The Dam and Power Plant
Construction of Elephant Butte Dam, a project of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, began in 1911. For years there had been a need for irrigation and flood control of the Rio Grande for thousands of acres of farmland downstream in New Mexico and Texas.
Construction of the dam was very labor-intensive. A diversion channel was built to temporarily redirect the Rio Grande while hundreds of workers used chain hoists to lower buckets of cement from an overhead cable. Nearly all the construction materials and workers were brought in by the railroad from El Paso to Engle. A 12 mile spur line was built to the eastern side of the Dam site. The workers were housed at the Dam site in a tent city under the Elephant Butte formation and along the Rio Grande downstream of the construction site.
Construction of Elephant Butte Dam lasted 5 years. Before completion of the dam the lake was already forming behind the dam. The dam's dedication ceremony was held October 16, 1916 and was attended by thousands of people who traveled by horse and buggy from all over the state. At the time it was the largest man-made dam in the country creating the largest reservoir in the world. The dam is 306 feet high, 1,674 feet long and forms a reservoir covering approximately 36,500 acres. By 1941 the reservoir was completely filled and the spillway was tested for the first time. Again, thousands of spectators gathered to witness torrents of water being released into the Rio Grande. The spillway was used again in 1942, resulting in flooding of low areas of Hot Springs. Natural weather cycles caused Elephant Butte Lake to drop very low in the 1950s and the 1970s (and now again for the last three years). In 1985 the lake was again at capacity and the spillway was reopened after being closed 43 years.
The hydroelectric power plant at the base of Elephant Butte Dam went on-line November 14, 1940, lighting the city of Hot Springs. The power plant was built at a cost of $2.5 million and contains 3 identical generation units producing up to 115,000 volts.