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History of the Sweetwater Dam in Spring Valley, CA 91977

Jul. 25, 2010

History of the Sweetwater Dam by Sonya Heiserman

On our May 22nd tour of the Sweetwater Dam and reservoir, we learned about where its water comes

from and how it’s kept clean and what birds live or fly over the lake, and enjoyed the wonderful view of the

early morning sun breaking through the clouds to shine on the water. However, to me, what is more interesting

is the history of this dam.

The San Diego Land and Town Company, a subsidiary of the Santa Fe Railroad, owned and built the dam.

After it was completed on April 7, 1888, they marketed a subdivision on the lake, promising “the town site

to the south slopes in gentle undulation to the blue rippling waters of the charming lake, while on the north

it slightly inclines toward the far famed Spring Valley”. They named this development La Presa (“dam” in


The Land and Town Company also owned the National City & Otay Railroad, which at this time had

plans to extend one of its lines from National City to La Presa. The railroad did come to La Presa; the tracks

reached the dam in December 1887 and aided in its construction. This became Spring Valley’s first connection

by rail. The end of the tracks were near where Mt. Miguel Covenant Village is located today. By 1888 as

many as four dam trains per day carried construction workers, equipment, materials and sightseers. The train

traveled at only 4 miles per hour and with the return trip it was an all day trip. (there was also a second railway

that had a stop in Spring Valley, the San Diego, Cuyamaca & Eastern Railroad which went on to El


The dam was constructed using rocks quarried a short distance downstream and hauled by horse and

wagon. Some of the rocks weighed up to 4 tons. During construction, it was discovered that raising the dam

to 98 feet would store five times more water in the reservoir. So, as the 60-foot high structure was nearing

completion in January 1887, the workers (some of them Chinese) continued work for another 16 months to

raise the dam height and to encase the rock surface in concrete. When completed, it was the highest dam in

the United States by 20 feet.

In 1895, a rain of six inches in a 24-hour period created a catastrophic flood. The result was that Sweetwater

Dam was overtopped for a period of 40 hours, with the highest reservoir level 22 inches over the elevation

of the parapet. The dam remained stable during this event, but the cascading water caused erosion

downstream of the structure and washed away some of the pipeline and other facilities. Following this flood,

the parapet was raised two feet, but 200 feet in the middle left as an overflow weir or spillway. An additional

spillway was added on one side of the dam.

On January 14, 1916 it rained for 6 days and the dam overflowed again. Another storm drenched the

county on January 24 that same year, and the lake rose 3 feet above the top of the dam, creating a huge

waterfall as it spilled over the entire span of the dam. It caused the north abutment wing of the dam to collapse,

and a torrent of water rushed down the Sweetwater Valley, causing extensive damage. At the time

many blamed the rain on the rainmaking services of the infamous Charles Hatfield who was paid $10,000 by

the San Diego City Council to burn chemicals into the sky in the Morena area to alleviate a water shortage.

The dam was repaired and improved once again, and has since been raised even higher; however, the flood

damage to the tracks of the National City & Otay Railroad was never repaired and the track was abandoned

due to lackluster ticket sales preceding the flood. The staff of the Sweetwater Authority mentioned that

there are still remnants of the tracks near the dam.

In more recent history, this lake has seen some interesting events. During World War II, Spring Valley

was the site for 3 auxiliary airfields attached to San Diego North Island. The fields were located near the lake

which was used to test torpedos (!). The Navy later moved the testing to El Capitan Lake.

Other interesting tidbits: Babe Ruth went duck hunting on this lake. (see picture). Also, near the dam is a

small cottage that was used as a Bait Shop at one point. The Sweetwater Authority has plans to hopefully restore

it to its original state if money can be found. It would be a charming addition to Spring Valley history,

most of which has been lost to time. We are lucky to have this 100+ year old working dam and lake in our

midst. Even though it provides water to National City, not Spring Valley, the Sweetwater Authority staff was

happy to share its history, scenery, and biology with our group.

NOTE: Much of the information for this article is from Our Hills and Valleys: A History of the Helix-Spring

Valley Region by Thomas Joseph Adema. San Diego Historical Society, 1993.

Babe Ruth “duck hunting” with Linn Platner on Sweetwater Lake – January, 1927

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