Two brothers and a dam changed history

A short history of the Eagle Nest Dam

The story of Eagle Nest Dam begins with the Cimarron River, a tributary of the Canadian River beginning at the confluence of the Cieneguilla Creek and the Moreno Creek, some 50 miles in length. Great parcels of farmable land were available along its path, but a steady supply of water would be necessary. The river had always flowed intermittently, with heavy flows from the spring now melt, drying up during the summer and, at times, producing catastrophic floods. This made agricultural efforts difficult.

Frank Springer came to New Mexico Territory in 1873 as a 24 year old lawyer from Iowa to seek his fortune. He found work with the local newspaper and attorney. Lucien Maxwell had sold his land grant to the Maxwell Land Grant Company, and Frank Springer became their attorney. He successfully represented the company before the US Supreme Court to settle the deed for the 1.7 million-acre Beaubian Miranda Land Grant. Along with his brother Charles, they began to acquire land and start the CS Cattle Company. He continued working for the Maxwell Land Grant Company and rose to be president.

As early as 1888, the brothers recognized the potential of impounding a large amount of water at a point known as Eagle’s Roost Rock, at the head of the Cimarron Canyon. In 1893, the Maxwell Land Grant Company deemed the project too risky, but would be willing to sell the land for the dam site to others interested in the project.

Frank and Charles realized that the value of their land holdings would greatly increase if the land had a regulated source of water for irrigation. By 1906 they had decided to proceed with the project, formed the Cimarron Valley Land Company, and purchased 600 acres of land at Eagle’s Roost Rock. On February 02, 1906, Frank Springer wrote to New Mexico Territorial Engineer David M White about his intent to appropriate the excess and flood waters of the Moreno Valley and impound them in Cimarron Reservoir, to be used downstream for irrigation, power production, municipal, and beneficial usage. A formal application was filed August 21, 1907, and on July 03, 1908, the application was approved. Permit 71 was issued by Territorial Engineer Vernon Sullivan for the construction of the dam and the downstream distribution network. A time frame was established to begin and complete the project.

The company proceeded to move forward. A diversion was constructed downstream east of Cimarron. The inlet and outlet tunnels were started, but acquiring the 3000 acres needed for an impoundment area had not been secured. During this period numerous time extensions were sought and granted before construction could move forward.

It is 1916, New Mexico was now a state, William C. McDonald is governor, World War I was raging in Europe, and Pancho Villa attacked the United States at Columbus, New Mexico. The land had been acquired, financing was in place, and the engineering firm of Bartlett and Ranney of San Antonio Texas was selected to design and build the dam. The firm sent engineer Neal Hanson, an immigrant from Denmark, to oversee, manage, and construct the dam.

Plans and specifications were prepared to construct an arched, cyclopean concrete, gravity dam, 140’-0 tall, 400’-0 long, with a 150’-0 radius. The base would be 45’-0 thick, upstream face vertical, and downstream face battered to a thickness of 8’-0, 24’-0 below the crest, with a cantilevered deck 9’-06 wide. This design would impound 85,000 acre feet of water.

In the fall of 1916 work proceeded. The roadway to Therma was relocated to McAvoy Pass, the inlet and outlet tunnels completed, and the foundation and abutments prepared. Finding a work crew was difficult in a sparsely populated remote site. A large crew from Taos Pueblo came on board, and a camp was established to house and feed the crew. The work was very labor intensive. The foundation for the dam required removing all of the weathered and unstable rock down to sound stone, as well as a cutoff trench to anchor the dam. The work was all done manually, with shovels, picks, sledge hammers, and star drills. Small explosive charges were used to help break the rock.

Touring cars at the Eagle Nest Lake Lodge. (Photo from New Mexico Digital Collections)
Moving into 1917 the building stage began. A wooden trestle was constructed, and a site built wooden steam powered crane was assembled atop the trestle. A series of ramps and stairs were constructed to move man and materials to the reach of the crane, and a cement mixer was set up to begin the pour.The dam was formed and poured in individual key locked blocks, with the horizontal and vertical joints staggered. The cyclopean design mix specified large clean stones, called plums, to be placed within the forms and filled with concrete.As 1917 progressed, the US entered into World War I. This burdened the work force, as well as availability of materials and resources. Two of Frank Springer’s sons were called to serve and sent to Europe. Aggregate and stones for the plums were available onsite, and lumber was available from Cimarron, but Portland cement and sand had to be brought in from a greater distance. Rail service was available from Ute Park, but the last 11 miles consisted of a two rut road and log bridges. Some trucks were used, but they were not reliable, so wagons and burros accomplished the task.

The concrete was mixed in a 1 cubic yard mixer, and fed by shovel to fill the 23,000 cubic yard volume of the dam. The interlocking block and arch design uses the head pressure of the dam to keep the structure tight, pressing the load into the sound stone of the abutments.

Water is controlled by 6 cast iron sluice gates inside of a concrete well. 4 gates are inlet gates at 4 different vertical elevations, and 2 outlet gates. The outlet gates and tunnel have a capacity of 385 cubic feet per second or 10.37 million gallons per hour. There is an auxiliary spillway on the northwest abutment behind Eagle’s Roost Rock.

The Dam was substantially completed June 30, 1918 and operational to impound and release water. Although the original plans specified a 140’-0 structure, the finished dam is 124’-0 tall and surveyed to contain 78,800 acre feet when filled to spillway. Final inspection and certification of the structure was done December 09, 1918 by State Engineer James A French and it was named Eagle Nest Dam.

Upon completion of Eagle Nest Dam, Neal Hanson and Willis Ranney went to Spain to build another dam similar to Eagle Nest. However, this one would be 412’-0 tall to provide irrigation and hydro electric power to the city of Barcelona, Spain. Hanson then returned to Cimarron where he continued to work on completing the Permit 71 works below the dam. He married the local earthwork contractors daughter, designed and built civil projects, started Solvangen Farms, and raised his family. His descendants continue his farming tradition to this day.

The dam was only part of the Permit 71, and infrastructure had to be constructed to deliver the impounded water. The war had stressed the resources of the Cimarron Valley Land Company, and more time extensions of time had to be sought and granted as the project moved forward. Hanson was instrumental in surveying, designing and constructing the diversions, canals, and laterals of the distribution system. Final approval of completion was granted April 22, 1932 by State Engineer George M. Neel.

It took many years for the lake to fill with water, as it was not entitled to all of the inflows. Water has only passed over the spillway twice, once in the early 1950’s and again in 1994. This thwarted the selling of the large tracts of irrigated land, so other sources of income had to be developed to make the project successful. Frank Springer had passed away in 1927, and his son Ed had took over the operation of the ranch and lake.

Because of its isolation, Therma was a gambling town, until fishing became available at the new lake. Ed Springer realized and developed the fishing potential of the lake, as people would pay to fish there. Railroad service was available to Ute Park to help bring in people. Fish were needed and a hatchery was built below the dam to provide quality fish to the lake. Tourist cabins were built to provide accommodations and in 1927, Walter Gant built the Eagle Nest Lodge to provide luxury accommodations. By 1935 Therma became Eagle Nest. Although gambling was still occuring, fishing is what brought people to the Moreno Valley establishing it as a tourist destination.

Through the years, the fish hatchery was no longer used, and getting quality fish for the lake became difficult. Les Davis, the grandson of Frank Springer had taken over the operation of the ranch and dam, and in 1980 it was decided to lease the recreation part of the lake to the State of New Mexico for 20 years. By 1994, the Davis family decided not to renew the upcoming lease due in 2000, but offer it for sale to the state. After many years of negotiation, including a 2-year extension, the sale of the lake and dam was completed. On August 26, 2002, the Department of Game and Fish took ownership of the dam, the State Parks Division took over operating the recreational facilities, thus creating Eagle Nest Lake State Park. The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission took over the operation of the dam and Permit 71.

After 99 years the dam continues to provide its initial purpose of providing a stable source of water to the downstream users, as well as being instrumental in developing the tourist industry for the people of New Mexico. The water continues to give life to the farms and ranches of the men that thought big, worked hard, struggled, but persevered to build this project we are honoring today. Thanks to the Springer and Hanson families, and their descendants the Davis and Trujillo families.