At age 72, Grand Lake O’ The Cherokees has never looked better. Rapidly expanding shoreline development, yacht clubs, ever-expanding marinas and luxury resorts, with plush golf courses, were nothing but a gleam in the eyes of visionaries back in the 1930’s when the idea for construction of the Pensacola Dam was first conceived. Today, Grand Lake is Oklahoma’s number one tourist attraction, enticing visitors and residents alike to take part in the pleasures of boating, fishing, swimming, skiing, scuba diving, and golf.
The first hydroelectric system in Oklahoma, Grand Lake also provides flood control for the Grand River, and produce power for the Grand River Dam Authority to provide affordable power in 24 Oklahoma counties, and to businesses both in and out 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 electricity for the Cherokee Nation. A few years later, he and his brother, Bert, and two engineering students from Spaulding University, built a houseboat and navigated the river in search of suitable dam sites. They were, in fact, the first to complete an engineering survey for possible dams, 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 Chasers,” 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 depended on 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 he had to stop... by law!
It worked. FDR was greeted by a huge crowd and a banner strung along the north end of the depot that read, “Let’s Build the 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.
Jack Rorschach later recalled, “We always heard that Roosevelt got a huge kick out of somebody who had the guts to stop the Presidential train. We all thought that had a lot to do with his approving the funding, but we never could prove it.”
In October, 1937, engineers Holway and Neufer began surveying and engineering. Massman Construction, based in Kansas City was the primary 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.
The Pensacola Dam remains today as a true wonder, still the largest multiple arch dam in the world. Some might ask, “Why the ‘Pensacola Dam’?”
When the Corps of Engineers made its first report on the river in 1935, they looked for the nearest settlement, which was a little village called Pensacola. The community is still there today. At the time, the state legislature was considering the Enabling Act creating the Grand River Dam Authority.
Committee Chairman D.E. Martin made sure the name “Pensacola” remained attached to the site, because it was his great-grandfather, Joe Martin, who came to this area from Georgia in 1840 and named his plantation “Pensacola.”
Spanning 5,145 feet with 51 arches and 21 spillways rising 150 feet above the river bed, the Pensacola Dam holds the waters that form Grand Lake’s 1,300 miles of shoreline surrounding 43,000 acres of water surface.
It is truly a GRAND LAKE!