Ruth Dam — a.k.a. R.W. Matthews Dam — a decade ago. Outpost file photo.

An adequate water supply traditionally has been a source of concern to cities and towns of the West. Eureka has been no different, even if the rainfall here has always been higher than in most places. Eureka also has the advantage of having several rivers and streams in the near vicinity. It has been the distribution of water — bringing it from its source to its consumers — that has been the problem.

Will N. Speegle, long-ago editor of the Humboldt Standard, wrote in April 1944:

Now that the city of Eureka seems definitely upon its way to have a real honest-to-goodness reservoir for its water supply, it might be a good time to review briefly the history of the municipal water system. Until the year 1886, the citizens of this community depended entirely on individual water sources, mostly operated by windmills or hand-pumps. There is still some evidence of these mills. Most of the windmills were replaced by pumps. The towers are still there, usually over the barn in the back yard. However, the tanks themselves have been long gone.

Caspar S. Ricks, one of our early pioneers, sank wells on his residential property between Fourth and Fifth streets and between G and H streets. If one knows where to look, there is still evidence of one of these wells. Originally, they were intended for the store buildings, residences, and livery stables that Ricks had accumulated in downtown Eureka.

Before Eureka had a set water system, homes like this one at 10th and M streets had water tanks on the property to store water supplies. Photo via the Humboldt Historian.

The Eureka City Council granted a franchise to Caspar Ricks on July 16, 1882. The franchise stated he was to lay pipe throughout the city to furnish water to all citizens. An additional well was sunk on his property to accommodate the people of Eureka. This well was 22-feet square and 45-feet deep.

Soon after the beginnings of Eureka’s water supply, the Ricks Company was incorporated. The new owners were H. L. Ricks Sr. and Richard Sweasey. It became clear to the two after taking over the business that more water was needed to meet the increasing demand. It was decided to bring an “unlimited” supply from Elk River, a distance of six miles. A 13-inch in diameter pipe was constructed from the intake on Elk River located on the Showers Ranch. This pipe was designed by Sam Shuffleton, described by local folks as a “genius.”

The terminus of the pipe was at the corner of Fifth and G streets in downtown Eureka. To store this new water supply, the first of Eureka’s water tanks was built at Harris and E streets. A second tank was built a little later. The tanks were made of redwood and girded by metal rings. I can remember they leaked pretty badly. My uncle, Al Schemoon, was hired by the city of Eureka to tend to the lawn, shrubs, and flowers planted at the base of the tanks. He complained that the leaking water “drowned” his flowers.

All through these years, there was a great deal of agitation about the impurity of the Elk River water. Consequently, several rectangular wells were dug in back of what was to become the Humboldt Brewery on Broadway. These wells were designed to be used for emergency purposes—fire or drought, for example—only.

On June 22. 1902, the Ricks Water Company was incorporated as the Eureka Water Company. On December 30 oft hat year, the business was sold to Thomas Bair of Arcata. Bair continued to operate the business until the people of Eureka voted bonds for its purchase.

The continued agitation against the Elk River water supply lasted all through the first twenty years of the 20th century. The main complaint was the existence of farms in the area. Eurekans felt certain that the “offal” from the dairy herds in the area seeped into their water supply.

During those years, there remained a pumping station on the Elk River, which included several buildings and a big pump. Then on March 7, 1926, the Humboldt Standard reported that the abandoned station had “mysteriously” burned to the ground. By that time, it had been pumping water to Eureka for thirty-seven years.

Building Sweasey Dam

In 1927, plans were made to build dams and reservoirs on both Jacoby Creek and Ryan’s Slough. Both were dropped in favor of looking to the Mad River for the newest source of water.

Discussion about obtaining water from that stream started as early as 1933. From the start. Mayor Frank Sweasey assumed leadership. He was the son of the man who bought into the first water company here and became a partner of H. L. Ricks Sr.

Work was begun, finally, on the project to be known as the Sweasey Dam, located six miles upstream from Blue Lake. This was in early 1937. In June of that year, the Humboldt Times reported that local firms had successfully bid to construct a pipeline from the dam site to Eureka, a distance of twenty-two miles.

In December 1937, J. C. Barkdull, city clerk, announced that Uncle Sam had already paid $222,235 of the government’s grant of $318,000 to help build the structure. In 1938, Sweasey Dam was completed to the satisfaction of almost everyone. This was not, however, to be the case in the proposals for the two subsequent dams — Ruth and the Butler Valley and Blue Lake Project.

By November 1938, a very wet year, rains filled the reservoir, according to George Winzler, city inspector. On December 17, 1937, Mayor Frank Sweasey died. His dedication to the water supply of Eureka earned him his name on the dam. Sweasey was the last of the strong-willed individuals dedicated to working for a good water supply. After the mayor died, organizations like the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, local chambers of commerce, city councils, and water boards furnished leadership in this area.

Still, there were concerns. On May 15,1949, the Humboldt Times ran a story titled “Eureka Outgrows Water and Sewerage Systems.” The newspaper stated:

“Dying for a drink?”

We mean the stuff that comes out of the faucet. That might be no mere rhetorical question if a break should occur in the redwood stave pipeline which brings water to Eureka from the Sweasey dam on Mad River. Eureka has much less than a 24-hour supply of water stored in the three wood tanks at Harris and E streets, the wood tank at Cutten, and the high steel tank at Harris and K streets.

Total storage is 2,055,000 gallons. Average daily use in 1950 will be 3,200,000 gallons, it is estimated, with a maximum daily use of 4,500,000.

Recent growth of the city to the point where the water supply system has become prematurely overtaxed and the enactment of state laws regarding disposal of sewage have developed into a situation requiring Eureka to undertake a construction program of considerable magnitude.

The Eureka City Council, therefore, engaged the engineering firm of Koebig & Koebig to make an engineering study of the waterworks and sewerage systems of Eureka.

On June 20, 1949, voters decided a bond issue was necessary to make vital improvements to Eureka’s water system. The redwood pipeline, after more than thirty years of use, was partially replaced. The new 33-inch tube of cement-lined steel line went from Essex to the tumoff point near the Big Four Inn — nearly four miles. Also proposed was the raising of the dam from the original height of 200 feet up to 260 feet. Engineers were dubious about these changes.

As the years went by, dam personnel warned that the Sweasey Dam was silting up with gravel, sand, and debris. Compounding this picture was the fact that the fish ladder seemed to demand more and more repair work and, hence, was costlier than originally predicted.

In 1965, a local newspaper reported that the State Fish and Game Department wanted to have the dam removed. The paper went on to say, “It is true that mud, gravel, and debris have all but completely filled the reservoir in back of the dam.” In 1967, a contract was signed with A. C. Johnson and Sons to remove part of the dam.

Finally, Sweasey Dam was dynamited in 1970. In a letter dated August 17, 1970, from R. J. O’Brien, regional manager of the Department of Fish and Game, to M. T. McGovem, with the Department of Public Works, it was stated the removal of the dam had been done to their satisfaction.

A Caltrans engineer, in a report in later years, wrote that it was his opinion the dynamiting caused the mouth of the Mad River to move two miles north from its original starting point. He explained that all the sediment coming downstream in one fell swoop had laid the debris across the original mouth, blocking it for good.

The Sweasey Dam, the reservoir, and the pipeline served the citizens of Eureka’s vast water needs for many years.

The ruins of Sweasey Dam. Photo: Mike Wilson.

A Water District is Born

Throughout the late 1940s and early ‘50s, Eurekans had become increasingly aware of the silting up of their dam and water supply.

The Bechtel Corporation was hired to do the preliminary work and to recommend a new dam site. Results of the Bechtel Corporation were conclusive —  the studies indicated the Ruth location in Trinity County was the best. Other sites had been investigated by the corporation, but found to be wanting for a variety of reasons. This included the number two site at Butler Valley in Humboldt County. Problems of construction, land acquisitions, and silting had ruled that site out.

During the fall and winter of 1955, the drive to build a new dam gained momentum. With spring approaching, the Eureka Chamber of Commerce became the promotional agency for an intensive election campaign. It had been determined the best legal tool would be to form a water district under California’s Municipal Water District Act of 1911.

That year, members of the Eureka Chamber of Commerce and the Humboldt County Board of Trade met to consider the formation of the water district. Representatives of unions, churches, city councils, service clubs, businesses, and the Board of Supervisors joined in. Committees were formed and action taken. Under the leadership of James A. Nealis, president of the Eureka Chamber of Commerce, and Bob Matthews, head of the Industrial Committee of the Eureka Chamber, plans were drawn up.

Voters went to the polls on March 13, 1956, and cast an overwhelming vote for the proposed Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District. A total of 88.9 percent of the voters favored its formation.

Water Wars

The fight had just begun. Many wanted the new dam to be built in Humboldt County. This was especially true of the citizens in and around Ruth. They felt their beautiful valley would be inundated forever.

Also, as reported by the Eureka Independent, Trinity County’s Board of Supervisors took official action to block construction of the dam and reservoir at Ruth. “Keep It In Humboldt County” was their rallying cry. Locally, the Humboldt County Grange Committee was against the Ruth project and published flyers to have people vote against it.

Those against the Ruth Dam believed that though the dam would offer enough water, there simply wouldn’t be enough usage to warrant building it. Ruth Dam proponents soon secured assurance from local pulp mills that the mills would indeed use large quantities of water. With this promise, the Ruth Dam project was ago.

In April 1956, the city of Eureka voted to assign its application for 100,000 acre feet of water to the Municipal Water District of Humboldt County and the soon-to-be-built Ruth Dam.

A campaign to acquire a $12,000,000 general obligation bond issue to fund building of the dam was next in the general plan. The results of the vote showed that 69.17 percent of the voters favored the bond issue. A two-thirds vote had been required.

The water district directors signed contracts to deliver water to the Simpson Timber Company and Georgia-Pacific Corporation. Their mills were to be built on the Samoa Peninsula.

The groundbreaking ceremony for Ruth Dam took place on September 29, 1960. In September of 1961, contracts were arranged with a Seattle Company for a $3.4 million job on a thirteen-mile pipe line from Essex Station on the Mad River to Fairhaven on the Samoa Peninsula, to the pulp mills.

The House Appropriations Committee approved $1.2 million to fund the dam. On July 10, 1960, Congressman Don Clausen announced the bill had passed the full House Public Works Committee.

Other proposals brought forth at this time were the Anderson Ford Dam and Reservoir and the Larabee Dam and Reservoir.

At precisely 9:25 p.m., February 16, 1962, the Ruth Lake crested and water flowed over the spillway for the first time.

At noon on May 30, 1962, a dedication ceremony took place on the Ruth Dam site. Don Cave, president of the Eureka Chamber of Commerce, was million master of ceremonies. The sluice gates were opened by Don Cave and Bob Matthews. A western-style pit barbecue at Dinsmore followed.

Next year will mark the fortieth anniversary of our water supply from Ruth. It was a hard-fought battle, but it was won.

Butler Valley Dam

The last proposed major water supply project did not win the vote of the people. This was the Butler Valley Dam and Blue Lake Project.

During the year 1955, as the drive toward building a structure somewhere on the Mad River became more active, the site at Butler Valley was proposed. In September 1961, it was dropped in favor of the site at Ruth. The cost — $3 more than Ruth — as well as silting possibilities and soil composition were the usual reasons given for selecting one site over the other. This site at Butler Valley was not to be forgotten completely.

In the early 1970s, once again the cry for a Butler Valley Dam and Blue Lake Project (the official name) was heard. Sides were drawn up and the contest was on.

According to preliminary engineering reports, this dam was to be a multipurpose water storage project located in Humboldt County, 33 miles upstream from the town of Blue Lake. The principal structure would be a 326-foot embankment dam. There would be a shoreline of thirty miles. It would drain 352 square miles. The cost would be divided as follows: federal government, $32,500,000; local interests, $33,500,000; State of California, $800,000. To do all this would not require a property tax.

Representative Don Clausen announced in July 1968 that the Butler Valley Project had passed the full House Public Works Committee.

In the meantime, the opponents of the project were busy marshalling their troops. The Times-Standard reported that “a resolution to drop financial responsibility for the Butler Dam was unanimously passed (by opponents) and forwarded to the Board of Supervisors by the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District Board of Directors.” According to George Dinsmore, district manager, this action meant that the signing of a contract with dam contractors would not need authorization by a popular vote. This was a bombshell to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors.

Then, in 1972, the Grand Jury issued its yearly report. It said the project should not be completed for the following reasons: no demonstrable need; environmental disaster for Butler Valley; potential for further water claims on the Mad River; adverse developments encouraged, and decline of sport and commercial fishing.

The Grand Jury further recommended the entire plan be put before the people for a vote. Even the proposed widening and paving of the road up Fickle Hill to easily access the dam came under criticism. One proponent of the project had said the dam would be a “psychological symbol.” The opponents jumped on this and used it as a logo for their campaign.

On November 6, 1973, the voters went to the polls. Proposition B on the ballot stated: “Authorization for construction of Butler Valley Dam and Blue Lake Project.” The ballot listed a tavern owner, a real estate businessman, the secretary-treasurer of the Sawmill Workers Union, and a retired county assessor as proponents of Proposition B. It listed as opponents a high school principal, a doctor, an attorney, and a commercial fisherman.

On November 7, the Times-Standard’s headline was “Butler Valley ‘No’ 2-1.” The whole plan was sent down to defeat. It had been a controversial plan from the start. The paper went on to write: “The people of Humboldt County have ‘spoken with a powerful voice’ that they do not want the Butler Valley Dam and it’s now up to the supervisors to tell the Army Corps of Engineers that the dam can never be built.”

That proved not to be necessary as Colonel James L. Lammie, district engineer, in viewing the results of the vote, sent the Board of Supervisors a letter saying, in effect, that they were terminating all further work on the Butler Valley Dam project at this time.

This was the last effort by local citizens to be concerned about the local water supply. Ruth Dam is still serving the area up to the present time.


The story above was originally printed in the Summer 2001 issue of the Humboldt Historian, a journal of the Humboldt County Historical Society. It is reprinted here with permission. The Humboldt County Historical Society is a nonprofit organization devoted to archiving, preserving and sharing Humboldt County’s rich history. You can become a member and receive a year’s worth of new issues of The Humboldt Historian at this link.