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Detroit Dam Turns 60 This Summer

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This article appeared in the Statesman Journal Sunday, April 7, 2013.

Imagine.  It is Wednesday June 10, 1953 and the sun is threatening a very warm day.

[1]  It’s 10 am and you are waiting outside the Elsinore Theater for a charted bus to whisk you eastward up the Santiam Canyon.[2]  Today the Detroit Dam will be dedicated, the culmination of a seven year construction project and nearly 70 million dollars.[3]

You arrive at the dam.  After disembarking, you mingle with the crowd of over 3,000 people.[4]  The crowd might be big, but it is dwarfed by the colossal structure before you. Standing 463 feet tall and 1580 feet wide the concrete expanse is overwhelming.[5]  It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine water pouring through its spillway, the generators capable of producing 100,000 KW, more than is used by the entire City of Salem.[6]

All sorts of tours are offered to see various sites.  You could even take a school bus between the powerhouse and the top of the dam.  You choose to brave the 315 steps instead.[7]

From the deck you look out to the lake beyond. Out on the sparking blue water you see two motorboats circling the reservoir.  A passerby informs you the boats are manned by members of the North Santiam Sportsmans Club assigned to help a rescue any visitor that might inadvertently fall off the dam during the festivities.[8]  He also points out approximately where the town of Detroit once stood, now buried 111 feet under water.  The new town has been established for about a year on higher ground, but you can’t help but feel a little sorry for the folks who had to relocate.[9]

The dedication ceremony begins at 1:20 pm by the loud booming of a 17-gun salute by the Oregon National Guard, which seems to shake the canyon followed by the streams of the National Anthem provided by local high school bands.[10]  Reverend George H. Swift, rector at the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salem takes the microphone to give an invocation.  He’s followed by several speeches by representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers, each bearing an impressive military title.  Colonel Lipscomb explains to the crowd:  “At the bottom the dam’s thickness I 339 feet…longer than a football field, so the concrete pouring work moved up slowly, but finally they  got it up to the top in September, 1952.  A lot of steel went into the dam too, 7,300,000 pounds or 100 carloads and the biggest pieces are those flood gates just installed in May.”[11]

Lastly comes a speech by US Secretary of the Interior Douglas McKay. [12]  He salutes the crowd with hands held high as he comes out onto the sundeck to address the crowd.[13]  Despite his national office, his face is familiar.  He was Mayor of Salem and ran the local Chevrolet dealership in town for as long as you can remember.   Senator McKay reminded everyone of the purpose of the dam, chiefly flood prevention and power production.  After the speech, the Secretary was supposed to have pushed a button to activate the dam, but a busted bearing meant plans had to be altered. You’re a little disappointed.  Secretary McKay seems a little disappointed too.  He has been working on this project for nearly 2 decades.[14]  The ceremony ends with traditional dances performed by boys from the Warm Springs Reservation.[15]

At home that night, you settle into your slippers and grab your copy of the evening paper, the Capital Journal.  You read back and reminisce on all the things you saw today.  The last paragraph especially rings true: “It was a great day for the people in the North Santiam canyon and one that will long live in the memories of those who were present.”[16]

Maybe you don’t need to imagine all this.  Maybe you saw it all first-hand.  This summer the Detroit Dam will mark its 60th anniversary.  To celebrate, the Willamette Heritage Center is partnering with the Canyon Life Museum in Mill City, CCTV Capital Community Television and Willamette University history faculty to collect stories from our community to document the history of the dam.  Do you have a story to share?  There are several ways to get involved.   The first of two story collecting nights will be held at the Willamette Heritage Center (1313 Mill St SE, Salem) Tuesday, April 16, 2013 from 6:00-7:30 pm.  Bring your memories to share.  We will have an open-mic session and CCTV will be on hand to record your memories.  If you can’t make it to the event, you can share your memories electronically.  Visit our online survey form at http://tinyurl.com/DetroitDam60.


[1] Jones, Al.  “Detroit Dam has a Birthday.” Capital Journal.  June 12, 1978; Ireland, Charles. “Detroit Dam Dedicated, Generator Remains Idle.” Oregon Statesman.  Thursday, June 11, 1953, pg 1.

[2] “Salem to Join Detroit Dam Ceremonies.”  Oregon Statesman.  June 10, 1953 pg 5.

[3] Ireland, Charles.  “Detroit Dam Dedication Climax of Seven-Year Project.” Oregon Statesman. June 7, 1953.  Section 2 page 3a.

[4] “Detroit Dam Dwarfs Crowed at Dedication.” Oregon Statesman.  Thursday, June 11, 1953.

[5] Brochure. “Detroit and Big Cliff Lakes”  US Army Corps of Engineers: Portland District, 1985

[6] Ireland, Charles.  “Detroit Dam Dedication Climax of Seven-Year Project.” Oregon Statesman.  June 7, 1953 Section 2 page 3a.

[7] “Dam in Spotlight Today.”  Oregon Statesman June 10, 1953.

[8] “Development Traced in Talk.”

[9] Knowlton, Stefanie.  “Detroit recalls its past and prepares for what is next.” Statesman Journal.  July 7, 2002.

[10] “Dam in Spotlight Today.”  Oregon Statesman June 10, 1953; Ireland, Charles. “Detroit Dam Dedicated, Generator Remains Idle.” Oregon Statesman.  Thursday, June 11, 1953, pg 1.

[11] Olson, James D.  “Huge Dam at Detroit Activated by McKay.” Capital Journal, June 10, 1953.

[12] “Dam in Spotlight Today.”  Oregon Statesman June 10, 1953.

[13] Ireland, Charles. “Detroit Dam Dedicated, Generator Remains Idle.” Oregon Statesman.  Thursday, June 11, 1953, pg 1.

[14]Ireland, Charles. “Detroit Dam Dedicated, Generator Remains Idle.” Oregon Statesman.  Thursday, June 11, 1953, pg 1

Jones, Al.  “Detroit Dam has a Birthday.” Capital Journal.  June 12, 1978.

Willamette River Basin Commission Records.  Water Resources Department.  Oregon State Archives.  4/18/08/02.

Olson, James D.  “Huge Dam at Detroit Activated by McKay.” Capital Journal, June 10, 1953.

[15] Ireland, Charles. “Detroit Dam Dedicated, Generator Remains Idle.” Oregon Statesman.  Thursday, June 11, 1953, pg 1.

[16] Olson, James D.  “Huge Dam at Detroit Activated by McKay.” Capital Journal, June 10, 1953.

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