Powder River Examiner -

Moorhead: A Divided Montana Loses

Series: Red Shale Reflections | Story 22

February 2, 2023

Pictured above is an artist's rendering of what the Moorhead Dam may have looked like had it been built. The view is looking generally south, with the main valley of the Powder River stretching off on the upper right of the photo. Photo courtesy of the Definitive Plan Report (Volume I) Moorhead Unit – Montana, by the Bureau of Reclamation.

In two previous columns, I described the unsuccessful effort to build a dam on the Powder River three miles south of Moorhead during the 1940s. My first column outlined the general history of the project as the Reclamation Bureau prepared for the structure's construction. An initial congressional appropriation of $900,000 (in 1947) included the creation of a base camp for engineers and workers. My second column described how the opposition, based primarily in Wyoming, organized themselves and utilized the political power of Senator John C. O'Mahoney to scuttle the project. Key to this opposition was the actions of the Kendrick Cattle Company and its President, Manville Kendrick. This third column will detail how division among Montana interests prevented the creation of a united effort necessary to counter, if not overcome, Wyoming's opposition to the Moorhead Dam.

Support for Moorhead north of the Wyoming border was relatively easy to find. Early advocates like Broadus Mayor Ashton Jones testified before several congressional committees. Broadus resident A.O. Pemberton organized "Ranchers for Moorhead" and constantly communicated with Montana's congressional delegation regarding the project. Economic development advocates such as the Chamber of Commerce in Broadus and Miles City publicly expressed support.

It is essential to understand that the initial purpose of the Moorhead Dam was flood control. Indeed, its initial $900,000 appropriation was part of an overall effort of the Truman Administration to reduce flooding across the entire Missouri River drainage. Broadus had been victimized by a catastrophic flood of the Powder River in 1923 and several more minor floods in other years. Dramatic flooding in Truman's home state of Missouri the previous year (1947) gave the Reclamation Bureau a great deal of political momentum during the first phase of the Moorhead debate. One of the opposition's most useful criticisms painted the Reclamation Bureau as a bunch of undemocratic idealists hell-bent on constructing their engineering ambitions over the local populace. Wyoming's unity and political heft in opposition were initially deployed to counter the Reclamation Bureau's bureaucratic momentum. The commissioner of the Bureau later recalled:

Wyoming citizens, including Manville Kendrick, present heir and head of the Kendrick Land and Cattle Company, founded by his father, the late United States Senator Kendrick of Wyoming, stormed into the senate appropriations committee when under my commissionership, a budget for the Moorhead construction was presented and blasted the project asserting it would flood their best Powder River Wyoming bottom lands for benefits only reaped downstream in Montana.

Fascinated listeners included Senator Joseph O'Mahoney of Wyoming, then acting chairman of the appropriation subcommittee. The senator came to Washington originally as a protege of the late Senator Kendrick, labored in Senator Kendrick's office, and naturally is not indifferent to Wyoming and Ken-drick views.

Wyoming's disproportional political influence was successfully able to stall the Bureau's momentum. Dams and reservoirs, however, are not the product of a single year's effort. If Moorhead supporters could mount a similarly effective advocacy effort, it was thought, the project conceivably could still move forward.

To facilitate such advocacy, the Reclamation Bureau made the fateful decision to make significant changes to the Moorhead project. It tripled its requested budget, and what was a 300,000-acre-feet structure built for flood control suddenly became a 1,100,000-acre-feet irrigation dam costing over 20 million dollars. Adding irrigation to the dam's function tripled the reservoir's size, as this change was deemed necessary to provide water to potential customers above and below the dam site. This new proposal quickly backfired by creating significant and vocal opposition along the Powder River in Montana. Specifically, many Powder River residents balked at creating an irrigation district limiting them to 180 acres, considerably less than many of their existing ranches.

Moorhead advocates claimed that they could get the 180-acre limit waived, but the damage had been done. Further analysis showed that the vast majority of the irrigation would benefit Montana, which only intensified Wyoming's opposition. The Reclamation Bureau's credibility was now openly questioned, weakening the pro-Moorhead ability to convince fence-sitters about the viability of such a controversial project.

Montana's congressional delegation during this initial period included Senators James E. Murray (D) and Zales Ecton (R), along with Congressmen Mike Mansfield (D) and Wesley D'Ewart (R). While all these politicians supported the construction of the Moorhead Dam, they could not match the vehement opposition from the Wyoming delegation. Complicating matters for these Montana politicians was the behavior of some of their constituents. The amount of correspondence from Montana in opposition to the project was considerable and often blunt.

One Moorhead couple questioned the Reclamation Bureau’s priorities in a letter to Senator Murray, throwing in a patriotic plea regarding the new war in Korea:

Can’t we control the Reclamation Bureau? Have they gained such power as to spend $20,000,000 on their dream projects when the government says atomic bombs are too costly to spend in Korea? If we need tanks, bombs, and guns to save our boys in war, we are asked to buy bonds, pay higher taxes and send our sons to war, is it too much to ask the Reclamation Bureau to lend the $20,000,000 to help? May God help us if we allow the Reclamation Bureau to spend one cent that will help save one boy’s life for the future.

Wyoming Senator O’Mahoney successfully blocked any movement on the project by including an amendment explicitly prohibiting Moorhead Dam funds in the Bureau’s yearly appropriation bills. By 1949, the Reclamation Bureau threw in the towel. “The Bureau of Reclamation has no desire nor intention of building Moorhead Dam, or any project for that matter if it appears to be contrary to the desires of the majority of the people whose lives and properties will be affected,” wrote Commissioner Michael Strauss to Senator Murray.

To counter the Bureau’s pessimism regarding popular support for the project, Broadus Mayor Ashton Jones presented a series of four petitions to Senator Murray and others. These separate petitions included ones by Powder River residents subject to the irrigation, another from landowners who previously opposed the dam but now supported it, a third from Broadus residents supporting the dam for flood control, and a final petition from Powder River County residents not living in the affected valley but supportive of the dam. The effort was not enough to convince lawmakers.

The last semi-serious attempt to construct Moorhead came in 1955 when the Reclamation Bureau under the Eisenhower Administration floated a new plan for the Moorhead Dam, which now included a power plant at the spillway's base. The estimated cost of this structure was over $35 million.

Michael Strauss, Reclamation Bureau Commissioner during the Truman Administration, advised Senator Murray that:

While I believe that, like whisky, all reclamation is good and some is better, nobody believes the Moorhead project is the best, or that it has much chance of survival in existent climates. If consulted, I would suggest the Montana delegation and Senior Senator let a good head of steam build up in the state for Moorhead (and it has not built up yet) before leaping into the leadership for this project, which is, at best marginal.

A portrait of Montana's Senator James E. Murray, courtesy of the Truman Presidential Library. Murray was a Montana Senator from 1934-1961.

To demonstrate local support for this project, a politically oblivious Bureau actually told Senator Murray they preferred positive proof in the form of a pre-construction irrigation district. “The formation of an irrigation district would be positive proof of united local support; or the preparation of a map showing the proposed irrigable land with a petition for irrigation development signed by a sizable majority of the landowners.” Instead, smaller reservoirs on the Powder River’s tributaries in Wyoming were constructed, which seemed to help reduce (but not eliminate) the downriver flood risk. While there were lackluster attempts to revise the Moorhead Dam in the 1960s and again in the 1970s for industrial purposes, they went nowhere.

In the end, the Moorhead Dam project failed because its supporters lacked the unity needed to overcome a united Wyoming opposition. Overcoming that opposition would have been difficult under the best circumstances, given the Cowboy State’s superior committee assignments. However, it was the political ineptness of the Reclamation Bureau that provided the final blow. Its lack of clarity and consistency allowed what should have been a small minority of property owners to explode into a significant and forceful Montana-based opposition. In combination with its allies in Wyoming, the Moorhead Dam was doomed once it was announced.

See more of Shane's work at http://www.redshalereflections.com


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