Buffalo Bill Dam near Cody, Wyoming

During dam construction, workers had staged Wyoming’s first labor strike. The project also had a role in relocating persons of Japanese ancestry during WWII.

More than 100 years after it was built, the Buffalo Bill Dam (formerly the Shoshone Dam) still stands as an impressive engineering feat. When it was built in 1910 its 325-foot height ranked it as the highest dam in the world. Located roughly 45 miles east of Yellowstone National Park’s east entrance and six miles west of Cody, Wyoming, the dam was also one of the first concrete dams erected in the U.S.

The dam was a key piece of the Shoshone Project, which sought to bring water to a tremendously dry and unfarmable area of Wyoming. The project included a system of tunnels, canals, diversion dams and Buffalo Bill Reservoir that would serve to irrigate more than 93,000 acres of beans, alfalfa, oats, barley and sugar beets.

The Buffalo Bill Dam near Cody, Wyoming
Facing east at The Buffalo Bill Dam near Cody, WyomingGloria Wadzinski

Construction on the dam began in 1905 on what was then a barren landscape of scattered sagebrush flats. A contractor and a collection of immigrants hailing from Italy and Bulgaria began the project, and before its completion, one contractor had quit and the workers had staged Wyoming’s first labor strike, demanding—and getting—wages of more than $3 per shift, a rate 30 percent higher than that of laborers in the nearby Rocky Mountain region.

Getting supplies to the necessary locations was no easy task. Once a road had been built “it took a stout-hearted freighter to drive his team up the rocky lane, the towering cliffs of the Absaroka Range on one side and a straight drop to roaring waters and jagged boulders below on the other,” recounts the National Park Service website.

The eastern view from on top of the Buffalo Bill Dam. Photo by Gloria Wadzinski
The eastern view from on top of the Buffalo Bill DamGloria Wadzinski

The river itself flowed fierce and fast, draining a largely mountainous area and dropping more than 7,000 feet by the time it had reached canyon’s narrow section where the dam was to be placed. In the spring the winter runoff’s raging flow carried boulders and uprooted trees racing downward. In the winter temperatures dropped dangerously low, often requiring the sand and gravel to be heated before being mixed and poured as concrete. On January 15, 1910, as workers poured the last bucket of concrete, the thermometer dipped to 15 degrees below zero. Seven laborers died during the dam’s construction.

The Shoshone Project also played a role in the Federal Government’s relocation of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry after the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II. The Heart Mountain Relocation Center was situated on project land, housing 10,767 people at its peak. There, internees worked on sections of the canal system.

Now, a visitor center at the dam is open to tourists daily between May 1 and September 30 from 8am to 6pm on Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm on Saturday and Sunday. Check out the exhibits and the short film in the center, and of course visitors are welcome to walk to the top of the dam.

Buffalo Bill Reservoir near Cody, Wyoming
Buffalo Bill Reservoir near Cody, Wyo.Depositphotos

For more information: 
Buffalo Bill Dam and Visitor Center
(307) 527-6076