By Lynn Arave
IMAGINE the South Fork of the Ogden River without all or most of its campgrounds/picnic areas.
No Bott, South Fork, Perception Park, Meadows, Willow or perhaps even Magpie. No tubing or fishing most of the South Fork River either. It almost happened …
That’s because in November of 1912 full scale work began “on Big South Fork Dam,” according to the Standard-Examiner of Nov. 16 that year. (Some preliminary work had been done in 1911.)
After 40 years of dreaming about a dam on the South Fork, machinery was working there.
(Bishop W.S. Steward of Plain City had previously spent considerable money in the South Fork area trying to find a suitable dam location, but had given up. Other had tried too. Only a revival of support by former Ogden Mayor/then Standard-Examiner Publisher William Glasmann had pushed the idea forward again.)
Fifty men, armed with powder, steam and machinery, began to prepare the site for concrete work. This dam was envisioned of being able to double Ogden and area’s population and serve water needs for 100 years.
Where exactly was this dam started? At the confluence of Cobble Creek along the South Fork, or near today’s South Fork Campground.
The proposed earthen dam was estimated to cost $1 million (or $24 million in today’s value) and initially rise 120 feet – and eventually 200 feet in height. It would have had a storage capacity of 50,000 acre feet. (Pineview is 110,000 acre feet.)
“The camp at the dam presents a busy scene and the place is a tented city,” The Standard reported.
The dam was eventually a joint project between Ogden City and the Ogden River Reservoir Company. Electric power generation was also planned.
However, the project was very controversial and a March 23, 1911 Standard article called a meeting on the South Fork dam the most important meeting ever held in Weber County.
(Remember: in this era, there was no Pineview or Causey Reservoir, only a small dam at the head of Wheeler Canyon in Ogden Canyon.)
“The people in Huntsville looked with surprise as the big gasoline engine hauling seven tons at a time through that town,” The Standard reported.
What happened to the dam?
It was eventually determined that the core wall was located on a fault plain. Also, while the south end wall hit bedrock, the rest did not. Blasting revealed an almost bottomless mud plain.
Plans were even revised to take the dam about 1.2 miles downstream to the west, but additional shortcomings on a suitable foundation and delays/changes/politics in construction doomed the project.
“Reservoir site abandoned,” was a Nov. 22, 1912 headline in the Standard. That proved to be somewhat premature as some work on the possible dam was still being done in 1913, as well as the late winter of 1914. The project was on-off again many times.
As a sidelight, some of the first moving pictures ever seen by Ogden area residents came in the fall of 1913. “Moving pictures of fashion show and big dam” was an Oct. 22, 1913 headline in the Standard. Images of work on the South Fork Dam were shown at the Globe Theater, 2530 Washington Avenue. “The picture of the big dynamite explosion at the damsite is interesting,” the article stated.
As recent as May 18, 1923, the Standard reported government officials still mulling the South Fork of the Ogden River as a possible dam site. Interestingly, then, one site was called “Magpie Reservoir,” with potential for a 200-foot high dam (and likely the location of today’s Magpie Campground).
By 1926, Echo Reservoir in Weber Canyon was started and then the Great Depression struck in 1929.
By the 1930s, the Federal Bureau of Reclamation controlled all dam construction and it started Pineview Reservoir in 1934 in Ogden Valley itself.
In 1966, Causey Reservoir was completed. It is on the South Fork of the Ogden River (and also included some of Skull Crack Canyon, another potential dam site explored in the 1920s).
Still, you’ve got to wonder if the South Fork Dam had been built in the 1910s, where would today’s South Fork campgrounds be? What about Highway 39’s route? Would Pineview and Causey reservoirs still have been built the same, or at all?
Additional sources: “Public Documents in Utah,” volume 1, page 68; and “The Irrigation Age,” volumes 20-21.
-NOTE: The author, Lynn Arave, is available to speak to groups, clubs, classes or other organizations about Utah history at no charge. He can be contacted by email at: email@example.com