When Uncle Sam Ran the Dam

Power for Progress…
A weekly column from the Grand River Dam Authority

The concrete arches of Pensacola Dam were brand new and gleaming in the Oklahoma sunshine in November 1941 when the facility was drafted into the World War II effort. Although that war was still looming, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a proclamation directing the Federal Works Administration to take possession of Pensacola, operate it and generate the power necessary to manufacture munitions for war. So, on November 21 – just 17 days before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor – Uncle Sam officially took the reigns of the “Grand River Project.”

While the “greatest generation” was fighting in Europe and the Pacific, the turbines inside Pensacola’s powerhouse were harnessing Grand River waters to help win the battle.  Transmission lines from the dam carried electricity to Camp Gruber, to the Oklahoma Ordnance Works Authority (present-day MidAmerica Industrial Park) and to an aluminum plant near Malvern, Arkansas. Before the government takeover, the dam had been serving the electricity needs of Collinsville, Chelsea and Claremore. The federal government continued to serve those customers and also added Wagoner, Tahlequah, Miami, and the B.F. Goodrich Plant in Miami, during its control of the dam.

As the war was winding down, GRDA began the effort to reclaim the dam from Uncle Sam. As early as January 1945, GRDA officials had hired consulting engineers to help with the “studies and reports necessary for TURNBACK of the Project” according to W.R. Holway’s A History of the Grand River Dam Authority.  Holway wrote that one of the first steps was to have Oklahoma Governor Robert S. Kerr send a telegram to President Harry S. Truman asking for his assistance. Truman replied, in part: “I agree with you that the cessation of hostilities in Europe makes timely the preparation of plans for the return.”  However, Truman went on to say that, due to the modifications and improvements made by the federal government at the dam, there were plenty of details to work out before the return could be completed. In other words, determining who owned what and who owed was going to take some time.

Q.B. Boydstun, GRDA’s general counsel during this period, was also actively involved in the effort, even drafting the legislation necessary to complete the property transfer. In his book Growing Up With Oklahoma, he recalled one of his memorable trips to the nation’s capital to lobby for the dam’s return to GRDA.

“Governor Kerr made an appointment for [GRDA General Manager France Paris] and I to confer with Sam Rayburn, Speaker of the House of Representatives, in Washington, D.C. on the 15th of October 1945  …  It was very difficult to obtain air passage because of the traffic caused by the war. It took almost all day to fly from Tulsa to Washington. As I recall, the flight was in an American DC3 with stops at Little Rock, Arkansas; Memphis, Tennessee; Nashville, Tennessee; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Washington, D.C.”

Long flights and long processes were necessary to get the dam back in state hands and it took nearly a year to finalize the transfer. Finally though, at midnight on August 31, 1946 – the year after the United States’ WWII victory — the “Grand River Dam Project” was returned to GRDA and Oklahoma.

Headquartered in Vinita, GRDA is Oklahoma’s state-owned electric utility; fully funded by revenues from electric and water sales instead of taxes. Directly or indirectly, GRDA’s low-cost, reliable; electricity serves nearly 500,000 homes in Oklahoma and stretches into 75 of 77 counties in the state. At no cost to Oklahoma taxpayers, GRDA also manages 70,000 surface acres of lakes in the state, including Grand Lake, Lake Hudson and the W.R. Holway Reservoir. Today, GRDA’s 500 employees continue to produce the same “power for progress” that has benefited the state for 75 years.

                                      Justin Alberty
Corporate Communications Director