Dam builders reminisce about Page’s origins

Mike Adams presented a photographic history of Page at this month’s Canyon Club meeting held at the Courtyard by Marriott in Page on Nov. 18. 

Adams grew up in Page and he has been collecting photographs and documents from the early days of the town. His presentation, titled “Bringing the Past … into the Present,” consisted of three parts. The first was the construction of the bridge. 

The Glen Canyon Dam project started in October 1956 and was designed by civil engineers with slide rules. Construction of the vehicle bridge started in May 1957 and was completed in February 1959. 

Before there was a bridge, workers arrived from both sides of the canyon and worked on the bridge, dam and other construction projects from both sides. Page was established on the east side of the dam site for Arizona workers. Glen Canyon City, later to be renamed Big Water, was established for workers living in Utah, some 13 miles from the canyon.  

Clearly, there needed to be a bridge to make construction easier. When completed, it was the highest steel arch bridge in the world, towering 700 feet above the Colorado River. On August 6, 1958, the main arch for the bridge was connected in the middle after being built from both sides at the same time. The roadway framing was then added and, once complete, allowed vehicles to cross the river. The next nearest bridge was Navajo Bridge in Marble Canyon, completed in 1929. At the time, the total cost for the Glen Canyon bridge was over $4 million. When the bridge was complete, US highway 89 was still a gravel road.

The second part of Adams’ presentation concerned the footbridge that was constructed to allow foot traffic to cross the bridge. The deck of the bridge was steel mesh, allowing people crossing the bridge to see the Colorado River between their feet as they walked across. The bridge was a cable suspension bridge and not for the faint of heart.

The third part of the presentation was about the construction of the dam. Adams showed photos of the dam as it was built from the river and gradually became taller. Because the site was so remote and the quality of the concrete so crucial, a concrete batch plant, about 30 stories tall, was built on a shelf carved out of the canyon wall. The shelf surfaced from the water in 2021 and is visible from the Chains area on the opposite side of the dam.  

As construction progressed, a temporary visitor center was first built on the east side of the canyon and later in the town of Page. Carl Hayden Visitor Center was completed in 1963, around the same time that the dam was completed.

A cofferdam was initially built to reroute the river through diversion tunnels so the dam could be built.  Once the river was diverted, concrete could be placed to build the foundation and the dam itself.  

Since concrete gets hot when it cures, an ice plant next to the concrete batch plant was used to run chilled water through aluminum pipes that crisscrossed the inside of the dam as it was built. This technique was originally developed during construction of Hoover Dam. When the tubes were no longer needed, they were sealed.

The cement used in the concrete was trucked from Cottonwood, Arizona. The gravel was crushed and prepared nearby and piled in conical shapes. There was plenty of sand (another component of concrete) nearby, and water came from the Colorado River. These are the four components from which concrete is made.

Adams showed photos of the original spillways after they had been drilled into the sandstone. The photos showed the spillways without any of the steel structures that would be used for the gates that prevented water from entering the spillways. The photos showed the spillways before they were sealed with concrete – concrete that was torn apart in 1983 when they were first used when Lake Powell filled faster than anticipated.

During the dam construction there was even a railroad. The Glen Canyon Railroad was a short section of rails that moved large buckets of concrete to the desired location. An operator in a control booth guided the buckets from above. The railroad was removed before the dam was completed when it was no longer needed.  

Adams concluded his presentation with a historic photo of all the staff involved in the project, including the engineers and director of the project, many of whom are still in the Page area. Audience members came up to the screen and pointed out the people they knew, including some members who could identify themselves.  

More photos of the early days of Page, including the bridge and dam, can be found at youtube.com/@glencanyondam.

The Canyon Club is a nonprofit organization whose purpose is to “actively pursue improvements to the community in which we live,” according to the group’s website. “Through our involvement in our community we will create an atmosphere where local citizens can participate in activities that will enrich their lives and the lives of those living in this community.” Those interested in joining or attending the monthly presentations can contact the Canyon Club at [email protected] 

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