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59800 East 307 Lane
Grove, OK 74344

Grand Lake o’ the Cherokee – A Grand Past

Situated in the foothills of Northeast Oklahoma is Grand Lake o' the Cherokees. This area is at the base of the Ozark Mountain Range and commonly referred to as Grand Lake. The first vision of this lake, it was to be the Cherokee Nation’s hydroelectric power source. That was the idea that Henry Holderman had all along, even before Oklahoma joined the union.

Holderman started his efforts of building political support for this project that he believed in and the Army Corps of Engineers  performed their feasibility testing, which agreed with Holderman’s beliefs. Thus, GRDA, the Grand River Dam Authority, was created by the Oklahoma legislature in 1935 as a state agency.

In 1938, construction of the Pensacola Dam started at the lower Neosho River and was finished in 1940. That dam created the lake and between 1941 and 1946, Pensacola Dam was controlled by the U.S. government as part of the war efforts in the country. GRDA regained control in 1946. 

Today the lake is a destination that many Oklahomans head for outdoor entertainment. In addition to many resorts and shows, the Cherokee Queen is a tour boat that has been providing many residents of Green Country region, as well all across the state, entertainment since the 1940s.

Fishermen, both casual and pro, head to the Northeast Oklahoma destination for some of the best bass fishing in North America. Sail boaters frequent this lake, as well, and the other entertainment sources are numerous.

With so many things to do here, why would residents of this state leave to go on vacation? From motorcycle and truck rallies to Civil war re-enactments, not to mention the multitude of places to dine. The history is rich here in the area of Grand Lake and the people are proud of their contribution to one of America’s top vacation destinations. 

How a Piece of Oklahoma History was Constructed and Affects the Area Today

There is one main spillway and two auxiliary spillways for Pensacola Dam. With 51 buttress type arches, it maxes out at 150 feet above the river bed. The dam’s overall length with all of its sections is 6,565 feet and the section of multiple-arches is 4,284 feet.

The Cherokees lost 1285 acres and the Quapaw lost 802 acres to the construction of this dam. In 1940, the land was flooded which included half of the ceremonial area of the Seneca-Cayuga Elk River. Many of the tribe members went on to find employment working on the dam construction.

The FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) regulates the power station at Grand Lake’s Pensacola Dam. The license to do this was issued in 1992 and will expire in 2022. Prior to FERC regulating it, the Federal Power Commission was given that authority in 1939. It has been a constant stream of controversy of who regulates this power and how it is regulated. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers takes over what the dam discharges when the elevation of the reservoir exceeds 745 feet. 

The reason for so much conflict and controversy is because this dam provides multiple purposes to the area of Grand Lake. From environmental conservation to hydroelectric power production and the recreation uses of the lake, there are many parties pulling in different directions.

The USACE has been known to request minimized releases so that downstream areas aren’t flooded, which reduces the river’s DO (dissolved oxygen) levels downstream. It is estimated that as many as 5,000 fish died in 2007 because of these reductions.

Some Oklahoma government officials claim that the economy of the state is affected. The mass flooding in the rocky areas halts off-road recreation, thus there is an ongoing battle of finding the right amount of releasing water.

Grand Lake brings hundreds to thousands of people that enjoy off-roading the rock park as well as canoeing and sailing. Families and people of all ages throughout Northeast Oklahoma plan their vacations around this beautiful area. With all the outdoor activities, local dining and lodging, it is one of the most popular places to go year round.

The time frame between Memorial Day and Labor Day, vacationing families can take advantage of GRDA ‘s free dam tours, which can bring as many as 9,000 visitors to the area. Included in the tour since 2010, is the Ecosystems and Education Center. Visitors are educated on hydropower, electric and water safety during their tour, as well.  

The Arches of Pensacola Dam will put the Arch of St. Louis in the Shadows 

There are more than 5,100 feet of arches on Pensacola Dam, said to be the longest row of arches on any dam in the world. The 51 arches support not only a walkway, but a two lane highway, too. The art deco design is credited to Tulsa native John Duncan Forsyth with W.R. Holway as the chief engineer over the project.

At the west end of Pensacola Dam sits a 120 megawatt, 6-unit powerhouse and on the east end you’ll find 21 spillways.  Going east through Disney, there is what locals call “the spillways”. This is where two sister dams come together with 21 more gates. There is a public boat ramp here which is surrounded by numerous public parks.

Pensacola Dam was built with over 500,000 cubic yards of concrete. It took 20 months with crews working 24 hours pouring that concrete, providing many with jobs during the depression era. There are 46,500 acres of water at Grand Lake with a shoreline of 1,300 miles.

This deep lake has a rocky bottom and is 742 feet above sea level. Grand Lake was not built to be a flood control lake.  However, it is a contributing part of the Arkansas River watershed. The low fall elevations have been GRDA approved so that migratory waterfowl millet seeding could take place.  Environmentalist, federal agencies and property owners have voiced a dislike of that action.  Grand Lake is only one of two lakes in Oklahoma, with Lake Hudson being the other, where residents are allowed to build on the waterfront.

Pensacola Dam cost the Cherokee’s over 1,200 acres of land and the Quapaw over 800 acres. The government would condemn the land next to the reservoir and flooded it in 1940. The tribe lost half of its ceremonial grounds in the flooding. 

Two more generators were added during the 1950’s and an upgrade was performed to all six generators between 1995 and 2003. That upgrade increased the MW by 20 percent. Every autumn a generator is removed from service for a complete upgrade and put back in place by spring of the following year.

Grand Lake is Only One of Many Created by the Neosho River 

Nestled at the foothills of the Ozark Mountains is Grand Lake o' the Cherokees. Simply called Grand Lake, it is known for its multi-arch Pensacola Dam that was constructed between 1938 and finished in 1940. The Pensacola Dam was built on the Grand River, which is the lower Neosho River and thus, Grand Lake was created.

The eastern Kansas part of the Arkansas River benefits from the Neosho River contribution, as does the northeastern Oklahoma part. The tributaries of the Neosho River are approximately 463 miles long.

The Neosho River is a vital part of the environmental and recreational parts of Grand Lake in Oklahoma with its headwaters located in Morris County, Kansas. It is at Muskogee City where it meets with the Arkansas River and then a mile further, those two rivers meet with the Verdigris River, an area called “Three Forks”.

The Neosho ends in Oklahoma where it converges with Spring River. Twin Bridges State Park lays there and attracts visitors year round for many of the outdoor activities offered. The Neosho is dammed at many different points and those dams are governed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In addition to the Pensacola Dam at Grand Lake, there is upstream dam of Council Grove where Council Grove Lake forms and then close to New Strawn is a dam. There the John Redmond Reservoir has been formed. There is a dam, Langley, in Oklahoma and that is where the largest reservoir of the Neosho is found, as is the Grand Lake o' the Cherokees. There is also a dam at Locust Grove which forms Lake Hudson and further upstream is a dam at Fort Gibson which forms Fort Gibson Lake.

59800 East 307 Lane 
Grove, OK 74344, USA

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Fri & Sat: 8AM – 8PM

Oct 16th through February 28th
Fri & Sat hours are 9AM - 5PM