Notes from the Field, July 1, 2011, Garrison Dam: A Dumbfounded Giant

Pick City, North Dakota.  The Missouri Valley between Garrison Dam and Bismarck is brimming with floodwater.  The Great Dam has failed in its mission to halt flooding downstream from its long earthen embankment.  The Army built the dam for strictly utilitarian purposes.  There is nothing frivolous about Garrison Dam.  Its lines are sharp and linear, including the ramrod straight roadway that extends almost the entire two-and-a- half mile length of the dam’s crown.  The electric generating plant is a rectangular block of plain white concrete concealing the dam’s five spinning turbines. The Army painted the ten surge tanks at the power plant a metallic silver.  The tanks resemble missile launch tubes from a 1950s sci-fi movie.  At the foot of the dam wall, tall steel towers hold heavy power lines.  Those lines reach outward from the hydroplant across the prairies to the east.  The power lines are the Army’s harness around the shoulders of the river, capturing its energy and redirecting it toward modern America.  The Missouri here is a draft horse and the United States is using it to pull its lethargic economy.  The intake structure located on the upstream side of the dam is another concrete rectangle.  It looks like a cheerless blockhouse; a prison for the river.  The Missouri enters its rear doors unseen and unheard and comes out the other end loud and foaming mad.  The Missouri is morphed by its encounter with the Army inside the dark outlet tunnels.

Hoover Dam near Las Vegas inspires a sense of awe because of its height, steep sloping concrete face, and 1930s art deco ornamentation.  Part of its visual appeal is the marked constrast between the white dam and the red desert that envelopes it.  Hoover Dam also literally shines in the sun.  Garrison, on the other hand, is non-descript.  It’s secretive, like the organization that built it.  The Army even camouflaged Garrison.  Its green embankment blends with the green hills on both sides of the valley.  From a distance, it looks as though it belongs in the landscape.  One could never conclude that about Hoover.  It’s readily apparent that dam does not belong in the American Southwest.  Garrison, also unlike Hoover, is fat, unrefined, and imposing in a frightening way.  Now that the valley below Garrison is flooded, and the dam has all but lost the ability to stop the Missouri, it’s hard not to see the dam as a dumbfounded and humiliated giant, sitting in the middle of a mud puddle.

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