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SWASTIKAS ON THE COLORADO

by Walter Smoter Frank.

Spanning the Colorado River between California and Arizona stand a concrete dam and bridge which
are decorated with swastikas. These crosses, which have come to symbolize horror for millions of
people, are recessed an inch and a half into the heavy concrete surrounding them and were undoubtedly
meant to last for generations. Eerily similar to the proportion and design used by Adolf Hitler, there are
forty-seven of the swastikas which range in size from eight inches square up to eighteen inches square.
Local lore has it that WWII German
POWs were responsible for incorporating
the swastika within the structures while
helping renovate the dam and bridge during
WWII. Although there was a German POW
camp in the nearby Yuma AZ area during
that period, the swastikas were not put there
by German prisoners. They were put there
by the United States Government.
In 1903 the United States Department of
Interior, through the Bureau of Reclamation (then called the U.S. Reclamation Service), recommended
that a dam be constructed across the Colorado River between CA and AZ above Yuma. It would be the
main feature of an irrigation system meant to divert water to the arid land below the dam on either side
of the river.

After months of studies, construction of the dam was authorized by the U.S.
Secretary of the Interior on May 10, 1904. A contract was let to a private firm on July
6, 1905 and construction began two weeks later.
The top layers of silt on the river bed were scraped out to a depth of twenty-five feet across the width
of the river (nearly a mile) and 400 feet wide.
Three concrete cores, forty feet high and five feet wide, were poured across the river
and a new mixture of earth and rock were dumped between the cores to make up the
breast of the dam. The dam was then covered with eighteen inches of concrete.
Because of cost overruns, on Jan 23, 1907 the "work was assumed by the government and carried to
completion on March 20, 1909 by force account under the immediate supervision of the engineers of
the Reclamation Service."1
The following year, water diverted by the Laguna Diversion Dam ( as the dam was officially called)
was irrigating thousands of acres of AZ, CA and Indian reservation farmland. Laguna Dam was the first
dam constructed by the U.S. government across the Colorado River.
On both the CA and AZ ends of the dam, large concrete sluiceways (sometimes called spillways) were
constructed by the government to carry the diverted waters.2

Large "gates" (up to 20 feet high and 40 feet across) could be raised or lowered to
control water flows through the spillways while smaller spillways, called "turnouts"
(upstream from the big gates), handled the water diverted into canal systems that fed
the thirsty farmland down river. Controlling the water flow into the turnouts (and then
into the canals) were smaller gates called "flashboards." Surrounded by masonry, there were thirty-four
flashboards on the CA side of the dam and eight on the AZ side.
Each of the masonry piers between the flashboards on the AZ side of the dam is
topped with a swastika. The concrete at these points is recessed one inch deep by
twelve inches square and holds a nine inch swastika which is recessed an additional
inch and a half into the concrete.
One hundred and fifty yards upstream from the AZ gate is the arched concrete bridge which was built
to provide easy access to the top of the dam.
At the center of the arch, on both sides of
the bridge, are the initials USRS (United
States Reclamation Service). Fanning out
from the initials on either side are ten
swastikas, the last of which is eighteen
inches square. As with the swastikas on the
turnouts they are also recessed into the
concrete in a similar manner.

Today, those who visit the sight and notice


the swastikas will come away amused, bewildered or appalled. When the Laguna Dam swastikas were
set in concrete, however, no one raised so much as an eyebrow. The swastika, at that time (before Hitler
and the Nazis gave it its present reputation), did not have the dark notoriety it has today.
In ancient times the swastika was common in both the old and new worlds. With the ends of its
crossbars bent to the right, as on Laguna Dam, the swastika was a symbol of the sun, fire and lighting
for peoples from Scandinavia to India and on to China.
In German mythology the swastika (usually represented in rotary fashion) was the fire whisk that
twirled the earth into existence. To Buddhists it represented resignation or the wheel of the law. Later it
came to symbolize life or good luck around the world. It decorated the shields of Crusaders in the
middle ages and even today can be found over the doorways of public houses in Korea.
A swastika, on the other hand, with the crossbars bent to the left was considered a bad luck symbol to
some nations. As an example, to Hindus it symbolized night or destruction.
Swastikas have also been found in the monumental remains of ancient Americans, including objects
taken from old burial mounds within the United States. Similar art is also known to have been used by
various Indian tribes up to the present century.
Because of the American Indians use of the swastika, some people
believe that the swastikas were placed on Laguna Dan as a tribute
to Indians. However, in 1908 (when the swastikas were set in
place on Laguna Dam) Geronimo was still alive and the last major
"battle" of the Indian Wars had taken place a little over a decade
before. In 1908 the feeling of the U.S. government (and the
majority of the American people) was anything but conciliatory
toward Indians. This rumor understandingly originated because
Laguna Dam is known as an "Indian weir dam," but the name has
nothing to do with American Indians.
When preliminary investigations were conducted on the Laguna
Dam site in 1903, core samples revealed that it would be
infeasible to build a dam of a conventional design. For millenniums the Colorado River had deposited
layer upon layer of alluvial deposits on the valley floor. Because of the depth of the silt, it was deemed
financially impossible to construct a dam, as is usually the case, over bedrock. Consequently a dam of
an unconventional design was needed--a dam resting on silt.
Nowhere in the United States did such a dam exist. Government engineers were forced to look overseas
for safe examples. They finally found the type of dam they were looking for on the Jumna River in
northern India. Laguna Dam is called an "Indian weir dam" because of its origin.
While in India, U.S. government representatives also picked up the story of the ancient Hindu God
Indra, who at one time, represented thunder, lighting and rain. Indra (who had four arms and was
represented by the swastika with its four arms) had the power to control water. There were those in the
U.S. government who thought the swastika would be a fitting symbol for the U.S. Reclamation
Service.3 During its early years the United States Bureau of Reclamation used the swastika for its
symbol. The swastikas on Laguna Dam are a legacy of that period.
The Service also designed a Reclamation flag with a large swastika at its center with
the U S R S letters in the four corners.4 It is not known how long the swastika was
used by the Service, if any other structures ever exhibited the symbol or when the
Reclamation Service dropped the Symbol. When impassioned citizens,
however,attempte to destroy the swastikas on Laguna Dam during WWII (see “BridgeCloseUp” photo
above) guards were posted around the clock to protect the site.5 Laguna Dam is the only government
project left standing in the United States where swastikas are an integrated part of the structure.
(One can travel Laguna Dam Road (five miles east of Yuma AZ on route 95) and follow it (eight miles)
to where the county pavement ends. A few hundred yards along a continuing graveled road, one will
see the large abandoned gate described and pictured in this article. A hundred and fifty yards further
along rests the bridge. Because of its proximity to the road many people have seen the swastikas on the
bridge, but few are aware of the swastikas on the turnouts. To view them one must cross the bridge and
follow the old concrete sluiceway down to the large gate and view them from the NW side of the
sluiceway.)
Footnotes:
1. "...work was assumed by the government...." Bureau of Reclamation, Yuma Branch, "Yuma Project
History" 1902-1912 p12.
2. "...sluiceways...were constructed by the government..." ibid. p17.
3. "There were those in the U.S. government who thought the swastika would be a fitting symbol..."
Reclamation Record Vol. 5 April 1914 pp133-4. (The Boy Scouts, Coca-Cola and a WWI Division of
the US Army also used swastika paraphernalia.)
4. "The Service also designed a Reclamation flag with a large swastika at its center..." Bureau of
Reclamation, Denver Branch article, no date.
5. "...guards were posted..." ibid.
This article (with the b&w photos) could not have been completed without the cooperation of the Yuma
Bureau of Reclamation, most notably Public Relations Officer Mr. Bob Steel.
Link:
https://www.usbr.gov/lc/yuma/