Like a late-blooming teenager, 19th century Arizona was still trying to define itself. Soldiers, miners and rugged pioneers gradually made their way to Arizona to begin life anew in a challenging landscape. These early pioneers quickly realized water was both the key to their survival as well as a powerful force to reckon with. Water, in the Arizona territory, was a double edged sword – there was either too much or too little.
By the late 1800’s, entrepreneurs and visionaries realized Arizona needed consistent, reliable and controlled sources of water to kick-start its growth. In their mind, the best way to meet this goal was by damming rivers and building canals to deliver water where it was needed. Tens of thousands of men were involved in engineering and building dams and canals from one end of the state to the other. One man, unknown to many current Arizonans, devoted a large part of his life to ensuring central Arizona would have the water it needed. This man was William Beardsley.
What was notable about Beardsley was the fortitude with which he pursued his mission of building a dam and canals to store and divert water. He would endure a series of setbacks over a 40+ year period that would culminate in a controversial, multiple-arch dam harnessing the Aqua Fria River. Such long term persistence and commitment is a rarely seen among men in any age.
Beardsley was part of a group of “speculative businessmen” who banded together to privately develop the Aqua Fria River. They wanted to harness the river by building a reservoir, diversion dam and series of distribution canals. Work on the diversion dam and canals began in 1892 but stopped 3 years later due to lack of funds. To make matters worse, in the fall of 1895 a flood tore away the west side of the preliminary dam. Things looked bleak. Beardsley was unable to raise money and legal complaints from unpaid contractors forced him into bankruptcy.
The story could have ended here but in a fairy-tale twist, a group of Beardsley’s associates from Ohio took possession of the assets and deeded them back to him so he could continue work on the project. For years he tried to restart the endeavor but the project remained stalled.
As 1902 approached, he started to run into issues with the federal government, specifically with the Department of Interior and the newly found Reclamation Service (now called the Bureau of Reclamation) who was the 800-pound gorilla in Arizona’s water world. Technicalities with surveys and public lands would hold the project up for another 17 years.
Finally in 1919, construction began on a multiple-arch dam designed by engineer Carl Pleasant. This style of dam was selected due to its strength and economy to build. William Beardsley died in 1925 and his son Robert would ultimately finish the project. The dam would be named the Carl Pleasant Dam in 1926 and then renamed the Waddell Dam in 1964 after an investor from New York.
More issues would follow the construction of the dam. Cracks appeared in the buttresses of the dam and much controversy loomed over its safety. Several engineers poured over plans and reviewed the integrity of the dam. None seemed to agree on the significance of the cracks. Ultimately, modifications were made to ensure the dam’s safety. The required upgrades were completed in 1936.
Historically this dam was unique because it was the only Salt River Valley water storage project successfully completed by a private interest. All the other central Arizona water storage schemes were developed with federal government assistance. It was also the world’s tallest multiple-arch dam; quite an accomplishment for a private outfit.
Today the project is known as the Maricopa Water District (MWD) which provides power and water service to 60 square mile area west of Phoenix. The new Waddell Dam (built in 1994 and successor to the original Waddell Dam) and resulting Lake Pleasant hold 157,600 acre-feet of water. Water is feed through the 33 mile Beardsley canal and diverted for use through a series of laterals and sub-lateral piping. This lateral piping system is almost 100 miles long. The MWD also has an “interconnect” with the Central Arizona Project (CAP) for collaborative use of the regions water.
What started out as a construction project with his brother George, turned into a multi-generational water business with his son, Robert. Thanks to the fortitude and sheer determination of William Beardsley, the Phoenix area will have water and power for generations to come as well as a beautiful lake for recreation.
Beardsley family – Arizona thanks you!
- Waddell Dam (Pleasant Dam). “Photographs – Written Historical and Descriptive Data”, Historic American Engineering Record, National Park Service, Western Region, Department of the Interior, San Francisco, California, HAER-ARIZ-7-PHEN.V.5.
- Giordano, Gerald. “Images of America – Lake Pleasant”. Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, SC, 2009.