A Brief History of Steel Dams
by Hubert CHANSON (h.chanson@mailbox.uq.edu.au)
M.E., ENSHM Grenoble, INSTN, PhD (Cant.), DEng (Qld), Eur.Ing., MIEAust., MIAHR
Dept. of Civil Engrg., Univ. of Queensland, Brisbane QLD 4072, Autralia

At the end of the 19th century, the rapid expansion of the new worlds was associated with an increasing need for water resources. This lead to the use of new dam construction material. In Australia, concrete was adopted as early as 1873 : i.e., Lower Stony Creek dam, Geelong (Victoria). In North-America, three unusual dams were built in steel : three steel dams (1).

Built between 7 Oct. 1897 and 5 March 1898, the Steel dam or Ashfork dam was designed by F.H. BAINBRIDGE (2). The steel dam wall is 14-m high and 56.1 m long, with two masonry abutments (total dam length : 91.4 m). The steel structure was anchored into the rock foundation. Located 70-km West of Flagstaff (Arizona), the reservoir was built originally as a water supply for railroad. It was still used in the late 1980s for stockwater. Today the dam is still standing although disused. Note that the spillway was the dam crest itself : i.e., the entire steel dam was an overflow structure. The dam was built at a cost of $45,800 (SCHUYLER 1909). Note that F.H. BAINBRIDGE was from Chicago. His work influenced J.F. JACKSON and hence the constructions of the Redridge and Lake Hauser dams.

The Redridge dam was designed by J.F. JACKSON whose company built the Ashfork dam. Construction started in June 1900. Completed in 1901, the Redridge dam is still standing. Located 20-km North of Houghton (Michigan), the 22.6-m high 141-m long dam was a water supply for stamp mills. The steel structure rests on concrete foundation. A railroad was built above the dam crest, using the dam foundation as support. The reservoir level was  full up to 1979 when four large openings were made to relieve water pressure on the dam wall (3).

Built between 1905 and 1907, the Lake Hauser dam was 24.7-m high and 192-m long. It was designed by J.F. JACKSON. The dam foundation was washed away on 14 April 1908 and a new concrete gravity dam was rebuilt from 1909 to 1912. The dam site is located 24-km North of Helena (Montana).

At the time of construction, the steel dam design was significantly cheaper to build than masonry structures. The long-lasting records of Ashfork and Redridge dams demonstrated the design soundness as well as durability and low maintenance costs (REYNOLDS 1989). Nevertheless no new steel dam was built after 1910 (4).


(1) The term 'steel dam' is used for a steel fixed dam wall by opposition to a movable steel dam and barrage.
(2) the dam was designed by Francis H. BAINBRIDGE in collaboration with James DUN, Chief Engineer and A.F. ROBINSON, Bridge engineer of the Santa Fe system of railroads (WEGMANN 1922).
(3) In 1894, a timber weir was built upstream of the present dam location, but it was inadequate by 1900 when the decision to build the steel dam was taken (Redridge dam, Photo No. 3). The steel dam raised the water level and submerged the wood dam. In 1979, 4 holes were cut into the steel dam and the old wooden weir is now visible.
(4) In 1894 Francis BAINBRIDGE designed a 64-m high steel dam to be built across the Santa Ana river (Cal.). The design was patented in 1895 but it was never built (REYNOLDS 1989).
(1) Ashfork dam - Photo No. 1 : view from downstream (Courtesy of  Stephanie YARD, USDA).
(2) Ashfork dam - Photo No. 2 : detail of the steel structure (Courtesy of  Stephanie YARD, USDA).
(3) Ashfork dam - Photo No. 3 : connection steel dam/masonry abutment (Courtesy of  Stephanie YARD, USDA).
(4) Redridge dam - Photo No. 1 : view from upstream on 15 Dec. 2001 (Courtesy of Cindy MILLER).
(5) Redridge dam - Photo No. 2 : view from upstream on 15 Dec. 2001 (Courtesy of Cindy MILLER).
(6) Redridge dam - Photo No. 3 : old timber crib weir upstream of the dam (Courtesy of Cindy MILLER). Completed in 1894, the dam was 16.1 m thick at base, 8.5 m thick at crest and 15.2 m high.
Related links
Gallery of photographs : {http://www.uq.edu.au/~e2hchans/photo.html#Historical structures}
Redridge dam: {http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Aegean/2272/redweb04.htm} {http://www.admin.mtu.edu/alumni/cruisin/redridge/pages/steel-dam.htm} {http://www.copperrange.org/redridge.htm}


REYNOLDS, T.S. (1989). "A Narrow Window of Opportunity: the Rise and Fall of the Fixed Steel Dam." Jl Soc. for Industrial Archaeology, Vol. 15, pp. 1-20.
SCHNITTER, N.J. (1994). "A History of Dams : the Useful Pyramids." Balkema Publ., Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
SCHUYLER, J.D. (1909). "Reservoirs for Irrigation, Water-Power and Domestic Water Supply." John Wiley & Sons, 2nd edition, New York, USA.
WEGMANN, E. (1922). "The Design and Construction of Dams." John Wiley & Sons, New York, USA, 7th edition.


Thanks to John WEAVER and Stephanie YARD (USDA-NRCS, Phoenix, Arizona) for alerting the writer to these unusual structures. Thanks also to Cindy MILLER for information on Redridge dam. Photographs courtesy of Stephanie YARD and Cindy MILLER.


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Hubert CHANSON is a Professor in Civil Engineering, Hydraulic Engineering and Environmental Fluid Mechanics, at the University of Queeensland, Australia. His research interests include design of hydraulic structures, experimental investigations of two-phase flows, applied hydrodynamics, hydraulic engineering, water quality modelling, environmental fluid mechanics, estuarine processes and natural resources. He has been an active consultant for both governmental agencies and private organisations. His publication record includes over 600 international refereed papers and his work was cited over 3,500 times since 1990. Hubert Chanson is the author of several books : "Hydraulic Design of Stepped Cascades, Channels, Weirs and Spillways" (Pergamon, 1995), "Air Bubble Entrainment in Free-Surface Turbulent Shear Flows" (Academic Press, 1997), "The Hydraulics of Open Channel Flow : An Introduction" (Butterworth-Heinemann, 1st edition 1999, 2nd editon 2004), "The Hydraulics of Stepped Chutes and Spillways" (Balkema, 2001), "Environmental Hydraulics of Open Channel Flows" (Butterworth-Heinemann, 2004), "Applied Hydrodynamics: an Introduction of Ideal and Real Fluid Flows" (CRC Press, 2009), and "Tidal Bores, Aegir, Eagre, Mascaret, Pororoca: Theory And Observations" (World Scientific, 2011). He co-authored two further books "Fluid Mechanics for Ecologists" (IPC Press, 2002) and "Fluid Mechanics for Ecologists. Student Edition" (IPC, 2006). His textbook "The Hydraulics of Open Channel Flows : An Introduction" has already been translated into Spanish (McGraw-Hill Interamericana) and Chinese (Hydrology Bureau of Yellow River Conservancy Committee), and the second edition was published in 2004. In 2003, the IAHR presented him with the 13th Arthur Ippen Award for outstanding achievements in hydraulic engineering. The American Society of Civil Engineers, Environmental and Water Resources Institute (ASCE-EWRI) presented him with the 2004 award for the Best Practice paper in the Journal of Irrigation and Drainage Engineering ("Energy Dissipation and Air Entrainment in Stepped Storm Waterway" by Chanson and Toombes 2002). Hubert Chanson edited further several books : "Fluvial, Environmental and Coastal Developments in Hydraulic Engineering" (Mossa, Yasuda & Chanson 2004, Balkema), "Hydraulics. The Next Wave" (Chanson & Macintosh 2004, Engineers Australia), "Hydraulic Structures: a Challenge to Engineers and Researchers" (Matos & Chanson 2006, The University of Queensland), "Experiences and Challenges in Sewers: Measurements and Hydrodynamics" (Larrate & Chanson 2008, The University of Queensland), "Hydraulic Structures: Useful Water Harvesting Systems or Relics?" (Janssen & Chanson 2010, The University of Queensland), "Balance and Uncertainty: Water in a Changing World" (Valentine et al. 2011, Engineers Australia). He chaired the Organisation of the 34th IAHR World Congress held in Brisbane, Australia between 26 June and 1 July 2011.
 His Internet home page is http://www.uq.edu.au/~e2hchans. He also developed a gallery of photographs website {http://www.uq.edu.au/~e2hchans/photo.html} that received more than 2,000 hits per month since inception.

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Applied HydrodynamicsEnvironmental hydraulics of open channel flowHydraulics of open channel flow (2nd edition)The Hydraulics of Stepped Chutes and SpillwaysThe Hydraulics of Open Channel Flow: an IntroductionAir bubble entrainment in turbulent shear flowsHydraulic design of stepped cascades, channels, weirs and spillwaysFluid Mechanics for Ecologists  McGraw-Hill Interamericana 13th Ippen award (IAHR)