The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1997, Volume 43, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

John S. Eastwood and the Control of Water in the West


Building the Ultimate Dam: John S. Eastwood and the Control of Water in the West.

By Donald C. Jackson. Development of Western Resources series, ed., Hal K. Rothman. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1995. Photographs, illustrations. Maps. Sources (mostly manuscript collections and archival files). Notes. Glossary. Index. ix + 336 pages. $45.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Daniel Tyler, Professor of History, Colorado State University, author of The Mythical Pueblo Rights Doctrine (1990) and The Last Water Hole in the West (1992).

Building the Ultimate Dam is a significant accomplishment by author Donald Jackson. His undergraduate training as a civil engineer followed by graduate work in history uniquely qualify him to assess the work of dam builder John S. Eastwood. Jackson’s objective is to evaluate the meaning of Eastwood’s multiple arch dam technology in a society that, for the most part, rejected his imaginative and cost effective designs. Additionally, Jackson explores the social, political, psychological and economic forces which have influenced corporate decisions regarding dam styles and construction. Eastwood was an innovator, but he encountered a reluctance on the part of the business and engineering community to accept a design style which gave the appearance of being less reliable than the massive gravity fill structures to which the general public was accustomed.

In examining Eastwood’s work, Jackson connects to the writings of Norris Hundley and Donald Worster. Agreeing with the former, Jackson notes that “myriad forcesÉcontributed to the growth of the region’s contemporary water supply systems.” But “on a deeper level,” he concludes, “development of the West’s hydraulic technologies was controlled by a small number of engineers, businessmen and administrators who prescribed a handful of solutions to problems that they were instrumental in defining.” (p.251) In sum, Jackson’s work complements Worster’s arguments in Rivers of Empire. John Eastwood, the protagonist, challenged what Worster has referred to as the “elite of water bearers” and because of their power, he achieved only limited success in a career that extended over thirty years.

Fifty multiple arch dams were built in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. Eastwood was responsible for designing seventeen: twelve in California, two in Idaho and one each in Utah, Arizona and British Columbia. Not one of his dams has failed in spite of unexpected flooding and earthquakes, but during his lifetime they were subjected to constant criticism because they lacked the “massive appearance” of traditional structures.

An advocate of the Progressive view that the nation’s resources should be put to work for society’s benefit, Eastwood believed that reservoirs were essential “to fill the gap caused by an occasional dry year or drought period.” (p.67) In 1906 at the age of forty-nine, he settled on the multiple arch dam concept. Private companies needing to build dams for their logging, power or municipal needs had limited funds to spend on reservoirs. The multiple arch design required far less construction material, making it possible to achieve up to forty percent savings over traditional rock fill structures. Believing that his first success, Hume Lake Dam in California, was “as permanent as the cliffs of the great Kings Canyon upon which it faces,” Eastwood boasted that his multiple arch dam “cannot be touched by any other type of dam of a permanent nature, in cost, in permanence, in freedom from upkeep charges or in the safety against destruction from any cause.” The multiple arch, he boasted, would become “the standard structure for dams at all places.” (pp. 97,98)

The engineering community reacted negatively to his self-assurance. Fearful that their profession was being challenged by an upstart from Fresno, they vented their jealousy by commenting publicly on the “airy arches” and “lace curtain effect” of Eastwood’s multiple arches. The more Eastwood defended his “perfect dam,” the more vulnerable he became to criticism that he was obsessed with a single design. No matter how

technologically sound, efficient, and cost effective were his multiple arches, pressures from the entrenched engineering community, accompanied by the naivete of businessmen, produced a lack of confidence in the general public’s view of Eastwood’s multiple arch designs.

Ironically, the multiple arch technology was just what the business community needed in the days preceding large, publicly funded dams. But because professional engineers were sometimes faulted for being “servants of business,” (p.10) acceptable dam design was more likely to reflect the requirements of authority and not the free and open society of a democracy in which individual ingenuity was supposedly rewarded.

Social, political and economic pressures on technology became even more apparent in the decade following Eastwood’s death in 1924. The multiple arch dam design was ignored by a society trying to recover from the Great Depression. Bureau of Reclamation structures of the 1930s were massive, concrete filled monuments to man’s attempted dominance of nature. In a panic to put people back to work, cost and efficiency no longer mattered. With almost unlimited federal backing, the USBR focused on the “celebration of mass,” constructing Grand Coulee, Shasta, Hoover, and Friant dams with little thought to alternative designs. No multiple arch dams were built after World War II.

Among the many strengths of Building the Ultimate Dam is Jackson’s argument that technology, no matter how good or useful, remains the servant of forces within society. It may or may not serve the public’s actual needs. In both Eastwood’s dams and those of the USBR, designs were implemented primarily for non-technical reasons. Eastwood’s experiences point out how difficult it is to separate the ideas of “public works” and “private interest” as they relate to western water development and to technology as a whole. As noted in the book’s Preface, the line between “public works” and “private interest” is easily blurred and if there is one overriding message in this book it is that when creative technology is introduced to the real world, “it assumes a complexity that challenges facile explanations about how human culture evolves.” (p.x)

Readers will be delighted with the large number of illustrations and photographs. Their fine quality and appropriate placement in the text are a tribute to the author, his impeccable research and to the editors of the Development of Western Resources series. Well done to all!