A Dam in a Depression

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From my grandfather’s typed up memoirs, I started to learn the background history of a centerpiece of the New Deal’s legacy in New Mexico, Conchas Dam. I was intrigued and did a little more background research. The dam had a rather long political struggle before finally being approved, according to newspapers, various articles and my grandfather’s notes on the subject.

New Mexicans in Fight for Conservation of River Flow. 1927 Article shows Hurley and Yeo supporting a more comprehensive scheme, a tributary plan, for conservation and use of flood waters. (Click to view larger image.)

Some of the articles and stories included a local Tucumcari businessman and Canadian River Commissioner, Arch Hurley’s early and ongoing arguments to develop the dam in 1920-30s (Image: “New Mexicans Fight for Conversation of River Flow”), to New Mexico’s New Deal Democratic Governor, Clyde Tingley, meeting privately with his friend President Roosevelt in 1934 for more than an hour to help secure federal support.

The ranch my grandfather, J.V. Gallegos, grew up on was about 35 miles northwest of Tucumcari in Guadalupe county, in the vicinity of Conchas Dam. He describes how his father, Isidor, was a firm believer in irrigation, mainly due to the fact that New Mexico had such a dry climate. I later discovered Isidor also participated in “dry farming” research.

Isidor passed away in 1916 at the age of 64, when my grandfather was only 11 years old, but not before serving on a committee that sited the location for the construction of the dam. I didn’t realize the plans for Conchas Dam had developed their roots so early in the 1900s in eastern New Mexico.

—This is my grandfather’s story on Conchas Dam.—

My father, Isidor, was a member of a committee that sited the area where Conchas Dam was later constructed, the influx of where the Conchas and Canadian river join. This committee was composed of five members, one of them being P. H. Sisney (a Tucumcari businessman). From an engineer, the committee secured an analysis and report that concluded that a dam could be built and used for the purpose of flood control and irrigation. When heavy rains came in the area during the fall season, the water went south and caused flooding until it reached the Mississippi River.

During President Hoover’s administration, the Corp of Engineers reported that such a reservoir could not be used for irrigation and that water would not flow by gravity from the dam east as thought previously.

The matter sat until Franklin D. Roosevelt became president. The Corp of Engineers, under Roosevelt, concluded that such a dam could be built for both purposes, flood control and irrigation, and that water would flow by gravity. The water was to be sent to Quay county, including Tucumcari.

President Roosevelt was convinced and allocated funds to begin the constr­uction of this dam. It was the depression and the construction of this dam gave employment to many people.

I found many articles detailing how, with availability of New Deal funding, the dam became financially feasible.  According to NewMexicoHistory.org, “The undertaking involved nearly every New Deal program created by the Roosevelt administration. Both the Works Progress Administration and the Public Works Administration (PWA) were involved with the construction of Conchas Dam, while the CCC built the Permanent Housing and Administration Building and park.”

Conchas Dam Historic District. National Park Service Register of Historic Places documenting Conchas Dam. Includes background stories, as well as photos and other information on the history of the area. (Click to view complete pdf.)

In addition to providing much needed employment opportunities during the depression, according to a news article from 1937, the dam provided irrigation to a very dry farming area of approximately 65,000-75,000 acres as well as flood control.

Also, a side note that my grandfather didn’t mention was that during the 1930-40s he lived right across the street from Arch Hurley on High Street in Tucumcari, N.M.

I also found some great historical background details, including stories and imagery about Conchas Dam from the National Register of Historic Places documentation (Image: Conchas Dam Historic District).

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