HASTY, Colo. – Representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers joined Arkansas River Compact Administration officials and residents from surrounding communities to celebrate the 75-year diamond anniversary of the completion of John Martin Dam and Reservoir, Oct. 21, 2023.
The celebration began with several speeches recognizing John Martin’s importance as a flood control project and recreation venue and for its economic impact to the region.
“As we celebrate the John Martin Dam and Reservoir’s diamond anniversary – this signifies 75 years of flood protection and the additional benefits to irrigation, recreation, and environmental stewardship for the region,” said Maj. Gen. Kimberly Colloton, deputy commanding general for Military and International Operations, USACE.
“This place here in Colorado, along the Arkansas River, and the historic Santa Fe trail, where throughout time unique flora and fauna, dinosaurs, Native Americans, pioneers and settlers have travelled and traversed, have made their homes and raised families, all would not have been – if not for the life-giving, precious resource – of water,” Colloton said.
In November 1939, we established a new engineer district at Caddoa, Colorado to build the Caddoa Dam and Reservoir. Early in the Caddoa Dam’s construction process, the Colorado congressman who had been requesting the dam for nearly 10 years – Rep. John Martin – passed away. In June 1940, both the dam and reservoir were renamed in his honor.
“75 years ago this year, the signing of the interstate compact between Colorado and Kansas on the Arkansas River and the completion of John Martin Reservoir occurred,” said Kevin Salter, Assistant Operations Secretary, Arkansas River Compact Administration.
“The states have used both the Compact and John Martin Reservoir to better divide and utilize the waters of the Arkansas River to irrigate crops in Colorado and Kansas, while providing flood protection for the valley below John Martin Reservoir. The irrigation benefits of John Martin Reservoir and the Compact have been significant,” Salter said.
During the ceremony, the La Junta Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) presented the colors and the La Junta High School Band performed the national anthem.
“Today, we not only appreciate the efforts and magnificence of what was built, but we should appreciate how beautiful this place is,” Colloton said. “Known as the Sapphire of the Plains, we have some of the best fishing, hunting, boating, and exploring the southwest has to offer. And let me not forget to mention – disc golf! I was not a believer at first, and think I actually raised my eyebrow when I heard about its inception a few years ago, when I was the Division Commander for this region, but I have seen the light, as my 12-year-old son and his friends are avid disc golfers and I love the see that our facilities are so appreciated for the diverse recreational opportunities they offer.”
After the ceremony, attendees enjoyed several events organized by USACE John Martin staff, including a disc golf tournament, a cornhole tournament, fishing derby, and tours of the inside of the dam. There were also food vendors with BBQ, sweet desserts, and other foods set up near the campground. Fireworks just after sunset concluded the celebration.
“We are very thankful for the food vendors, Bent County Sheriff’s office, Hasty/McClave Fire Department and EMS services, Las Animas and Bent County Fire Department, and all the additional offsite USACE support from sister projects around the Albuquerque District and district office to help make the event a safe and successful one,” said Jake Williams, John Martin operations project manager.
“I am also very thankful to Colorado Parks and Wildlife John Martin State Park staff and Park Superintendent Dan Kirmer for their support, hard work and flexibility in partnering with us to shape this event into a memorable moment in the history of this community and project,” Williams said.
“The event was fantastic. We are very pleased with the turnout from the community in support of the event and support to our staff and our mission. I am very proud of my team, their countenance, work ethic, tenacity and pride in their job, community, and organization. I feel the events success is a result of such an outstanding group of people that displays the greatest example of selfless service, professionalism and ultimate dedication to their families and community.”
From Caddoa to John Martin, a brief history of the dam
“For many here, likely most of us, this infrastructure has just always been here,” said Colloton. “It’s hard to fathom the immense efforts over time that went into the siting, surveying, and planning, the authorizing and funding for such a project, the designing, constructing and today maintaining as well as now planning for the future. These kind of things don’t just ‘happen.’”
“The 1921 flood that affected the basin from Pueblo to Dodge City highlighted the need for flood control on the Arkansas River,” said Salter.
A 34-feet high wall of water flooded Pueblo, Colorado, with estimates of property damages approaching $20 million. Despite this major disaster, it still took several years of lobbying and effort by many area residents and lawmakers to get authorization and funding secured from Congress. The Flood Control Act of June 22, 1936, authorized the dam and funds were allocated in 1939 to begin construction.
The dam was designed to control floods along the Arkansas River and store irrigation water as well as help end the decades long legal feud between Colorado and Kansas over the river’s water. The economic benefits of employing large numbers of workers to build the dam during the Great Depression was another incentive for the dam’s proponents.
Construction on the $15 million dam began in 1939 under the direction of the Corps of Engineers’ Conchas District, which was renamed the Caddoa District. The dam was originally named the Caddoa Dam after the small railroad town located where the dam was to be built. Caddoa, Colorado, population 432 in 1930, had to be moved, including the cemetery. The dam’s construction also necessitated the relocation of 21 miles of Santa Fe Railroad tracks.
An interesting bit of trivia from a 1939 newspaper article highlighted the difference in how Coloradans and Kansans pronounced “Caddoa.” Apparently, Coloradans emphasized the first syllable and the last “a” was silent. Kansans pronounced all three syllables and the final “a.”
In December 1939 Colorado Congressman John A. Martin passed away. His primary legacy was Caddoa Dam.
According to an Oct. 3, 2023, article by Nancy Miller in the Kiowa County Independent, Martin’s “granddaughter, Sally Lowry, has stated that John A. Martin would carry black pebbles in his shirt pocket to keep him focused on the much-needed dam. At the time of his death, he still had those pebbles in his shirt.”
In his honor, in 1940 the dam’s name was changed to John Martin Dam and Reservoir.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the US’s involvement in World War II, work on John Martin slowed, eventually coming to a halt in March 1943. The dam was 87% erected and the concrete portion of the main dam stood in place. The only portion left to be finished after the war was the installation of the steel crest gates, and the bridge crossing the spillway. Additionally, irrigation water could be stored behind the dam for farmers to use in the meantime.
After the war work restarted on the dam in June 1946, and was finally finished in October 1948.
Formal operation of the dam did not begin until April 1, 1949, after a special grand opening ceremony. Approximately 5,000 people from Colorado and Kansas braved freezing wind and snow to attend. Speakers included the governors of Colorado and Kansas, representatives of the Albuquerque District, and Colorado Representative John E. Chenoweth.
At the conclusion of her speech at the 75th anniversary, Maj. Gen. Colloton said she was “honored to represent the many district commanders and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers teammates that have come before, the project managers, engineers, and others that have dedicated themselves to this project for 75 years.”
“We will rely on you, the next generations, to ensure that the resources here are sustained and maintained so they we continue to reduce risks from flooding, protect our water resources and ensure maximum benefit to region and the environment,” Colloton said.