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Discover Mid-America — February 2006

Building the Ultimate Dam: John S. Eastwood and the Control of Water in the West by Donald C. Jackson; University of Oklahoma Press, 2005, $19.95; paperback, 352 pages, 115 b&w illustrations; 0-8061-3733-9; www.oupress.com

In dams, the seen and unseen

Building the Ultimate Dam makes me want to hang up being a scholar and writer. It says everything I’ve tried to express over the last decade with regard to environmental history, the history of American rivers, and American culture and society. It proves I’m not nearly as literate or articulate as Donald Jackson.

Jackson’s work is humbling in its message, scope and readability. It’s highly interdisciplinary, borrowing from structural engineering, hydrology and geology, as well as the histories of dam design and construction, and of built-environment architecture to profile John S. Eastwood’s career. As such, it shows Jackson’s ability as not only an American historian but also as an environmental historian and cultural theorist.

Eastwood, who worked in dam design from 1906 into the 1930s, becomes an archetypal engineer in a time when control of physical nature went unquestioned. And it shows a capitalist whose greatest ideal was private endeavor for the public good.

In the West, where money was as in short supply as water, Eastwood sought to reduce the cost of dam construction by designing airier structures whose strength/material ratios were extraordinarily high. Reducing material, particularly concrete, needed for dam construction reduced building costs overall — not only in concrete, rock and steel, but also in labor, machinery and infrastructure to transport heavy machinery to the dam site. His goal was to create dams that could be useful and cost efficient for a wider variety of customers, not merely those who had the clout and capital to build the behemoth, unreliable structures of the day.

Jackson’s work says a great deal about American culture. Dams are more than tools of water storage. They are, at root, manifestations of decisions of the culture whence they come. Where dams are built, how they are designed and constructed, and what they do (store water for irrigation, flood control and power generation) demonstrate the priorities and complexities of the culture that builds them. As centers of controversy, they also demonstrate the changing priorities of a nation that has begun to question a deeply held faith in the benefit of unending capital growth and strength, particularly as that growth and power consolidates into the hands of fewer people and corporations.

Eastwood started his career at a western power company that went broke. Having seen the reasons and where the company could have saved money and provided better service, Eastwood sought to design elegant, strong dams that could withstand conditions ordinary dams of similar materials and sizes could not. His designs posed a decided shift from the huge, bulky dams the public had come to trust to what was essentially a series of buttressed arches stretched across a valley or cataract. The arches supported the weight of water against the dam.

“To a public that often equated structural safety with greater costs and increased size,” Jackson writes, “his (Eastwood’s) claim of having developed a technologically superior method of water storage represented a counterintuitive approach to the science of dam design.”

In short, bigger wasn’t always better. It just seemed so.

Eastwood’s arch dam design served practical, economic and political functions. They held back water safely for lower cost. They expressed the personalities of Eastwood and the companies that built them. Through Eastwood, we see how management of modern western water resources originated with the ideas of competing companies, engineers and ideologies, all of which influenced each other and produced something new and different in the interaction. They promoted, at least in Eastwood’s mind, private enterprise.

But private enterprise wasn’t buying. Eastwood made a decent enough career from his dam designs. His ideas, however, did not spread though they still live in some of the safest dams in the nation.

In Eastwood, we find a man who believed efficiency promoted capital endeavor. While nature influenced how and where dams were built, the intentions and desires of their builders, and the ability to make a profit was just as important. The West was filled with agribusiness, mining and oil companies, and farmers and towns that depended wholly on an erratic environment for water. Those who could deliver water reliably would wield great power. The amalgam of corporate, individual and interest group desires, coupled with eminent domain, produced a physical environment power companies could exploit regardless of who owned or controlled it. And control of this environment (by technical and corporate elites) meant control of people — where they moved, where they settled and how they interacted with the environment.

While most dams continued to be behemoth structures that reflected utilitarian goals (with a statement of the power of corporations to control nature), elegance, largess and aesthetic combined with capital investment to express the egos of companies and their directors. Later, the federal government became the West’s biggest dam builder, agency planners with the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers opted for dams that looked strong — in part to satisfy politicians and their constituents who wanted to feel safe, but also to convey the idea of strength.

Sensibly written and readily accessible, Building the Ultimate Dam makes dams interesting. In Jackson’s capable hands, dams become living things, expressions of power and of people in time and place. They are dams more than so much architecture that holds back water. They demonstrate a society’s view of the environment and its priorities in taking care of its people. They show who has political, economic and social power. They illustrate the relationship between those who have power and those who subservient to it, and the ways in which capitalist ideology promotes that relationship.

Patrick Dobson is a Kansas City-based writer and Ph.D. candidate in history. He can be contacted at patrickdobson@earthlink.net.


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