Some professions get plenty of glory while other hard workers seem to toil in obscurity. It seems that even the most famous dams in America get little recognition for the amazing purpose they’ve served for decades. Maybe it’s time to shine the spotlight on them. After all, they continually work to manage water supplies and reduce flooding while providing tons of recreation. And they don’t ask for much in return.
As we travel, we see many enormous structures but might take them for granted. Let’s slow down and look closer at why we have these famous dams in America. You might want to stop in, too. Many of them are open for tours for an inside look at how they work and impact millions.
What Is the Largest Dam in the United States?
When you think of these massive structures, Hoover Dam might be the first that comes to mind. The Hoover Dam is 726 ft high, 1,244 ft long, and holds an incredible 28.9 million acre-feet of water. Its water capacity is the highest in the U.S. by far. As you can imagine, the walls must be incredibly thick to hold that much water; at its base, the walls are 660 ft thick.
But the structure itself is not the tallest. That high honor goes to Oroville Dam in California, just over 775 ft tall from its base. That’s more than half the height of the Empire State Building. It’s enormous lengthwise, too, spanning 1.3 miles across the Feather River. Despite its size, the Oroville Dam only holds 3.5 million acre-feet of water–a far cry from the Hoover Dam’s monstrous hold.
What Is the Oldest Dam in the U.S.?
The oldest dams in the world date back to the 14th century, but most dams built in the U.S. are 20th-century structures. Before that, we have a record of 14 smaller dams built for municipal purposes. None were built at the federal level, and they lacked the engineering and size worthy of being noted in history.
But the most noteworthy dam on our list dates back to 1896. The Ashfork-Bainbridge Steel Dam was the first steel dam globally and one of the oldest dams in the U.S. It’s one of three steel dams in the United States, and it’s still in great shape. We’ll talk more about this dam later.
The most notable and one of the oldest dams in the U.S. is the Hoover Dam. They started construction in 1931 and completed it in 1935. Most historians agree that this dam and the engineering and design led to a revolution of hydroelectric structures going up throughout the country.
9 Most Famous Dams in America You Need To Visit
Some are household names, while others may draw a blank for you. Let’s find out more about these prominent water-control structures and each one’s claim to fame.
1. Oroville Dam
Location: Oroville, California, in the San Joaquin Valley
About: California’s Department of Water Resources built the nation’s tallest dam in the 1960s when the state’s farming economy was starting to boom. Oroville Dam towers in the Sierra-Nevada foothills impounds the Feather River into Lake Oroville and diverts the water to an aqueduct to irrigate the valley. In addition, the dam generates hydroelectricity, provides drinking water, and helps to prevent flooding.
What Makes It Famous: California’s productive farming industry depends on this dam for water–not too much and not too little. The dam also has a negative claim to fame thanks to a failure of its main spillway in 2017, which forced residents to evacuate the area.
Trip Rating: 8.7
2. Hoover Dam
Location: On the Nevada-Arizona line near Boulder City, Nevada, and about 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas.
About: Originally called Boulder Dam, this gigantic concrete structure stands as tall as a 60-story skyscraper in the Black Canyon area of the Colorado River. The Hoover Dam stores enough water to irrigate two million acres and provides drinking water for Phoenix, Los Angeles and other Southwestern cities.
The federal government commissioned its construction during the Great Depression and formally dedicated it in 1935. They renamed it 12 years later in honor of President Herbert Hoover. A total of 21,000 people worked on the project, and, unfortunately, 96 died during construction.
What Makes It Famous: You might hear the Hoover Dam mentioned in the same breath as the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids of Giza. It was a major construction undertaking that made modern development possible in the drought-plagued Southwest. Not only did it literally give rise to Lake Mead, it made possible the emergence of Las Vegas as a major entertainment and tourism center. It also led to a flood of new dams going up around the country, helping hydroelectricity become an essential power source for cities all over the country.
Trip Rating: 10
Traveler’s Tip: It’s time to revisit your bucket list, here are 15 places you need to see in your lifetime.
3. Dworshak Dam
Location: On the North Fork Clearwater River in Idaho.
About: Just outside Orofino in Northwestern Idaho, this concrete gravity dam is memorable for its distinctive and dramatic appearance.
Named for a former U.S. senator, theDworshak Dam opened in 1973 and covers a surface area of just over 17,000 acres. It forms the 54-mile-long Dworshak Lake, which extends into the Clearwater National Forest, a popular area for camping and recreation.
Not everyone’s a fan, though. There was significant controversy over the project because of fear of altering elk habitat and disrupting steelhead trout migration.
What Makes It Famous: While most dams have a curved design, this one has what’s called a straight axis. At 717 ft, it’s the tallest of its kind in North America and third-tallest overall in the U.S.
Trip Rating: 8.5
4. Glen Canyon Dam
Location: On the upper Colorado River in northern Arizona near Page.
About: Design-wise, it’s a concrete structure like the Hoover Dam, but it’s 16 ft shorter. TheGlen Canyon Dam was completed in 1966 to form Lake Powell. The lake stores up to 27 million acre-feet of water to provide drought relief to the area. Running alongside the dam, the steel arch Glen Canyon Bridge that spans the river canyon rose in 1959.
What Makes It Famous: Even if you’ve never heard of the dam, you probably know of Lake Powell. With 1,960 miles of shoreline, it’s the second-largest reservoir in the nation behind Lake Mead.
Trip Rating: 9.1
5. Ashfork-Bainbridge Steel Dam
Location: Near Williams in Coconino County, Arizona
About: This one’s more humble in some ways than the others, but it earns respect for its elder status. In fact,Ashfork-Bainbridge Steel Dam is so old that it’s actually obsolete. That’s because its original purpose was to divert water for steam locomotives to travel on. Built in 1896, the dam is a compilation of steel plates and is just 46 ft high and 184 ft long.
What Makes It Famous: It’s a curiosity because of its unconventional building materials and its endurance for more than a century. It was the first steel dam in the world and one of just three of its kind ever built in the U.S.
Trip Rating: 8.0
6. Grand Coulee Dam
Location: On the Columbia River in central Washington State, about 90 miles northwest of Spokane.
About: Grand Coulee is named for a canyon that an ice floe created after backing up the river. The massive concrete and granite dam, which impounds Lake Roosevelt, is 550 ft high and nearly a mile long. The so-called New Deal construction project started in 1933 and was completed in 1941. Even today, it’s the largest producer of hydroelectric power in the U.S.
What Makes It Famous: Grand Coulee played a fundamental role in the outcome of World War II. It provided electricity to aircraft builders and the Hanford Nuclear Site, which helped develop the atomic bomb.
Trip Rating: 9.2
7. Redridge Steel Dam
Location: On the Salmon Trout River in Houghton County on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
About: Like the steel dam near Ashfork in Arizona (our #5), this one served an industrial purpose. Of very similar design,Redridge Steel Dam provided water for mills that were part of copper mining operations in 1901. This historic landmark is structurally sound but no longer in use. Because it’s in a remote and rugged area in the western part of Upper Michigan, it’s somewhat challenging to visit.
What Makes It Famous: It’s unique because most dams of the era were concrete, masonry, or earthworks. Redridge is not completely abandoned, but it has a “ghost town” feel, and curious travelers like to explore the old dam.
Trip Rating: 7.7
8. Roosevelt Dam
Location: On the Salt River in Roosevelt, Arizona, about 75 miles northeast of Phoenix.
About: At 357 ft, it’s half as high as the tallest dams on our list, but it’s still an imposing structure. Construction started in 1905 and took six years. An extensive renovation and expansion project took place from 1989-96.
The purpose of theRoosevelt Dam was to control the unpredictable flow of the Salt River. Built mainly for water storage and irrigation, it made the development of Central Arizona possible, and its makers named it after President Theodore Roosevelt. Many historians note this as a feather in the president’s cap because it was an early success of an agency he created called the Bureau of Land Reclamation. It also created Theodore Roosevelt Lake, which was the largest man-made lake globally at the time.
What Makes It Famous: Made from large, irregular-sized blocks, it was once the tallest masonry dam in the world. However, engineers later covered it in concrete for extra stability.
Trip Rating: 9.4
9. Fort Peck Dam
Location: On the Missouri River near Glasgow, in northeastern Montana.
About: Made of earthworks rather than concrete or steel, this monstrous U.S. Corps of Engineers structure is one of six major dams on the Missouri River. Another New Deal project, its construction rant from 1933 to 1940.
Named for a former trading post near the site, the dam covers 500 acres and has Art Deco design elements. Its primary purpose was to supply hydroelectric power. However, like many public works projects from that period, creating jobs was another goal.
What Makes It Famous: Engineers know it as the largest hydraulically filled earthen dam in the world. The Fort Peck Dam also has notoriety as the subject of a famous photograph from 1936. Life magazine photographer Margaret Bourke-White captured the image during construction.
Trip Rating: 8.6
What Is the Most Famous Dam in the United States?
Of all of these high-profile dams, we’d have to give the nod to Hoover as being the most famous in the U.S. Even if you don’t know it by name, you might recognize it instantly when you see a photograph.
With decades of exposure in countless films and TV shows, it’s become an iconic symbol of America’s strength and ingenuity. Hoover Dam is also a major tourist attraction, with more than a million people a year stopping in to tour it.
Are Visiting Famous Dams in America Worth It?
Unless you’re a hydrological engineer, we can’t say definitively that visiting all of these well-known dams is a must. If you do have an obsession with dams, chances are you’ve seen all, or most, of them already.
But we can say that they’re pretty cool to observe, and the areas around them are worth visiting. These regions are known for their incredible beauty and many opportunities for outdoor recreation. And hopefully, our article will give you more than just a passing interest in these engineering marvels.
Have you seen any of the dams on our list? What did you think?