Gillespie Dam: The Public Works Project That's Now Home to Wildlife

Man versus nature. It's one of the quintessential conflicts in life as well as in the literature world. And it's also one the reasons why the Gillespie Dam on the outskirts of the Valley was transformed from a functional public works project into a curious oddity.

Since its partial collapse in 1993 due to overflow from massive rainstorms, the gigantic concrete gravity dam (which is located in the desert wilderness about 10 miles outside Buckeye) has become a riparian paradise that teems with a variety of fish, birds, and other fauna.

As such, Gillespie Dam has become a picturesque destination place for local hikers, fisherman, and urban explorers.

A local rancher named Frank Gillespie privately financed the construction of the concrete structure in 1921 along the Gila River southwest of the Valley. The dam not only allowed water to be diverted to feed Gillespie's crops at his nearby Paloma Ranch but also forded the waters enough to permit drivers to pilot maneuver their Tin Lizzies across the river.

The path would eventually become Old U.S. Highway 80 and made up one of our nation's first transcontinental highways. Five years later in 1926, Arizona spent $320,000 to build a gorgeous steel truss bridge a few hundred feet downstream from the dam. Constructed with triangular arrays of strong steel girders, the bridge has withstood the test of time and still functions to this day.

Unfortunately, we can't say the same for Gillespie Dam. In January 1993, torrential thunderstorms and an unusually high amount of winter rainfall around the state filled local rivers and with record amounts of runoff.

Over in Tempe, the heavy floodwaters destroyed one bridge under construction along the Salt River. Meanwhile, Mother Nature caused enough water to pour into the Gila River to cause a 120-foot portion of Gillespie Dam to collapse.

No attempt was ever made over the past two decades to either reconstruct the dam or remove the remnants of the structure. Instead, large dirt embankments and a pumping station were created to divert the Gila's waters into the county's canal system.

Nature has sort of reclaimed the area surrounding the dam, which is dominated by a large pond ringed with reeds and other plant life that have taken over the premesis. It's a rather serene setting, save for the occasional hum of water pumps. Ducks and other waterfowl frequently nest around the dam while fish occasionally leap from the water.

Chain link fencing has been erected around area surrounding the dam, but it hasn't kept the public out by any means. Entire families routinely come out to Gillespie Dam and circumvent the fencing to spend a day fishing or relaxing in the great outdoors. They traverse perilous cement walkways or perch on edge of the dam to find the perfect spot to catch any of the walleye, bass, or rainbow trout that populate the pond.

Another popular attraction is the antique Highway 80 bridge, which looks like it belongs in a postcard from New England. It's numerous steel girders, all of which were rehabbed by the county last year as a part of a $7.3 million rehabilitation project, have a patina of rust that adds a colorful vintage aura to the structure.

Both it and the dam itself are worth taking a quick 40-mile trip to check out, particularly towards the end of the day when thing become especially picturesque after being lit by the amber rays of sunset.

Gillespie Dam is located 10 miles south of Buckeye on Old U.S. Highway 80.

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.