By Ron VandenBoom
The intrusive roar of an outboard motor slices obtrusively through the pristine stillness as it pulls an athletic-looking skier through the cool choppy waters.
Off in the distance you can see the outline of a solitary fisherman guiding his boat quietly, almost imperceptibly, through the same choppy water.
To the south, near the boat ramp, a family of sunbathers sprawl haphazardly on the sandy beach while still keeping a sharp eye on the children splashing aimlessly in the cool water just off shore.
Its a typical summer weekend at Fresno Reservoir. But its not the kind of a weekend that would have existed 64 years ago and were it not for the needs of area farmers and a hard-fought agreement with Canada, it might not exist today.
Fresno Reservoir was created by the construction of a dam that was started in the spring of 1937 by the construction company of Wachter-ONeil and Megarry Bros. Of Bismarck, N.D.
It was the culmination of a process that began in 1902 with the passage by Congress of the U.S. Reclamation Act and the formation of The Milk River Irrigation Project. Both recognized the unique needs of dryland farmers in the western United States and particularly along the Milk River. The act set aside $20 million for construction and irrigation projects.
Irrigation had become a common practice along the Milk River in those early years along the Hi-Line as was demonstrated by many early farmers like T.C. Burns who was one of the first to build an irrigation ditch in the Chinook-Harlem area in 1889. Burns would later form a private irrigation company that built a total of eight canals to service area farmers.
Problems with Canada over the water in the Milk River also exacerbated the concerns of area farmers as the Canadians also started a canal to divert water from the river.
The Boundary Waters Treaty was finalized in 1909 resolving most of the conflict between the two countries. But it would be 1982 before the final interpretation of the agreement resolved all of the issues regarding water use.
Water, or the lack of it, continued to be a problem along the Hi-Line throughout the early 1900s despite agreements, acts of Congress, and piecemeal attempts by individual farmers to solve the problem.
By 1928, water users were demanding a proposed Chain of Lakes storage area be built.
It would be 1937 before all of the issues were resolved and a site picked for construction to begin.
The site selected was located six miles from the small community of Fresno that consisted of a population of only a dozen people and hosted only a few houses, a train station, and a general store.
The site chosen was also the original homestead of Long George Francis, a local lawman, rodeo star, alleged outlaw, and stockman, who met his demise 18 miles north of the dam on Christmas Eve 1920.
Harold Blair, a Havre resident who worked as a mechanic on the ONeil Construction crew was interviewed by Kathie Newell, a Havre Daily News reporter in 1989, and said Franciss home, or what might more accurately be called his dugout, was destroyed during the first day of construction on March 29, 1937.
Blair also claimed during the interview that dinosaur bones were found right above the dugout.
That dinosaur laid right up the side of the bank, he said. As they started digging, these bones started showing up.
Blair said there was not time for excavation and the remains were reburied. He also claimed he kept pieces of the bones for a long time, but eventually lost them.
The fossils are also to have included the remains of several buffalo that were discovered 30 feet below the river surface. All of the finds were left on the site and are now a part of the dam.
Quicksand was one of the greatest challenges Blair said they had to deal with during the early phases of construction.
We dug that trench out, and then we filled it back up, Blair said. The material that was put back in there was a mixture of clay and sand and rocks. It had to all be watered and compacted with a sheeps-foot roller to meet the density regulations, or the compaction test.
Water seeping into the trench was also a problem Blair referred to.
We had to keep a sump-pump pumping for a year and a half to keep the water out of that trench, he said. We put a house on top near the pump and we hired a man and his wife to attend that pump 24 hours a day for a year and a half.
The upward slope of the dam was covered with a three-foot layer of rock riprap that was hauled from the Snake Butte quarry near Harlem and off-loaded from railroad cars by hand.
The dam contains 1,975,000 cubic yards of dirt and is 2,000 feet long. It stands 77 feet above the river channel and is 800 feet wide at the bottom and 35 feet wide at the top. It contains 15,000 cubic yards of concrete and it took 1,000 train carloads of rock. Ten thousand cubic yards of gravel were used for the sub base.
The reservoir backs up the Milk River for an estimated 24 miles and holds about 127,000 acre-feet of water.
Cost of the project was set at $980,804, but according to Blair the final figure he remembered is $1.1 million. Eighty percent of the $980,804 figure was, by agreement, to be repaid to The Department of Interior and Public Works Administration by land owners and water users along the river.
Labor costs alone through November 1939 totaled a reported $400,000. It was a sum that during the years of the Great Depression went a long way to boost the economy of local merchants. The fuel bill alone for the project was reported to have been $40,000.
The dam was finally completed in 1939 and a dedication was held on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 1939, on site.
The dam has not eliminated the need by area farmers for rain. Nor has it solved all of the problems of fluctuating grain prices and competition in the marketplace from other countries, but it was a major step forword in securing a useable, dependable, and much needed, source of water to Hi-Line agriculture. It has also provided a valuable recreation area for boaters, swimmers, water-skiers, and fishermen.