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Lake Oahe is the largest artificial lake in South Dakota and the fourth largest reservoir in the United States. The construction of the Oahe Dam on the Missouri River in 1958 formed Lake Oahe Reservoir.
The dam is about 1,123 miles upstream from the river’s mouth in central South Dakota and about six miles northwest of the state capital of Pierre. The lake extends approximately 231 miles upriver almost to Bismarck, ND and has a surface area of 370,000 acres, a shoreline of 2,250 miles, and a maximum depth of 205 feet.
History of Lake Oahe
In front of the dam
Constructed as part of the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin, the US Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation were responsible for constructing the dam. This program was part of the Flood Control Act of 1944, which included the construction of six dams in the Missouri River Valley to provide flood control, power generation, a constant water supply, irrigation, and recreational facilities.
Lewis A. Pick developed the “Pick” plan after the House Flood Control Committee selected the Corps to develop a plan to reduce extreme flooding in the Missouri River Basin.
Additionally, William G. Sloan developed the “Sloan” plan. Sloan was deputy director of the regional office of the Bureau of Reclamation and had previously worked for the Corps. The Omaha Conference in the fall of 1944 solidified both plans. Of the 113 different proposed projects, 107 remained, including 107 dams, 1,500 miles of dikes, 4.7 million acres of irrigation schemes and 1.6 million kilowatts of electricity generation.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill into law in 1944 approving $200 million for the program.
Impact on Native Americans
The Pick-Sloan program was the single most destructive act on Native American tribes in the United States. The highland region along the river contained hearty native grasses that supported a huge buffalo population many years ago. Many indigenous tribes naturally lived near the river, with plenty of water, timber and ample hunting grounds nearby.
The construction of dams and reservoirs in Missouri flooded thousands of acres of Indigenous reservations. The Oahe Dam flooded 200,000 acres of the Standing Rock Reservation and the Cheyenne River Reservation alone. Huge populations of indigenous peoples have therefore been forced to flee their ancestral lands. Sitting Bull, a famous Sioux leader, is believed to be buried in two possible locations near Lake Oahe.
The dam and reservoir are named for the Oahe Mission organized by the Rev. Thomas L. Riggs in 1874. Oahe means “a place to stand on” to the Sioux. The mission was located about 5 miles north of the causeway on the bottom of Preoria and included a school, Riggs’ house and a chapel built in 1877. The mission served the nearby indigenous peoples until 1914. The chapel was moved to a higher level in 1957 and the other structures were destroyed. The chapel was moved near the dam in 1964 and still stands as a historic landmark.
Construction of the Oahu Dam began in 1948 and took ten years to complete in 1958. More than 93 million cubic yards of earth, rock, and concrete were used to form the dam and surrounding structures. The dam was then the second largest earthen dam in the world.
It is 245 feet tall, 9,360 feet long, has eight 50-foot x 23.5-foot gates, and seven hydroelectric turbines that can collectively generate up to 786 megawatts of electricity. The final closure of the dam began on August 2, 1958. About 3200 cubic yards per hour of shale was dumped into the river using heavy equipment, completing the final closure in just 21 ½ hours. It took nearly four years for the reservoir to fill the “minimum operational pool” required for hydroelectric power generation.
On August 17, 1962, President John F. Kennedy visited the dam for its dedication, marking the first day he began generating electricity.
Lake Oahe today
Recreational activities at Lake Oahe are plentiful because the lake is so large. The lake is clear, deep and wide, perfect for boating and fishing.
Over 2 million visitors annually enjoy the lake with easy access from over 50 recreational areas. These areas vary from primitive to modern, with campgrounds, boat ramps and marinas. Wildlife abounds in the area. Humans have hunted the area for nearly 9,000 years, and big game hunting remains popular today. Birds that frequent the area range from the bald eagle to the endangered Lesser tern and the threatened plover.
The lake is an important resting area for migratory birds and offers excellent opportunities for waterfowl hunters in the late season. For anglers, the lake offers diverse habitats that support large populations. Walleye is the most popular fish. You will also find channel catfish, smallmouth bass, pike and even salmon in the lake. Ice fishermen enjoy the lake in winter. Lake Oahe is a true natural paradise with year round hunting, fishing and recreational opportunities.
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