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The Four Counties of Grand Lake O' The Cherokees in Northeast Oklahoma

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A History of Pensacola Dam
"World's Longest Multiple Arch Dam"
By Rusty Fleming, former publisher, Chronicle of Grand Lake

In over 60 years, our beautiful Grand Lake O' the Cherokees has never looked better. The rapidly expanding shoreline development, yacht clubs, marinas, luxury resorts and golf courses were but a gleam in the eye of visionaries back in the 1930’s when the idea for construction of Pensacola Dam first appeared.

Early photo of Grand Lake from below Pensacola Dam - GRDA Photo

Today, Grand Lake is Oklahoma’s  number one tourist attraction, enticing visitors and residents alike to the pleasures of boating, sailing, fishing, skiing, swimming and scuba diving.

The first hydroelectric system in Oklahoma, Pensacola Dam also provides flood control for the Grand River. Pensacola Dam generates power for the Grand River Dam Authority to provide electric service in 24 counties, plus businesses both in and outside the State of Oklahoma.

While riding herd on his Dad’s cattle about the turn of the century, Henry C. Holderman first envisioned building dams on the Grand River to provide the Cherokee Nation with electricity.

A few years later, he and his brother, Bert, and two engineering students from Spaulding University built a houseboat and floated down the river in search of suitable sites. They were, in fact, the first to complete an engineering survey for the dam. But it was still just a dream. For years, Holderman looked for financing. In fact, as part of a loosely organized lobby group called “the rainbow chaser,” he made a hard trip from Oklahoma to Washington, D.C. to attempt to secure funding for the dam.

Jack Rorschach and George Schaefer of Vinita, along with Clay Babb and Owen L. Butler of Grove, made up the remaining “rainbow chasers.” Then, as now, funding was a function of being at the right place at the right time.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought his whistle-stop re-election train tour through Oklahoma, he stopped briefly in Vinita. He had to. You see, in a never-ending attempt to get Presidential attention, George Schaefer managed to get a city ordinance approved in Vinita requiring all Presidential trains to stop in the community if they passed through. The President’s train passed through – and had to stop—by law. It worked. FDR was greeted by a large crowd and a banner strung along the north end of the depot which read, “Let’s Build Grand River Dam.”

 The President thanked Vinita for arranging the unscheduled stop, and said he would see what he could do about funding the dam. With the help of U.S. Representatives Wesley E. Disney and W.R. Holway, funding was approved in September, 1937. In October, 1937, engineers Holway and Heufer began surveying and engineering. Massman Construction of Kansas City was the prime contractor, and construction began in December, 1938.

Unbelievably, especially considering the equipment of the day, the dam was completed in 20 months. The final openings in the dam (under arches seven and eight) were closed in March, 1940, and Grand Lake was full by the end of that summer!

Pre-construction clearing for Pensacola Dam - looking east.

The Pensacola Dam remains today a true wonder, and still the largest multiple arch dam in the world, spanning 5,145 feet with 51 arches and 21 spillways. Rising 150 feet above the river bed, the dam holds the waters that form Grand Lake’s 1,300 miles of scenic shoreline, surrounding approximately 60,000 surface acres of water.

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