Travel

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

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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.

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