Did you know that there are over 85,000 dams in the United States? My goodness! Just eleven of those are in Wyoming – and we’re really fortunate here in Buffalo Bill’s Cody/Yellowstone Country to benefit from the Buffalo Bill Dam, construction of which began on October 19, 1905 and was completed January 15, 1910. The dam provides this area with irrigation water, electricity, recreation opportunities, and a great history lesson.
What’s neat about the Buffalo Bill Dam is not only the value of the crops raised on almost 100,000 acres of now-irrigated agricultural lands, the power generated by the four electric plants fed by the Dam, and the water used for the cities and towns downstream – it’s also the historical significance of how the construction of the dam changed this part of the country.
At the time of its construction, the then-named Shoshone Dam was the tallest concrete dam in the world, at 325 feet. It cost about a million dollars at the time to build the dam, which holds back about 400,000 acre feet of water in the Buffalo Bill Reservoir. Construction was difficult – because the region was so remote, it was hard to recruit and keep workers; additional difficulties ensued because of the steep granite canyon that the dam was built in. And the Shoshone River’s unpredictable flows caused problems – one year, almost half of the annual snowmelt runoff came through within a 30-day period, causing construction to come to a halt almost completely.
The dam was re-named about 30 years after its construction to honor the man who had the vision for the dam and resulting irrigation system, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. The dam was renovated in the 1990s, adding 25 feet to its height, and a visitor center that tells the story about the dam and its effects on the surrounding area.
One of the neat stories about the construction of the Buffalo Bill Dam centers on a town that is no longer there. Beneath the waves of the Buffalo Bill Reservoir are the remnants of the town of Marquette, established in 1890 and named after a colorful rancher by the name of George Marquette. In 1903, the town was described as “consisting of a few scattered log houses, a little log post office and a school-house described as ‘a little lot structure, rude, bare, unattractive, but occupying a lightly sheltered pot on the South Fork of the Shoshone River.’”* In 1905, in preparation for the construction of the dam, the federal government bought the town site as well as some surrounding ranches, to the tune of about $400,000. What buildings weren’t torn down prior to the filling of the reservoir in 1910 still remain at the water’s bottom, ghostly reminders of an era gone by.
The Buffalo Bill Dam Visitor Center, which was added with the addition of the dam in 1993, has preserved the story of the construction of this historic landmark. It functions as a rest area as well as a museum/gift shop, and its exhibits and self-guided audio tour tell the tales of the laborers who toiled to build the dam, those who lost their lives in the effort, and the townsfolk who witnessed the changes to the landscape and to their lives as a result.
The Buffalo Bill Dam Visitor Center is a must-see when you’re planning a vacation to Buffalo Bill’s Cody/Yellowstone Country – don’t miss it!
Corrie N. Cody
*Credit the “Wyoming Tales and Trails” website at http://www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com/