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Meet the Hoosier Engineer 'Who Made the Desert Bloom'

July 20, 2018
        Aerial shot of the Hoover Dam with Lake Mead in the background.
Photo: Shutterstock

Getting a namesake that stands the test of time is far from easy. Some people can get a sandwich named after them at a local deli if they’re lucky – if they’re lucky. But one of the most recognizable lakes in the Southwest? That takes a special kind of effort.

Elwood Mead was integral to the United States Bureau of Reclamation, the group that installed irrigation systems across the American West. And it’s no surprise Lake Mead on the Nevada-Arizona border shares his name: he was the head engineer on the dam holding it back.

Headshot of Elwood Mead Elwood Mead

But his beginnings were humble. Mead was born in 1858 in Patriot, Indiana, an incredibly small town along the Ohio River about an hour southeast of Cincinnati with a population currently hovering around 200.

The son of a farmer, Mead obtained multiple degrees from Purdue University as well as a Doctorate in Civil Engineering from Iowa State College of Agriculture. In 1883, Mead was appointed at Colorado State Agricultural College where, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, he quickly rose through the ranks to receive a first-of-its-kind professorship in irrigation engineering.

Mead then began working as a territorial and state engineer in Wyoming in the late 1880s. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, he drafted the state’s very first water laws between 1888 and 1899.

The Federal Reclamation Act came about in 1902 to fund irrigation projects in the West, but Mead opposed the law. So, he took a position with the government in Victoria, Australia and led their State Rivers and Water Supply Commission.

“The novelty and openness of the Australian situation revived his idealism and, abandoning all plans for a quick departure, he embraced the opportunity to demonstrate the social utility of an enlightened irrigation programme [sic],” wrote J. M. Powell for the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Two women stand by the Elwood Mead historical marker in Patriot, Indiana. The Elwood Mead historical marker in Patriot, IN. (Photo: Patriot, IN website)

Mead would spend eight years working on Australia’s water issue until he returned stateside. According to an Indianapolis Star article excerpted on the Patriot, Indiana website, Mead received a note from President Calvin Coolidge asking him to head up the Bureau of Reclamation.

“The biggest task of his career faces him,” reads the article, written when Mead was 72 years old. “He is to build the Hoover Dam in the Colorado River, the largest dam ever conceived in the United States.”

Of course, that project would prove costly in more ways than one. io9 reports, "Over 100 people died in the construction of the Hoover Dam. Of those, 96 are identified as official ‘industrial fatalities,’ allowing the deceased’s family to obtain compensation. Not included in the 96 are individuals who died from pneumonia, a diagnosis now believed to be a cover for exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide."

The Hoover Dam began construction in 1931 and was dedicated in 1935, and at the time was the tallest dam in the world. Elwood Mead died in 1936, only four months after the dedication. But a month following Mead’s death, the reservoir the dam contains was named Lake Mead as a testament to his work.

Apart from the Hoover Dam, Mead also had a hand in the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington and the Owyhee Dam in Oregon. He may have started in a small Indiana town, but Mead’s stamp is all across the West.

Featured image via Shutterstock.