grande, or ‘great woods,’ were cleared from the land, and the valley entered upon dark days.

“Drought Destroyed Cattle

“Irrigation was virtually abandoned, and the range was soon overstocked with cattle. With the coming of a period of drouth, the cattle were unable to survive and the owners losses were appalling. The depression of 1893 put on the finishing touches, and the cattlemen were forced to ship or drive their livestock to other regions, mainly to Colorado.

“From 1893 to 1900, Fort Sumner was again forsaken; there being no caretakers, the buildings began falling down and by 1900 there were no complete buildings left standing at the site of old Fort Sumner.

“Railroad Brought Settlers

“The second revival came in 1906–07, when the Santa Fe Railway banded this country together with steel rails. With the railroad came the influx of settlers, and two men named McCanne and Temple bought the part of the old reservation East of the Pecos, and started the Fort Sumner Irrigation Project. They dug a canal, following, in the main, the same course used by the Indians and soldiers 42 years before. The new diversion dam they built was about 3 miles north of the present site of Fort Sumner (which is 6 miles up river from the ruins of the old military post) and was on the site of the old dam used by the Maxwells. Since then a new concrete diversion dam has been constructed a short distance above there.

“Since 1905 the Pecos Valley near Fort Sumner has become a veritable garden spot. The valley has been broken up into small, thoroughly cultivated farms, and an air of comfort … . Fruits of all kinds grow in small plots along the roads lined with tall trees that contrast delightfully with the surrounding plains.

“New Era of Progress

“The valley is now undergoing a new era of development. Progress has been steady since 1905, but more land was brought ‘under the ditch’ two years ago with the completion of the new concrete diversion dam, which is 14 feet high and 680 feet across the top. It is a pygmy, however, when compared with the Alamogordo dam some 14 miles further upstream.

“This dam, which is to be completed next winter, will be 135 feet high in the middle and will be more than half a mile long, 3,300 feet, to be exact.

“It was made necessary by the fact that McMillan dam near Carlsbad, 175 miles downstream, will no longer hold water. …. McMillan dam is seated on alkali rock, which has developed big seeps. Alamogordo dam will impound water for both the Fort Sumner and Carlsbad irrigation projects, and the water will be released downstream when needed for irrigation.

“Could Hold Water Now

“As has been said before, no more land is to be brought under the ditch at Fort Sumner at present, but the new dam will ensure a continual supply of water. It will also aid in flood control, impounding floodwaters and releasing them during dryer seasons.

“According to W. W. Baker, construction engineer who is in charge of a staff of 25 inspectors of the Bureau of Reclamation, Department of the Interior, no water will be impounded until this winter, probably in November. The dam is now far enough advanced, however, that it could impound water in an emergency.

“The contractors, the Hallet Construction Company of Crosby, Minnesota, have now reached the point where they can breathe more easily. The past few months, however, have seen feverish activity, the workmen racing against time and the river to get the dam up high enough and strong enough to withstand any spring floods.

“Speed Is Remarkable

“The speed with which it has been constructed is one of the most remarkable features of the Alamogordo dam. Due to the fall floods, work could not be started until October 15, 1936. By April 15, just six months later, 1,400,000 yd.³ of clay, gravel and rock have been piled across the Pecos Valley between two high rock bluffs.

“If those figures aren’t impressive, just consider the fact that 1,500,000 yd.³ meant more than 261,000 truckloads – and big truckloads at that. The trucks used to haul 6 yards at a time. During those six months they actually hauled some 1,568,000 yd.³ of material, but this was packed down to 1,400,000 yd.³ in the dam.

“16 Times Around World

“Since the borrow pits where all this material was secured are over 4,000 feet from the dam-site, the trucks had to travel more than 400,000 miles, or as far as 16 times around the world at the equator. And, of course, there is many a cubic yard to be hauled yet.

“When it is finished the dam will contain 1,540,000 yd.³ of clay and gravel, and 325,000 yd.³ of rock.

“Worked Day and Night

“Work went on unabashed night and day. Great search lights almost literally converted night into day, and the scene was indeed a spectacular one, with long lines of trucks creeping up the steep grades, their motors roaring in compound gear. Nothing slowed them up except for a few days of sub-freezing weather.

“During the rush, more than 900 men were employed on the dam. This number has now been cut to around 500. Night shifts are still used, but as a special concession the men are allowed to rest on Sundays. Most of the workmen live in squatters shacks and tents scattered over the hills but some of the single men live in bunkhouses. Since many of the men have their families with them, the dam-site is a good sized little city. When the dam is completed, however, the government will see to it that every shack is torn down and moved away. The entire dam-site will be scrupulously cleaned up, and only the reclamation bureaus buildings atop Government Hill overlooking the dam, will remain.

“From a sightseeing standpoint the dam will be more or less isolated, for the present Fort Sumner – Santa Rosa Highway, which runs a few miles east of there, is being rerouted several miles further away. The highway will still lead to the dam, however, and the road will cross the top. It will go only a few miles west of there to a settlement.

“The dam gets its name from Alamogordo creek, which empties into the Pecos about a half a mile above there. Translated literally from the Spanish the name means ‘fat cottonwood.’

“Alamogordo dam is expected to become an important pleasure resort in the next few years. The state plans to stock the lake with all kinds of fish, and it will be a paradise for boaters. Summer lodges are expected to spring up all around it. The dam will back up water in the Pecos River and Alamogordo creek for 20 miles and will impound 158,000 acre feet of water. That means the equivalent of 158,000 acres, covered to a depth of one foot.

“It’s All Automatic

“The big floodgates will weigh many tons, but no massive machinery will be necessary to raise them. It will all be automatic. The gates will be counter balanced, and when the water rises to the top of the spillway, it will enter pipes and raise floats which will in turn actuate levers which will raise the gates. Only a caretaker will be necessary to see that everything functions smoothly, and a few laborers will take care of what work there is to do.

“Alamogordo dam, they say, should last a hundred years, and by then it will long since have paid for itself through irrigation of the valuable crops of the Fort Sumner and Carlsbad irrigation districts and through flood control.”

Janice Dunnahoo of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives can be reached at 575-622-7004 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.

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