February 5, 2017

1890: The Dam, The Drunk, & The Disaster

Walnut Grove Dam

The Dam:

"Besides being the largest piece of solid masonry in the United States, [the Walnut Grove Dam] also drain[ed] the largest watershed in the world, being upwards of 400 miles of territory." (*1)

But in the dark, early hours of February 22, 1890 heavy rains would cause the dam to "literally explode."

"The disastrous breach of Arizona's first major dam poured 4 billion gallons of water into a canyon above Wickenburg and killed approximately 100-150 people, although no one will really ever know how many people drowned." (*2)

"The story of the dam began in 1881 when two brothers from New York, Wells and DeWitt Bates, bought a gold mine in southern Yavapai County and filed 63 claims for placer mining rights. They filed a claim for all of the Hassayampa River waters so they could build a reservoir dam and diversion dam for the mining operation." (*2)

The brothers found investors and construction on the dam began in 1886. However, the two quickly learned that they could make more sure money selling stock in the company. Short-cuts and cost cutting became a priority in the construction. "Wells Bates, the resident director and prime motivator, seemed to share the same attitude." (*2)

"The fate of the dam was sealed when the company scrapped one spillway plan in favor of a cheaper one right next to the dam" that would prove to be far too small. (*2)

The dam was never a solid structure. "A timber trestle was built on the longitudinal axis of the dam and this was gradually raised as the work progressed, the timbers being left imbedded in the stone filling. The heart of the dam was wholly made of broken granite, as it was dumped from the cars (on the trestle.)" (*3)

Walnut Grove Dam under construction.

When the loose granite reached the desired height and breadth, it was covered in masonry.

On the upstream, lake side of the dam, timbers, tar paper and two coats of paraffin paint were used to help make the dam waterproof. (*3)

In a cost saving measure, the downstream side of the dam had no waterproofing, leaving it vulnerable if water topped the structure. (*2)

Hoover Dam
Unlike modern dams, Walnut Grove did not utilize a curved semi-circle toward the headwaters, but instead was built straight across. (*4)

The curved, "modern" design is in actuality a horizontal application of the ancient technology of the "Roman Arch"--long known for its ability to evenly distribute and carry great weights.

Even at the outset, the construction of the dam was criticized. "In fact, engineers of the Technical Society of the Pacific Coast had publicly criticized the dam as a structure 'full of blunders mainly caused by company officers in New York.'" (*5)

"Other critics had it that the concrete and lumber used was of inferior quality and that some of the work was done without supervision of the chief engineer. Furthermore, whatever abilities the mostly unskilled workers on the project possessed frequently were befuddled by too much time spent in saloons and gambling joints near the construction site." (*5)

"The dam's biggest fault probably was an inadequate emergency spillway, meant to keep the dam from being topped." (*6)

"The dam leaked considerably as the water accumulated, as was to be expected; but it gradually became tighter and this leakage (was) reduced to a small amount." (*3)

Watson Lake brought a region-wide celebration. It was originally intended to irrigate grain crops!

"The reservoir filled up during a heavy rainfall on March 14-17, 1889." A minor enlargement of the spillway was ordered in December 1889,  but the hydraulic engineer confirmed that the spillway was still too small. (*2)

"Evidently the placer operations along the Hassayampa below the dam did not come up to expectations with the result that in 1889 the company decided to acquire and irrigate desert land acreage 22 miles downstream. There near the mouth of Fool's Gulch, a work camp was set up which employed nearly 100 persons appertaining to the construction of a dam to divert the river onto the desert to be used both for irrigation and gold extraction. This diversion dam was nearing completion when the great catastrophe occurred." (*4)

"In February 1890, a combination of three days of heavy rain plus snow runoff filled the reservoir behind the dam and threatened its collapse." (*6)

"It was around 4pm on that Friday when Superintendent Thomas H. Brown finally decided that he should warn residents downriver of impending danger, for as many as 200 lives would be at stake in the event the dam collapsed. A few settlers and a sizable number of miners were scattered along the river bottom below the canyon in a 15 mile stretch separating the big dam and the lesser barrier still under construction." (*5)

The Drunk:

Brown ordered "one of his employees, Dan Burke, a prospector and miner supposed to be familiar with the country, to mount a horse and make the 22 mile ride by trail to the Fool's Gulch camp and notify the people there that the main dam might soon wash out." (*4)

In doing so, Brown made two mistakes. First, he hired Burke, a notorious drunk; and second, he paid him in advance. (*6)

Brown cautioned Burke. "'Now Dan, you will not stop on the road.' to which Burke replied, 'No Mr. Brown, I will promise you. I will not.'" (*7)

"Burke [then] mounted up, headed for a nearby saloon and got good and drunk." (*6)

After the disaster, Burke wrote the newspaper to try to make amends for his actions.

"The gist of his story was to the effect that after starting out he had to swim his horse through two swift running creeks, which, with the rainstorm in progress, caused him to become thoroughly soaked by the time he reached what he calls "Goodwin Station," which must have been somewhere on Oak or Cherry Creeks." (*4)

After wasting more time in the storm trying to find the correct trail, Burke said that he ended up back at Goodwin where "he bought a bottle of whisky, and then started to backtrack until he arrived at the Jim Cameron ranch." (*8)

It was there where a second messenger sent by Brown caught up with Burke. "Mr. Akard came along and offered Cameron $25 to pilot him to the lower dam. Cameron could not go, as he had no horse." Burke claimed that he told Cameron to take his, since he "did not know the trail in the dark." (*8)

"The result was that after all this delay Cameron rode off in the storm on a losing mission, since he did not reach the Fool's Gulch camp until 7:30 the next morning." (*4)

Ultimately, Burke spent his pay before he did his duty getting drunk and enjoying a prepared supper.

Story of a famous airplane, "The Yankee Doodle," and its demise in 1928.

The Disaster:

"Meanwhile, back at Walnut Grove, Superintendant Brown, lantern in hand, paced nervously but cautiously around the dam site. He was helpless to do anything, but he was the man responsible for giving the company a full report of whatever might occur. His lonely rain-soaked vigil lasted until 2 am." (*5)

For six hours water topped the 400-foot length of the dam eroding the unprotected side. "Workmen tried to widen the spillway in the midst of the driving rain, but it was too late. The spillway was collapsing." (*2)

At this point, the water was pouring over the dam in a solid body 3 feet deep, when an immense steel cable, reaching from the tower to the bank...broke, with a loud report, and a ball of fire seemed to shoot from it. The midnight watchers were startled by it, and at first thought that a box of giant powder had exploded. The next instant the tower was seen to totter and fall, when the entire structure, containing 90,000 tons of rocks, seemed to move bodily down the stream, sweeping everything in its track." (*9)

The 100-foot, mountain-borne tsunami was embarking and nothing on this earth was going to stop it.

Quickly, "the entire structure literally exploded into pieces with a roar that could be heard for miles. Down the canyon poured a towering wall of water, rocks, timbers and trees." (*5)

The boulders which made up the dam, ranging from heavy to humungous, would now become the grit that would scour the canyon clean of every visible sign of life.

It was said that "when the final crash came, the roar of the waters sounded like that of Niagara Falls, only ten fold greater, while the rumbling, grinding sound of the immense boulders forming the structure were indescribable. It caused a vibration of the earth." (*9)

"The 100-foot-high wall of water, laden with boulders and debris, boiled down through the high-banked canyon below the dam site and began to spread out as the flood reached the..wider bottom lands. In little more than an hour after the dam burst, the 2-mile long lake impounded behind it was emptied." (*5)

"In the canyon between the two dams there were quite a large number of cabins, all of which, with their unfortunate human occupants, were carried down to death and destruction by the rushing flood." In about a half-hour, the wall of water had traveled the 22 miles to the lower dam. "It was swept away like chaff before a hurricane, and on went this demon of death." (*1)

Where the Walnut Grove Dam once stood.

By the time the wall of water spread-out and hit Wickenburg, it was still 40 feet tall. Henry Wickenburg as well as every other farmer in the area lost everything. (*1)

"Seymour, 12 miles from Wickenburg, was the next victim of the mad, rushing waters. The store and ranch house of Mrs. Congor, with all their contents, were demolished, the lady escaping by fleeing in her nightclothes to the mountains." (*1)

"In fact, the entire distance between Seymour and the main dam (presented) a scene of indescribable desolation. The country (was) inhabited by Mexican herders and miners, and the loss of life sustained by those people will in all human probability never be known." (*1)

The tremendous energy of the rushing waters also produced a strange, unexplained, "earth-light" type phenomena: "One remarkable effect was the brilliant glow of phosphorescent light which is said to have illuminated the progress of the flood as it advanced, rendered specially noticeable by the blackness of the night." (*10)

"As far as could be seen down the stream not a vestige of a tree or shrub could be seen, the walls and bottom of the canyon being washed perfectly smooth. The only indications left to mark the place where the dam stood were a few strips of the skin of the dam and a very small piece of the west wall of the dam." (*9)


While whiskey contributed greatly to the loss of life, it also happened to save several. A dozen men "would have been drowned but for that which prohibitionists denounce--whisky." One of the men in the tent got up to get himself a drink when he heard the rush coming. He "alarmed the sleepers, who lost no time in climbing for places of safety." (*11)

One miner who never cut his hair was saved by that fact. "While taking his involuntary ride on the roof of his cabin, in the turbid and death-dealing waters of the flood, his cabin roof was thrown against the bluff by a mighty wave, among some bushes. His hair caught in the brush, holding him fast, when he loosened his hold on the rafters and grabbing the brush, was enabled to pull himself out of the water and climb up the steep cliff beyond its reach, where he remained until his rescue the next morning." (*9)

Peeples Valley pioneer Ida Genung wrote the newspaper to tell the tale of how she remained alive. She attributed her survival to being awakened by a severe premonition of dread. Although she escaped in her nightclothes, her store and belongings were lost. The site was now buried under 20 feet of boulders, timber and sand. (*12)

"A young man named Boone showed great presence of mind by grasping his little sister and barely escaping with her from the jaws of the monster flood." (*13)

A Chinese man arrived in Prescott after surviving the disaster. It was believed that he was "the only one of his race that escaped." (*11)

ALSO ENJOY: Prescott Used to Have Countless Prairie Dogs
How prairie dogs were made extinct throughout Yavapai County in the early 20th century and the consequences.

"Immediately following the washout of the Fool's Gulch camp, horsemen rode along the banks of the Hassayampa for miles and found a good many bodies of drowned persons, the exact number not being given in any report... It was also thought that some of the bodies were carried clear to the Colorado River and perhaps into the Gulf of California." (*4)

Dead fish were found 80 feet up the bank. "Half of a man's face" was discovered. (*6)

"Upon the receipt of the news of this awful calamity in Phoenix relief corps were at once sent out taking money, provisions and clothes to the suffering, and the county officers with a spirit of generosity raised $1000 to be forwarded to the scene of death and desolation." (*1)

"Newly elected Yavapai County Sheriff Buckey O'Neill also rode south to help, bringing along a doctor and several deputies. He found battered bodies for miles along the shoreline." (*2)

The job O'Neill did was appreciated by all. "All the men speak in most enthusiastic terms of the untiring and self-sacrificing work being done by Sheriff O'Neill, who was in charge of the work of searching for and burying the dead," the newspaper reported, "they said he was here, there and everywhere, wading in water, floating coffins, and shirking no duty." (*9)

Locating bodies would continue for quite some time. One body wasn't found until 19 months later. (*11) While, shockingly, another body wasn't discovered by a miner until 33 years after the fact! (*2)

Biography of a Rough Rider founder and officer under Teddy Roosevelt.

"The disaster brought national media attention to this remote territory just one year after the Johnstown, Penn., flood that killed 2,200 people because of the same spillway problem. It made the front page of the New York Times. 'This is the first of the great storage reservoirs projected in the territory, and it is believed that yesterday's disaster will operate to discourage the construction of similar dams,'" The Times wrote. (*2)

"So far as the force and effect of the water was concerned, it rivaled even the Johnston flood. The only difference between the two was that this did not have a populous country below it to devastate, although it made a pretty clean sweep of everything in its track." (*14)

"Major John Wesley Powell, then head of the U.S. Geological Survey, discussed the Walnut Canyon disaster during a Congressional hearing. He urged future dam engineers to conduct hydrographic surveys and take the potential for torrential downpours into account." (*2)

"The principal defects were: an inadequate waste water way to carry off the surplus water in case of floods and an entire lack of protection to the dam in case of an overflow and deeming the precaution for such an emergency as unnecessary." (*14)

"Their work, was, to a great extent, experimental. The defects found to exist in this enterprise are of such a nature as to be easily remedied in construction of such dams in the future." (*14)

There was talk of rebuilding the dam, but it was never done. "Numerous lawsuits were filed against the dam owners, but nobody ever got a cent." (*6)

"Rightly or wrongly, the "company" was blamed for the poor dam construction and for not acting more quickly to warn the lower camp of the threatened break. This resulted in a bitter feeling against it locally for a long time." (*4)

"Today, about all that remains of the dam is a diversion tunnel, construction roads, chunks of the spillway, and the heavy bolts which once held the steel cable that snapped when the dam broke. And more than likely, some of the lost souls remain buried under many feet of rock and sand." (*2)


He was arrested by Sheriff O'Neill for manslaughter, but was later released because the territory's manslaughter laws really didn't cover death by negligence of this sort. In a newspaper article entitled "Release of an Unpunished Scoundrel" it was reported: "Immediately on being released from custody Burke celebrated the event by drinking and carousing. Public indignation against him is very strong here." (*15)

Burke's letter to the Courier completely backfired. In it he claimed that some well known and respected pioneers thought well of him. These included: Henry Wickenburg, CB Genung,  John White and Stephen Condron. This immediately brought letters of denial and consternation from the four pioneers. Three denied that they knew him, while Condron admitted he knew Burke for a long time but "he never knew any good of him." (*15)

Nearly every other claim that Burke made in his defense was refuted or denied. "Mr. Akard, the second messenger sent...pronounces Burke's statements about swimming creeks, as purest fiction, and says that water enough...to have swam a horse would have swept Cameron's house away, where he found Burke so drunk he could scarcely walk across the floor. He also states that Burke absolutely refused them the use of his horse to continue the journey and that it was only through strategy that they succeeded in getting it. James Cameron confirms the statement of Mr. Akard in every particular," the newspaper reported. (*7)

"The law of this Territory does not cover [Burke's] case. There are people here who say he should be hung, but, as this is a law-abiding country, he will not be molested; nevertheless...life here will not, from now on, be pleasant for him." (*16)

Burke got the message. He soon slipped out of the area to places unknown.  He was long remembered, but never missed.

The Walnut Grove Dam Disaster is still regarded by some as the worst natural disaster in Arizona's history. Yet this author would argue that it was all the folly of man.


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(*1) Arizona Gazette; Date unknown. "Track of Death: The Bursting of the Walnut Grove Storage Dam" (Via SHM Archives; Vertical File-Disasters--Walnut Grove Dam.)
(*3) "The Walnut Grove Dam" Engineering News; 10/20/1888, pp 303-4. (Via SHM Archives; Vertical File-Disasters--Walnut Grove Dam.)
(*4) "Did Whisky Cause the Great Disaster?" by Roscoe Willson ("Arizona Days" series) 3/21/1965 (Via SHM Archives; Vertical File-Disasters--Walnut Grove Dam.)
(*5) "Walnut Grove Dam Collapse: Arizona's Worst Natural Disaster," by Lowell Parker. Arizona Republic 1/5/1976. (Via SHM Archives; Vertical File-Disasters--Walnut Grove Dam.)
(*6) http://archive.azcentral.com/travel/articles/2009/11/23/20091123azhist1128.html
(*7) "Blatant Burke" Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner 3/19/1890 (Via SHM Archives; Vertical File-Disasters--Walnut Grove Dam.)
(*8) Weekly AZ Jrnl Miner 3/19/1890; p4 c1-2 (Via SHM Archives; Vertical File-Disasters--Walnut Grove Dam.)
(*9) Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner 3/5/1890 p4 c1
(*10) The Courier 7/8/1983 "Westward" section, p4 c2 (On Google Archive it's 7/6/83 pg38)
(*11) Undated newspaper article: "Flood Notes" (Via SHM Archives; Vertical File-Disasters--Walnut Grove Dam.)
(*12) "Echoes of the Flood" Courier; circa 3/11/1890 (Via SHM Archives; Vertical File-Disasters--Walnut Grove Dam.)
(*13) Undated newspaper article titled "Notes". (Via SHM Archives; Vertical File-Disasters--Walnut Grove Dam.)
(*14) Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner 2/26/1890 p2 c1
(*15) Undated newspaper article: "Release of an Unpunished Scoundrel" (Via SHM Archives; Vertical File-Disasters--Walnut Grove Dam.)
(*16) Undated newspaper article titled "The Hassayampa Horror". (Via SHM Archives; Vertical File-Disasters--Walnut Grove Dam.)

SHM Archives = Sharlot Hall Museum Archives


  1. What a great article. I never knew the story of the dam. Thanks.

  2. I am wishing that my husband William Shields were alive so he could have seen this article. His parents were homesteaders around Prescott.