The Real Reason Oklahoma Has So Many Dammed Lakes
We've talked a little about this before, how Oklahoma was once the land of rivers. Set in a massive transition zone, an area of plains hollowed out between a few different mountain ranges. As more and more moved in to stake a farmstead, the precious resource of river water ran dry. Oklahoma was once an entire state without a single natural lake carved out of the red clay.
It's hard to look at a map and not see the hundreds of lakes and sprawling reservoirs that flow through the landscape today, but it wasn't that long ago there wasn't any.
Oklahoma's first lake was built in 1902 just outside of McAlester, named Talawanda Lake Number 1... Called that because there's a Talawanda Lake Number 2 built later just north of it.
Time has swallowed the reason these first lakes were built, but as best as the annuls of US History and a massive search effort in congressional PDF's from the 1960's can provide is these lakes were originally a water source for the towns that sprang up in the area like McAlester prior to Oklahoma's statehood.
Since those early days, small lakes and reservoirs were built all over the state by municipalities mainly. To create storage and supply solutions for such a precious resource... So why are there so many humongous dammed lakes in Oklahoma?
The construction of Oklahoma's dams started with farmers' interests in mind. One of the earliest dams was built right here in Southwest Oklahoma, just north of Altus... but not for irrigation as you'd think, it was to prevent one of Oklahoma's mightiest rivers from constantly flooding.
As the North Fork Red River meanders through one of the Quartz Mountain valleys, it was the perfect location to control the ebb and flow of seasonal change. The City of Altus also saw it as a golden opportunity to store water that would normally flow on to the Gulf. The first dam was put in place by 1927, but it wouldn't last long. As the Dust Bowl set in during the next decade, the basin drained dry and stayed that way for a while.
The simple fix they came up with a decade later was "Let's build it bigger," but it wasn't met with ample excitement. There was the town of Lugert set there in the mountains, along the bank of Lake Altus, and to build the reservoir bigger meant the town had to pick up and move... sort of.
Lugert had been one of the first early established towns in Southwest Oklahoma after the various land-runs. Named for the man that settled the area and had a huge hand in building it. Unfortunately, as if Mother Nature took it personally, Lugert suffered half a dozen direct tornado hits in that first decade, the worst coming in 1912 when a twister killed fifteen townspeople. While most residents moved on, the few that stuck around weren't open to losing their rebuilt homes to a lake... but the courts saw it differently, and the Altus Lake dam was built again, the lake now became Lake Altus-Lugert.
It's actually a cool SWOK story you can read here.
The new dam was built, flood control and water storage were perfected, and the idea spread like wildfire across the rest of Oklahoma.
While we think of these various huge reservoirs today as water supplies, hydroelectric power sources, and agricultural saviors... we simply wanted to keep the plains from flooding.
If you look at a topographical map of Oklahoma and compare it to the map of lakes we know now, you'll be able to trace back every low-lying flood plain in the state. From the rolling hills that lead to the Ozark Mountains to the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains, the Quartz Mountains to the Wichita Mountains, and everything in between... Without all these dammed lakes, the whole state would look like the Central Mall parking lot after a good rain.