Theodore Roosevelt Dam Then and Now Article

Theodore Roosevelt Dam Then and Now

Last Updated: 2023-03-05

The Theodore Roosevelt Dam in Arizona, USA is 397 feet (109 meters) tall, 1,210 feet (369 meters) wide along its crest and 196 feet (60 meters) thick at its base. The dam creates Roosevelt Lake which has a capacity of over 1.6 million acre-feet (2.04 cubic kilometers) of water. How much water is that? It's about 540 billion gallons (2 trillion liters)!

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To put that into perspective, it would take about 512 years for 540 billion gallons of water to pass through the shower faucet in your bathroom if the water ran nonstop around the clock (assuming that your shower head has a flow rate of 2 gallons/minute or 7.6 liters/minute). So, the Roosevelt Dam can hold back A LOT of water.

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But did you know that the dam you see today is not the dam that was originally built? Well, it is...but it isn't. In the early 1980s, engineers determined that the original dam could not safely release water in the event of the modern definition of a maximum flood event and that it could be damaged by new predictions of a maximum credible earthquake event. The renovations, which were completed in 1996, added 77 feet (23 meters) to the height of the dam and encased the dam in a concrete block structure. So, basically, the original dam is inside the current dam structure!

The Theodore Roosevelt Dam as originally constructed. The Roosevelt Dam as originally constructed.

I'm all for structural integrity of a dam to withstand maximum flood and earthquake events and all that, but I think that the old school architectural look of the original dam is much, much cooler than the current version. Maybe that's because I live in the Phoenix area and it seems to me that there aren't many old buildings and other structures around here - at least relative to the history of the USA.

One of the reasons for this is that Phoenix is in the desert southwest and the pace of building didn't start to ramp up until there was a predictable water supply to the area. Phoenix doesn't get significant rainfall for much of the year, but when it does rain, enormous amounts of water often fall in s short period of time which can cause some serious flooding.

The Theodore Roosevelt Dam site before construction. The Roosevelt Dam site before construction.

In the late 18th century, the lack of a predictable supply of water wasn't unique to Arizona. Because there was a whole lot of land in the American West that could not be utilized for agriculture, the federal government enacted the Reclamation Act, also known as the National Irrigation Act of 1902. This act funded projects that would build irrigation infrastructure across the arid states in the west. And one of those projects was the construction of the Roosevelt Dam.

Construction of the base of the Roosevelt dam during a flood. Construction of the base of the dam during a flood.

Construction of the original dam was started in 1906 and it was completed in 1911. The dam was built by cutting local sandstone into individual blocks and then placing each stone onto the dam structure, setting them in place with concrete and mortar. Imagine laying each of those massive stones one after another after another using the technology of the day!


And when construction started, the dam site was in the middle of nowhere. It was about 60 miles from the nearest rail station, so a road to the dam had to be built before construction could start. Locals know that road today as the Apache Trail (route 88).

The dam was built to tame the natural conditions of extreme drought and flooding, and the construction crew had to deal with those conditions throughout the project. For example, if you look closely at the picture above showing construction of the dam's base, you can see the raging waters from one of the many flood events. And speaking of the construction crew, common laborers were paid $2.50 USD a day.

Construction of the Theodore Roosevelt Dam. Construction of the Theodore Roosevelt Dam.

When the original dam was completed, it stood 280 feet (84 meters) tall, making it the tallest mason dam in the world. So, not only did it look really cool, it was an amazing feat of engineering and construction! The picture below was taken in 1940 and shows the Roosevelt Lake side of the dam. The lake was experiencing a severe drought in 1940, so you can see the rows and rows of individually placed stone blocks in this picture. I can't stop myself from thinking once again how awesome this structure looks compared to the current concrete encased dam.

The Theodore Roosevelt Dam in 1940 during a drought. The Roosevelt Dam in 1940 during a drought.

I used the colorize function in Photoshop to see what the dam might have looked like if we were at the dam site that day in 1940. I tweaked the colors a little, but I'm wondering if the Arizona sandstone actually had a little more reddish-orange in it.

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This lake side view of the original dam is my favorite because you can see some of the things that no longer exist. Before the renovation, there were dam bridges, a dam road and a dam tower. Sorry, I couldn't resist the play on words in the previous sentence :) Back in the day, you could drive your car over the bridge. Sadly, you cannot do that today.

A car drives over the Theodore Roosevelt Dam in ~1928. A car drives over the Dam in ~1928.

And I'm not sure what the purpose was of what I'm calling the tower. Perhaps it had something to do with water intake. Or perhaps it played a role in power distribution from the dam's electricity generators because in some of the old pictures, you can see what appear to be power wires running from the top of the tower to a structure at the edge of the lake.

A lake side view of the Theodore Roosevelt Dam. The lake side of the current dam.

Because Roosevelt Lake was also experiencing a drought when I visited the dam in early 2022, you can still see some of the original sandstone blocks at the bottom of the dam in the picture above. Here's a close-up view of those blocks:

Old sandstone blocks are visible in 2022. The original sandstone blocks are visible in 2022.

You can also see the bottom portion of what I've been calling the dam's tower. Before the renovations, the tower and a pipe ran up the lake side of the dam. I sure wish I knew what that the purpose of that tower was.

The bottom of the original tower is visible in 2022. The bottom of the old tower is visible in 2022.

Some features of the original dam are no longer visible most of the time or not at all. But luckily, other original features are still visible. For example, there are large pipes in the rock next to the Roosevelt Dam that released water from the lake into the river. The earliest pictures of the dam don't show the pipes, but they start to appear in pictures taken in 1920 (based on pictures that I've seen).

The old water release pipes on the dam in 1920. The old water release pipes in 1920.

The old water release pipes on the dam in 1940. The old water release pipes in 1940.

Although those pipes are no longer used, you can still see them today, over 100 years after they were originally installed! The pictures below show the current condition of the pipes, the valves that controlled the flow of the water, and the gears that opened and closed the valves.

The old water release pipes on the dam in 2022. The old water release pipes in 2022.

A close-up view of an old water release valve. A close-up view of an old water release valve.

If you visit the Theodore Roosevelt Dam site today, you can also see what's left of the old buildings that supported the dam operations. In the colorized version of the dam earlier in the article, you can see power lines running from the dam to these structures. The before-and-after picture below shows what's left of the buildings and the original dirt road that led to the road over the dam back in the day.

Dam operations support buildings - then and now. Then and Now: Dam operations support buildings.

If you like history, architecture or amazing feats of engineering, then you'd probably enjoy visiting the Theodore Roosevelt dam. There are a couple of a visitor viewing areas that provides scenic views and you can walk around the perimeter of the dam site to get additional views. There are also some information signs with pictures posted around the dam site that highlight some interesting aspects of the dam's history.

Before you go, you can learn about the history of the dam and see some old photographs at the following websites.

Roosevelt Dam holds back Roosevelt Lake which is home to lots of water wildlife including blackbirds, finches, sparrows, great blue herons, vultures, and hawks. While I was at Roosevelt Dam, I saw a pair of Great Blue Herons building a nest on the dam. You can click on the image below to see some close-up pictures and video clips of the dam and the Blue Herons. I took the pictures and video clips with my Nikon COOLPIX P1000 super zoom camera. If you enjoy the video then it would be great if you could "like" the video on YouTube or maybe even leave a comment to let me know that you stopped by!

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Click to Watch the Video on YouTube

Thanks for reading this article and watching the video! If you enjoyed it then you might want to check out some of my other articles and videos below. Or you can browse through all of my articles.

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John Miller John Miller is the owner of "One Lens Two" and "In and Around Phoenix". He is also a co-owner of "Fooding Around Phoenix". John is always looking for collaboration opportunities so contact him using one of the options below!