10 of America's Grandest Dams

The concrete Shasta Dam surrounded by the bright colors of springtime with Shasta Lake in the background

Bruce Fingerhood / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The turn of the 20th century ushered in the golden era of massive civil engineering projects in the United States, not least among them the construction of industrial-sized dams.

The grandness of these dams can be measured not only by their physical size and power output, but by their overall impact on the environment and the people around them. While touted for their energy production, flood control, and irrigation capabilities, these engineering marvels have also been responsible for environmental and social destruction.

Admired by some and despised by others, here are 10 of the grandest dams in the United States.

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Diablo Dam (Washington)

Diablo Dam holds back the jade-green waters of Diablo Lake in Washington state.

cpaulfell / Shutterstock

Nestled in the North Cascade mountain range along the upper Skagit River in Washington state, the 389-foot tall Diablo Dam was the tallest dam in the world when it opened in 1936. The dam is what’s called an arch-gravity dam, which combines the upstream curve of an arch dam with the resistance of water’s thrust by using its own weight like a gravity dam.

The crystalline lake formed by the Diablo Dam, Diablo Lake, features a distinctive jade-green glow that comes from the sun reflecting off of finely ground glacier sediment, or glacial flour, that is suspended in the water.

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Ashfork-Bainbridge Steel Dam (Arizona)

The reinforced steel and concrete of the Ashfork-Bainbridge Steel Dam is shown in this black and white photo

Kaibab National Forest/ Flickr / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Completed in 1898 in Coconino County, Arizona, the Ashfork-Bainbridge Steel Dam was the first large steel dam built in the world. The innovative structure wasn't constructed to control river flooding, produce hydroelectricity, or to supply nearby farms with water. Rather, the steel plate dam was commissioned to form a reservoir of water for the steam-powered trains on the Atchison, Topeka and Sante Fe Railway.

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Grand Coulee Dam (Washington)

Surrounded mostly by a rocky and barren landscape, the Grand Coulee Dam holds back water on the Columbia Driver on a bright day

Gregg M. Erickson / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Straddling the Columbia River, the Grand Coulee Dam is positively colossal: it stands at 550 tall and 5,223 feet wide. When the Bureau of Reclamation opened the dam in 1942, there was nothing else quite like it—even today, this human-made behemoth remains one of the largest concrete structures in the world.

The Grand Coulee Dam does not have a fish ladder, which is a structure built near a dam that allows fish to travel around the dam and continue their migration upstream.

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Fort Peck Dam (Montana)

Fort Peck Dam stretches into the distance as it holds back the water of the great Missouri River

William Campbell / Getty Images

Montana's mighty Fort Peck Dam, constructed from 1933 to 1940, remains an impressive feat of New Deal-era ingenuity as the largest hydraulically filled dam in the country.

Conceived and constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the dam itself isn't a concrete structure but an artificial embankment formed by pumping sediment from the bottom of the Missouri River and filling it with rock and other materials.

Stretching four miles across the river, the embankment led to the creation of Fort Peck Lake, the fifth-largest human-made lake in the United States.

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Oroville Dam (California)

The Oroville Dam shines in the evening sun with Lake Oroville in the background

Kelly Nigro / Getty Images

At 770 feet, the Oroville Dam in Northern California is the tallest dam in the United States. The dam is an integral part of California’s State Water Project, which supplies water for agriculture and 25 million state residents.

In February 2017, Oroville Dam’s main spillway and emergency spillway were damaged by the significant stress put on them from historic flooding in the state. Residents downstream were ordered to evacuate the area out of fears that the dam could fail. Luckily, the Oroville Dam held and has since undergone extensive repairs.

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Buffalo Bill Dam (Wyoming)

Aerial view of Buffalo Bill Dam in Wyoming.

Cyndi and Dave / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Named in honor of William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, the legendary late 19th century celebrity showman who once owned much of the land surrounding the dam, the 325-foot Buffalo Bill Dam was the tallest dam in the world when completed in 1910.

The dam was built as part of the irrigation-minded Shoshone Project, which is responsible for irrigating over 107,000 acres of farmland in Montana and Wyoming. In 1971, the Buffalo Bill Dam was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Hoover Dam (Nevada)

The massive concrete Hoover Dam arched between the reddish rocky landscape

Mark Newman / Getty Images

Wedged on the border of Arizona and Nevada, Hoover Dam requires little in the way of introduction. Completed in 1936, this concrete arch-gravity marvel is noted for its impressive height of 726 feet, making it the second tallest dam in the country.

Hoover Dam produces 4.2 billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectricity annually, tames flooding along the Colorado River, and provides drinking and irrigation water by way of the largest reservoir in the United States, Lake Mead.

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Mansfield Dam (Texas)

A night shot of Mansfield Dam near Austin, Texas

Ferrous Büller / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Spanning a deep canyon in Austin, Texas, the Mansfield Dam is a concrete gravity multitasker and the tallest in Texas at 278 feet tall. Completed in 1942, the dam was built for flood control, water storage, and production of hydroelectricity.

The 64-mile-long reservoir created by the dam's construction, Lake Travis, provides recreational opportunities for boating, fishing, camping, and zip-lining.

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Fontana Dam (North Carolina)

The Fontana Dam stretches across the Little Tennessee River with green deciduous trees growing on each side

Fotosearch / Getty Images

Towering 480 feet above the Little Tennessee River in North Carolina, the Fontana Dam is the tallest dam east of the Rocky Mountains. The Appalachian Trail crosses over the dam as it enters the southwest section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the view is nothing short of stunning.

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Shasta Dam (California)

The Shasta Dam holds back the greenish-blue waters of the Sacramento River on a bright day

Robert Campbell / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Completed in 1945, the 602-foot-tall Shasta Dam impounds the Sacramento River to form Lake Shasta, an immense reservoir that serves the water demands of California’s agricultural hub, the Central Valley. The dam has had negative impacts on the region, however, including the destruction of indigenous land belonging to the Winnemem Wintu people.