Oklahoma National Guardsmen Arrive at the Pensacola Dam, March 14, 1940
Oklahoma National Guardsmen Arrive at the Pensacola Dam, March 14, 1940

Among the many state deployments of the Oklahoma National Guard, one of the lesser-known is probably the Grand River Dam dispute of 1940. The 15th Oklahoma Legislature created the Grand River Dam Authority in April 1935. On October 16, 1937, the PWA offered to purchase $11,563.00 of the GRDA’s bonds and issued a grant not to exceed $8,437.00 to construct the dam, estimated to cost 20 million dollars.

Governor Leon Phillips’ administration battled against the construction of multiple purpose dams on Oklahoma’s waterways, including the Grand River Dam project. Phillips argued that the GRDA would be liable for damages incurred by the dam’s effects on public lands and roads to state and local governments. Furthermore, the governor threatened to call out the National Guard to prevent the dam from being built until Oklahoma was guaranteed a share of the revenues from the sale of power produced.

Phillips warned the GRDA not to flood any roads or bridges until it could reach an agreement with the state highway commission regarding costs. Negotiations did not go well, and Phillips warned that if the dam gates were closed and state property flooded before Oklahoma received promised funds of $850,000, he would take drastic action. As the project and fighting continued, Phillips declared martial law to prevent the dam’s completion. He stated, “I am moving in the troops before they get that dam in such shape that it will take dynamite to let the water out.”

In addition to sending in the guard, Phillips directed the Attorney General to file suit in state district court to halt the completion of the dam. A temporary restraining order was issued, but the federal government responded with its own in federal court, nullifying the governor’s martial law and restraining order.

Two days later, the governor received a letter from Adjutant General Louis A. Ledbetter informing him the last arch was being closed.
The Oklahoma National Guard saw limited time at the dam site. Still, the story is another example of how Oklahoma’s governors have utilized the National Guard by declaring martial law in the first half of the 20th century.

If you would like to learn more about Governor Phillips and the New Deal. There is a good MA Thesis available here: Governor Phillips and the New Deal.

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