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A Collection of Stories on the History and Achievements of Stanislaus County



Sol P. Elias

Modesto, Cal.










pg. 62




The La Grange Dam




Though each district possesses an independent organization and though separated by the Tuolumne river, the Modesto and the Turlock Irrigation Districts may be considered as one, forming one tract of nearly 260,000 acres of land, each acre of which is as nearly like every other acre as can be found in any extended system of irrigation in the world. They both have a common source of water supply. The water for the canals of each district is diverted on different sides of the Tuolumne river form the same dam. It is distributed by works similar in nature to lands similarly situated with reference to the common source. What may be said of one district can, generally speaking, be applied to the other. Both were organized in 1887 under the Wright Law adopted by the legislature of that year – under a law that provided a method of irrigation then new and untried in California.


This law, as has been previously shown, was the evolution of fifteen years of effort on part of the farmers of Paradise Valley. It was the result of the hard fought battle between progress and reaction. The passage of this law and the organization of the districts did not complete the victory of the irrigationists. Fifteen more years of effort, of litigation, of depression, and of suspense were yet necessary for the full realization of the hopes of the first advocates of communal irrigation. The most distinctive features of this new system were: the districts are public corporations managed and controlled by officers elected by the voters; the works are constructed with money raised by the sale of bonds which are paid by the taxation of the land in proportion to value and the water is distributed to the tax payer in proportion to the tax paid.


pg. 63


Under this plan the irrigation of the soil becomes a public service, and there is a joint ownership of the water and the land. This plan for distribution of the water has been more or less modified as the result of experience.


The districts were organized and the first bonds voted by phenomenal majorities. There were delays that prevented the consummation of the plan, the details of which will be dwelt upon in following chapters. Water came to the Turlock District as early as 1900 and to Modesto District in 1903. In these years all difficulties have been overcome. The entire works were accomplished facts. The districts possessed as complete and as satisfactory a system of irrigation as could be found in any locality in the United States. The jubilee which signalized the completion was celebrated in Modesto in 1904.


The Turlock District, after planning its works, discovered that its bonds could not be sold until the validity of the law had been established by judicial decision. This was done. Thereafter $300,000 of its bonds found a ready market. The money was expended in canals and works. Modesto District ascertained that a part of its district could not be irrigated advantageously. That portion was thereupon excluded and the original acreage of the district was reduced from 108,000 to 80,500 acres. A portion of the canals was completed during the first few years of the existence of the districts from money derived from the sale of the bonds.


While theses canals and works were building the directorates of both districts devoted themselves assiduously to the joint erection of the La Grange dam on the site of the old Wheaton franchise which had been acquired jointly by the districts from its owner, M. A. Wheaton. At its completion, the La Grange Dam, as it became known in irrigation literature, was one of the most notable structures of its kind in the world. Water was taken from it on the Turlock side through a 600 foot tunnel cut through solid rock, to supply a canal having a capacity of 1500 second feet, and on the Modesto side to a canal having about half that capacity. In 1905 each main canal was about twenty-five miles long, the Turlock canal dividing into two main branches about thirty-five miles long and each system having seven laterals aggregating over 100 miles in length, carrying water to the 176,210 acres of land in the Turlock District and to the 80,500 acres of the Modesto District.


pg. 64


After completion of these works no engineering volume on the subject and no governmental report regarding irrigation was complete without a description of these systems. They immediately took rank among the best of their kind. The government engineers referred to them as “the best example of American irrigation practise (sic)” and as a “typical American alignment.” Outside of the dam, the canals would indeed be notable for the variety and the extent of the work. There were four rock tunnels aggregating one-half mile in length, one flume over one-quarter of a mile in length and containing 200,000 feet of lumber, and numerous others less in magnitude. There was a concrete dam and waste way 350 feet long and 30 feet high. There was one cut three-quarters of a mile long, and 80 feet deep, and containing nearly 250,000 yards of excavation. Other cuts, fills, rock walls, flumes, bridges, trestles, drops, gates, waste ways, etc., required millions of yards of work and millions of feet of lumber. To describe these works as they appeared at their completion in 1903 on the eve of the renaissance of the prosperity of these districts would require a full sized volume. To recount the history of the legal and business problems encountered and solved would require many volumes.


The following is the description of the construction of the La Grange Dam, written by one of the engineers who built it. It is reprinted because of its accuracy of detail and because this information is common to both districts:


“The dam which raises the waters of the Tuolumne river and diverts them into canals of the two districts about one and one-half miles above the town of La Grange, was built during the years 1891, '92 and '93. It is of solid masonry and is one of the highest, if not the very highest overflow dam in America. The correct measurements of the dam are as follows:


“Extreme height, 128 feet, 6 inches; length on top, 336 feet; thickness at bottom, 91 feet and 6 inches; thickness 17 feet, 6 inches from top, 26 feet; thickness at extreme top, 12 feet.


“The upper face has a batter or backward slope of one foot in twenty feet, up to within fifty-seven feet of the top, the balance being plumb. The lower face sweeps in a batter from the curved top to the top of the apron.


pg. 65


This apron top is ninety-eight feet below the top of the entire structure. The total contents of the dam is 40,085 cubic feet of masonry.


“The history of this great undertaking is more or less familiar to local readers, but will no doubt be of interest to others. It was built by the two districts, Modesto and Turlock, jointly and the contract for the work was awarded in the early part of 1891. The contractors began the work in May, 1891, by the shipment of their plant, and June 29th of that year, their superintendent with his crops of foremen and assistants left Modesto for La Grange and the actual work was begun. The months of July and August of that year were spent in construction of commodious camp buildings and storage houses for cement and the installation of the mixing and operating plant, which was a most complete one. For operating the crusher, washer and mixer, a sixty horse-power engine was used and there were no less than seven huge derricks employed in the excavation, quarrying and placing of the materials.


“After the 'snow raise' of that year had subsided, the water of the river was carried above the bottom and through the site in four flumes, the largest of which was fourteen feet wide; these flumes discharged over the natural rock barrier just below the new dam site on which the old Wheaton dam had been. The river was very low that year and there was no especial difficulty encountered in its control, but from seepage and back water there was so much water in the bottom that it was necessary to run a six-inch centrifugal pump continuously both night and day during the time that the excavation was being made and the first masonry was being placed.


“Work was stopped in December because of extreme high water and was not resumed on the dam proper until the following July. To provide for the passage of the water through the site at ordinary stages of the river, two tunnels, each four feet wide by five feet high, were built through the dam below the apron, and a third and similar tunnel was located some ten feet above the apron on the Modesto side. These tunnels were provided with facings and gates, which were closed after the dam was completed and the tunnels were then filled up with concrete.


pg. 66


“Good progress was made in 1892, the structure reaching the height of seventy feet. There were some very rough rises in the river which forced the contractors to change their system to an overhead cable system. This was done in the winter of 1892-1893 and a most efficient cable system, consisting of three cables, was placed over the site. These cables were spaced twenty feet apart and were operated by hoists on a line shaft located on the hill on the south on the Turlock side of the river. They were run by a forty horse-power steam plant which was erected. Loads of ten tons' weight were handled by this system and it was most convenient and economical.


“The main center section was built of cyclopean rubble. This is a mass of great rocks set in and surrounded with cement concrete. The outer faces were made of roughly dressed stones set in concrete mortar. Rock for the concrete was quarried out of the bluff on the Modesto or north side and was moved by gravity down to the crusher, washer and mixer, thence, after the addition of the necessary sand, cement and water, it was dropped into the 'skips'. These 'skips' were then deposited wherever required.


“Quarries for large rock were opened both above and below the site. The rock used was granite trap and a very hard blue diorite. Inclined roads were used over which to convey the rock to the top of the work, the cars being hauled up by steam and the materials taken therefrom by cable hoists.


“The contractors took advantage of the low water season of 1893 in which to close the tunnels, the two lower ones being filled with solid masonry and a gate being placed in the upper one. This latter tunnel was closed in 1894 under the direction of Roger M. Williams and the entire work was finished on December 12th of that year. It is worthy of note that within three days after the dam was completed, the river raised so that there was a depth of over six feet over the entire crest and that during the whole ensuing winter the water never got less than three feet deep there.


“The part the district officials had to handle of this work was no sinecure, inasmuch as they furnished and delivered to the contractors all the required cement, which was over 31,000 barrels. All this cement was hauled by team from the cars at Waterford to the site, a distance of seventeen miles.


pg. 67


Storage houses of a capacity of 3,000 barrels were built on the high hill just at the north end of the dam. The barrels were broken up there and the cement in a dry state was sent down to the work through a six-inch slip pipe. We all remember the first fire which destroyed the original houses and the futile attempt of the directors and the insurance companies to save the wrecked mass of cement still there.


“As many as two hundred men were employed during most of the time the work was being done and but few accidents or delays were encountered. Three men lost their lives and four or five were seriously injured. The work throughout was thoroughly done and the great structure is a lasting credit and monument to its promoters and builders. The cost of the dam was $550.000.


“The contract for the construction of the dam was awarded to R. W. Gorrill & Co. of San Francisco of which firm C. F. McCarthy, F. A. Koetitz and F. M. Butler – who were then principals of the Pacific Construction Company – were members. The actual building of the dam was under the management of F. A. Koetitz as engineer and F. M. Butler as superintendent of construction. The districts were represented by a committee consisting of F. A. Cressey from the Modesto Irrigation District, and their engineer, E. H. Barton. Mr. Barton held office during the first two years when he retired in favor of W. D. Rhodes. Wm. McKay was their inspector.”


Representing the districts, F. A. Cressey and Roger M. Williams were steadily in the field superintending the construction of the dam. In this capacity they performed herculean work. The stability and successful workmanship of the dam are due largely to their labor of constant superintendence. No more faithful, indefatigable and conscientious officials served the districts during these critical days.





Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.

Source: Elias, Sol P., Stories of Stanislaus – A Collection of Stories on the History & Achievements of Stanislaus County. Modesto, CA. 1924.

© 2012 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.



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