A record-setting number of visitors toured Pensacola Dam in 2010. More than 9,000 people from across the country and all
over the world toured the facility that was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. According to long-term tour guide Forrest Graham visitors represented 45 states and 22 countries.
“Our banner year to date is 2010,” said Graham, who has led countless tours through the historic powerhouse in his years with GRDA.
Although the number of visitors has steadily increased over the past few years, the completion of the new Ecosystems and Education Center in 2010 has helped boost the profile of the free tours to an all-time high. Groups now begin their visit in the new building, starting with an informational video in the building’s new theater room.
“The Ecosystems building is an attraction in and of itself,” said Lori Starks, Programs and Lake Relations Coordinator. “It has brought people in for tours they may not have normally gone on or even knew they were offered. Both the tours and the building are a huge draw for GRDA.”
It’s impact is really immeasurable.
However, all of this attention is nothing new; the Pensacola Dam has captured the interest of the public since the idea for a dam was first considered in the early 1930’s. The news of the promised construction in Langley fell as welcome as rain on the ears of thousands of unemployed Oklahomans.
Before work ever began on Oklahoma’s first hydroelectric facility in April 1939, hundreds made their way to Vinita however they could; some on foot. The wooden steps on the outside of 1st National Bank building that led to the second story office of the newly created Grand River Dam Authority were worn in the center with the constant stream of men seeking to fill out an application. In the end, the massive project employed approximately 3,000 men during the 20-month construction phase. The economic engine, promised by the existence of GRDA, was starting to hum.
Built in the Art Deco style of the era, Pensacola Dam’s bold symmetrical patterns seem to almost speak with confidence of better days ahead. The artistic flourishes that are found on the dam, as well as the powerhouse, verbalize the pride and craftsmanship of the artisans who understood the dam’s 51 arches would span more than a mile of concrete, it would span generations.
Harnessing the waters of the Grand River to bring electricity to the area had been a dream of Henry C. Holderman, who completed his first engineering survey of the Grand River way back in 1896, before statehood.
But, it was a group of men called the “Rainbow Chasers” who fulfilled the dream by making several trips to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the project. Federal funding to build the dam was secured and approved by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on September 18, 1937.
Generating electricity was the catalyst for the building of the dam but as the skies opened and the Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees began to fill, another industry was being generated: tourism. Grand Lake quickly became one of the most popular tourist attractions in Oklahoma. The lake is truly grand with 46,500 surface-acres and 1,300 miles in shoreline. Being only one of two lakes in Oklahoma where private ownership extends to the waters edge, houses soon began to be built all along the banks. The lake also boasts of being one of the top lakes for bass fishing, hosting several premier tournaments yearly.
The economic impact of the Pensacola Dam continues to be felt over 75 years later.
“There are so many ways the dam brings money into the local economy,” said Starks. “It brings in tons of visitors in the summer, from fishermen to golfers. Its impact is really immeasurable.”