The Debate on Garrison Dam: Differing Viewpoints

The huge reservoir behind the proposed Garrison Dam will flood thousands of acres, force the movement of hundreds of people, and split the reservation of the Three Affiliated Tribes in two.  Its construction has both supporters and detractors.
FOR: GENERAL LEWIS A. PICK, Missouri River Division Engineer:
I have always looked upon Garrison Dam as the key structure in the Missouri River control system. It will impound 23,000,000 acre-feet of water; it will create a clear water lake 200 miles long with a shoreline of approximately 1,700 miles.

Garrison Reservoir will make an important contribution to flood control downstream. It will provide water for irrigation purposes, for the development of hydroelectric power, for the improvement of navigation on the Missouri River, and for the improvement of domestic water supply and sanitation conditions.

In addition to these primary functions, I visualize this great body of water as a potential playground for the people of North Dakota and neighboring states. With its extensive and varied shoreline it will offer almost unlimited opportunities for recreational uses such as boating, fishing, swimming, picnicking, and vacationing.

It will represent an investment of federal funds which in my judgment will pay rich dividends to the people of the state, valley, and nation.

WILLIAM F. WARNE, Bureau of Reclamation:
There is no more important project today than the improvement of the Missouri River basin. We are 50 years behind the times in the development of the Missouri River and the use of the waters and related resources of its basin. For many long decades we have known in a general way what should be done to solve these problems. Other river basins to the west and to the east have been developed.

We have already paid for the Missouri River development program several times over by failing to build it and by permitting nature, through drought and flood, to devastate and ruin the land.

The development of the Missouri River basin will have cost at 1940 prices about $1,400,000,000. The drought of the 1930s, measured in terms of federal relief expenditure in the Missouri River basin, cost the government $1,200,000,000, which only alleviated part of the suffering. During the same period 300,000 rural people left the region in jalopy caravans, driven from their homes, forced to start anew elsewhere. This tragic loss in human resources, in money and goods, cannot be calculated.

AGAINST: JUDGE DANIEL WOLF, Chief, Water Buster Clan:
You will have to kill me to get me off this land.

You have come to destroy us.

Chief Thomas Spotted Wolf levels his finger at army officers and shouts, “You have come to destroy us.”

BURTON WILCOX, Oliver County States Attorney:
I represent a municipality that threatens to be wiped out if the war department plan is accepted. The Oliver County government will cease to exist and we wouldn’t even be able to maintain the schools because of loss of tax revenues. Mercer, Oliver, and Morton county officials are up in arms over the proposal.

JEFF B. SMITH, Carlisle Graduate and Rancher:
Only a small part of the land offered by the war department is as good as our present land for our purposes. We are not farmers but cattlemen, and our stock business would be destroyed if we were forced to move to the new land.

To relocate us on land comparable to that which we now hold will mean that the white people already owning that land will have to be evicted. This is a headache which has not yet penetrated the heads of some congressmen. We are 100 percent against the dam and will accept no proposition from the army, whether it is cash or kind.

ELI PERKINS, Arikara and Spanish-American War Veteran:
I have dislike for the Garrison dam project. My tribesmen have been treated unfairly. We have to move by 1952. We are to receive $5,105,625. This price was established by the army engineers.

In 1869 our tribal chief, Son of a Star, went to Washington and was promised that we would receive a grant of 4,800,625 acres. At that time there was Indian trouble in the territory and the Arikara organized scouts to help the white men.

The Garrison dam will flood our good lands, and force us to move up on the “shelf” land where we will have difficulty existing.

I met General Pick in the Java Islands. I have no personal animosity toward General Pick, but I am angry about the treatment the Indians are receiving. When the government moves us from our present lands, we will have nothing.


Garrison Dam site
November 23, 1946

Not since the Second Boom before World War I has there been such a flurry of town site speculation in North Dakota. With perhaps as many as 5,000 government personnel and construction workers flooding into the Garrison Dam project area, and with no housing or services within reach, speculators hope to lure the wave of “settlers” to their newly proclaimed towns. Prairie land, once worth $25 an acre, is now selling for $1,000 near the dam site, especially along the access road which will connect the site with Highway 83.

Silver City, two miles east of the dam site, was the first proposed town with five small cabins, an outhouse, and flags in a field to show where streets will go. O.A. Burgeson of Minot, who owns the site, tells The North Star Dakotan, “This isn’t intended to be a dam town, but a fine little city that will be a credit to the community.” A Sanish man has leased part of the town site and plans to convert 17 grain bins into cabins.

Across the road is Big Bend, owned by R. A. H. Brandt of Minot. Big Bend has or will have a filling station, the Big Bend Bar, café, food store, hardware store, men’s clothing store, and a post office.

Down the road is Sitka, a collection of six buildings. The Cottage Café and the Dakota City Club and Bar are popular places, according to town site owner H. C. McNulty, a Wyoming speculator. A food store is scheduled to open in the near future.

Pick City is the only boomtown west of the dam site. Although it has several houses and a recreation center, business is slow since it is more difficult to reach. Vincent Mayde, a bar owner who came from Seattle, complains that on some winter nights he takes in only a dollar.

John D. Paulsen, who toured the boomtowns for the Fargo Forum, told us, “To date, the boom in boomtown is a dull thud, not the joyous tinkling of highball glasses, the rattle of dice, or the constant ringing of the cash register bell.” Burgeson, who owns Silver City, believes that it will take time for his town to boom. “If I had listened to the gloom boys and their talk, I would have left the first winter. It takes guts to stick it out.”

Aerial view of the Garrison Dam diversification project. Courtesy of State Historical Society of North Dakota (0800-025).

The future of the boomtowns seems uncertain; that’s what speculation means, a gamble. The government’s town of Riverdale, however, is a guaranteed success. Contractors with the Army Corps of Engineers are busy constructing 437 homes which will house 323 arriving engineers and their families. The Riverdale business district will include a movie theater, bowling alley, hotel, clothing store, barber and beauty shops, drugstore, filling station, post office, library, hardware store, restaurant, and an automotive garage. Two churches, Protestant and Roman Catholic, and a school will round out Riverdale’s planned services.

The government puts out the retail services on bids. For example, Herman Haland of Fargo received the privilege of operating a retail grocery and general store. His bid of 5 percent of gross sales for the government was the highest of the 11 bidders.

Paul Tobin is the government’s “landlord” of Riverdale. He told The North Star Dakotan, “Riverdale is a unique town. It could be compared to a military base as far as operations are concerned. The Garrison Dam is a multi-year project and with no immediate housing or services, the government had no choice but to build its own town for its own people. This will be a complete town with recreation and public facilities.”


Garrison Dam site
September 15, 1952

For the last six years several thousand construction laborers and government engineers have been working on the largest rolled-earth dam in the world—over two miles long and 210 feet high. The dam has taken 70 million yards of dirt and 1.5 million yards of concrete. Why build such a massive dam to hold back the waters of the Missouri River? To protect down-river cities such as Omaha and Kansas City from devastating floods, to provide semi-arid North Dakota with irrigation, to generate hydroelectric power for an expanding economy, to ensure down-river navigation through the control of water flow. These objectives came out of the Pick-Sloan Plan which Congress enacted in 1944 as the Flood Control Act.

H. W. Bashore, Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, told The North Star Dakotan, “The Missouri River is going to take on a job, a job serving the people it often has abused.”

The dam has created the 206-mile-long reservoir, Lake Sakakawea. The project, however, has covered 569,000 acres of agricultural land and cut the Three Tribes’ reservation in two. Towns such as Sanish and Elbowoods have been swallowed up by the water.

Plans for the future are monumental. Soon five 80,000 kilowatt generators will produce an abundance of electricity. And water will be directed to run uphill! Large pumps will lift water from the Garrison Reservoir to the Snake Creek Reservoir. From that point a 73-mile canal will carry the water to Lonetree Reservoir from which canals will carry water to lands to be irrigated and to Devils Lake.

In all, the diversion of Missouri River water, through almost 7,000 miles of canals, 656 pumping stations, and several reservoirs will provide water supply to 41 towns and thousands of acres to be irrigated. This will not happen overnight. Planners estimate it may take 60 years to complete. Estimates place the cost of the plan at over $500 million. State officials believe that the entire project will stimulate the state’s economy. The United States Bureau of Reclamation believes that the completion of the water diversion plan will result in a population growth of 95,000, in an increase in farm income of $55 million a year, in more trade by $144 million a year, and in the creation of nearly 1700 new businesses. What North Dakota now needs is cooperative congresses that will fund the operation.

Today President Eisenhower beamed his broad smile, as if to say “job well done.”

By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Grade Level


Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change

Related Media

  1. Through the Lens:Construction of the Garrison Dam
    Video: Footage of the building of Garrison Dam, one of the largest construction projects to ever be completed in North Dakota.
  2. Red River Land: Building the Garrison Dam: Part 1 of 2
    Video: A 1960s educational film about the reasons for the construction of the Garrison Dam.
  3. Red River Land: Building the Garrison Dam: Part 2 of 2
    Video: A 1960s educational film about the reasons for constructing the Garrison Dam.
  4. Dakota Datebook: Garrison Diversion
    Audio: A brief history of the plans to dam the Missouri River in North Dakota.
  5. Dakota Datebook: Name Change
    Audio: The history of how the Garrison Reservoir became known as Lake Sakakawea.
  6. Dakota Datebook: Mrs. Byron Wilde
    Audio: Anna Wilde was a Native American activist who wanted a "square deal" for the tribes being relocated when the Garrison Dam was built.
  7. Dakota Datebook: The Two Sanishes
    Audio: When the Garrison Dam was built the people of Sanish, a town in the flood plain, decided to form New Sanish.
  8. More Precious Than Gold: Garrison Dam
    Video: Some see the Garrison Dam project as a great success, some see it as a great failure.
  9. More Precious Than Gold: Garrison Diversion
    Video: The diversion at the Garrison Dam was supposed to provide irrigation for agriculture.
  10. Prairie Pulse: The Promise of Water
    Video: A look at landscape photographer Wayne Gudmundson's book on the Garrison Diversion Project titled, "The Promise of Water"