Folsom Dam and Lake (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 2004)

At the time of Herndon’s visit to Bull Shoals Dam, construction was nearly complete, and Slocum was being lobbied to take on several projects. One of them was the Folsom Dam in Folsom, California. Near the site of the prison, made famous by Johnny Cash’s hit, “Folsom Prison Blues,” this concrete gravity dam spans the American River and is also part of the Central Valley Water Project. Originally conceived as a flood control dam to address frequent flooding of California’s capital, Sacramento, the 1,400-foot-long dam is a multipurpose project providing irrigation and hydroelectric power in addition to flood control.

The local papers reported in late 1951 it was all but certain that Slocum would serve as a consulting engineer for the team selected to build the dam. The editor of the “Spillway” column in the Folsom Telegraph wrote this. “Slocum is the biggest name in dam construction, with a reputation based not only on brains, but action. Those who know Slocum or have followed his career picture him as a doer as well as a teller. And they say the Folsom job will be no exception.”

The local papers reported in late 1951 it was all but certain that Slocum would serve as a consulting engineer for the team selected to build the dam. The editor of the “Spillway” column in the Folsom Telegraph wrote this. “Slocum is the biggest name in dam construction, with a reputation based not only on brains, but action. Those who know Slocum or have followed his career picture him as a doer as well as a teller. And they say the Folsom job will be no exception.”

Their conversation turned to money. Slocum said the way it usually works is he gets paid a lump sum for making an estimate, a regular salary for building the dam, and a percentage of the contractor’s profit—the difference between the actual cost and the amount bid. Slocum said a superintendent worth his salt should make $25,000 to $50,000 a year. That there were at least a dozen men who owned Ozark Dam Constructors who each made at least 10 times as much as Slocum didn’t bother him.

“What the hell do I want with money? If I got nothin’ I’d still build dams. All I want is the best of everything I need. I don’t want money.”

Although Slocum was outfitted head to toe in khaki and lived a simple life on his construction jobs, he had more than enough to buy the best of everything he needed. He belonged to exclusive men’s clubs he rarely visited. His personal car was the best made. His cotton undershirts were made in Switzerland and cost $6 apiece. Harvey had a particular weakness for tailor-made suits. He told Christopher Rand, “At home, I have enough good suits so that I can go for thirty or thirty-five days without wearing the same one twice. I like all that. I like the feel of good shirts.”

And he shared with Herndon, “When I’m in the store [back home] they always take me up to show me some new material. One time they sold me two suits for $185 each, and it was two years before I got back for a fitting. And that time they showed me more material and I bought two more suits.”

He also had a collection of some of the most expensive, high-powered rifles ever made. “Sold ‘em all,” Harvey once grunted at Herndon. Then he started laughing, “Hell, I didn’t need ‘em. Never shot a gun in my whole life.”

Slocum would bristle when journalists labeled him as profane. He told Herndon, “I only swear for emphasis, goddammit.”

Harvey used the Lord’s name—mostly in vain—so often, one might wonder what he felt about God and religion. Slocum cleared that up for Herndon, as well. “I’m an atheist.”

Herndon followed up, “You mean you don’t believe in anything?”

“That’s right—nothin,” Slocum shot back. “You, me, nothin’!”

He may not have seemed to care so much about what he earned on a job, but on the Bhakra Dam Slocum got paid more—a lot more—than any superintendent to date had ever received to build a dam.


Bhakra Nangal Project is something tremendous, something stupendous, and something which shakes you up when you see it. Bhakra today is the symbol of India’s progress.

Bhakra Dam

When Christopher Rand came to India to interview Harvey in December of 1956 for The New Yorker magazine, Slocum had already been on the job as head supervising engineer of construction for four and a half years. This is what Rand saw. “The biggest dam now under construction anywhere on earth—as far as the Western world is aware, at least—is on the Sutlej River at Bhakra, India, in the foothills of the Himalayas. It is a power and storage dam, and it ranks with the Grand Coulee, Hoover and Shasta dams, which are the biggest in America, and is far greater than anything of its kind in Asia, barring something unknown to us on the Ob, the Yenisei, or some other Siberian river. The Sutlej rises in Tibet, crosses into India two hundred miles north of New Delhi and a hundred miles east of the dam, and then courses down from the mountains and across the Punjab Plain. Eventually, it joins the Indus and flows into the Arabian Sea…

“The dam is in a narrow gorge in the Siwalik Range, an outwork of the Himalayas. A spur of this range stands up like a wall across the course of the Sutlej River, and the river, with the passing of time, has simply cut a narrow V, more than seven hundred feet deep, through it. The dam will plug this gap and create a reservoir fifty-six miles long and about four miles wide.”

Slocum was in the middle of constructing the biggest, most challenging dam in his long career. He was 69 years old, well beyond the retirement age for most men. The colossal concrete gravity dam, when completed, would stand 755 feet high, 1,705 feet long, and 624 feet wide at its base; it would be the tallest concrete dam in the world. The dam not only tamed the annual floods of the Sutlej River, the reservoir irrigated 6,700,000 acres of new farmland and generated 800,000 kilowatts of hydroelectric power each year to support 5,000 villages. The reservoir was so big it could have supplied the domestic water needs of the entire country for a year.

The thing is, Slocum wasn’t so sure he even wanted the job.

The Indian authorities first approached him in 1945 when Harvey was still consulting with the Navy in Guam. The dam was little more than a dream, and India was still a British colony. In 1947, India gained its independence, and the principal leader of the nationalist movement, Jawaharlal Nehru, became the first prime minister. The Cold War between the world’s two nuclear powers, the United States and Soviet Union, was tense, with each superpower vying for more territory and converts to their respective social and political philosophies. Despite many entreaties by the Russians and Americans, Nehru strived to keep India neutral.

In 1948, the U.S. Congress declined to provide financial support for the Bhakra Dam, and India decided to proceed with financing the project itself. But they still wanted American know-how. Further talks with Slocum between 1948 and 1950 were not productive. Upon visiting the project in 1951, Harvey concluded “it was an impossibly fouled up bungle,” and cooled on the idea of getting involved. Instead, Slocum had his eye on some lucrative projects closer to home, such as Folsom Dam, once he finished Bull Shoals Dam.

This project was very important to the Indians—not only for the flood control, irrigation and hydroelectric power benefits, but as a national symbol of what the country could achieve as a new, independent, state—and they continued to press Slocum. With the intent to gracefully back out of negotiations, Slocum finally agreed to have his lawyer draw up a contract, who assured Harvey no individual, much less a government, would ever sign. Slocum’s obligations would be, compared to his work on other dams, relatively minimal:
He would design a plant to furnish concrete for the dam.
If asked questions about dam building, he would answer.
If instructed to do so in writing, he would hire experts or buy material and equipment.
And Slocum would spend four months a year in India over a ten-year period.

In return, Slocum would be paid $1,000,000—$100,000 a year—net of taxes and expenses. And should Slocum die during the term of the contract, the balance of the $1,000,000 was to be paid to his widow, Helen.

“I didn’t really want to go,” Harvey said. “They signed it anyway.”

Slocum became one of the highest-paid employees of India. He was paid $8,300 per month like clockwork, irrespective of whether he was at the dam site, or not. The Indian government also established a six-figure bank account for Slocum in the States that he drew upon at his sole discretion for his expenses, including the 32 round-trip flights he made between Los Angeles and India during his almost ten years on the job.

The contract may have seemed exorbitant at the time, but the amount was almost a footnote in the $350 million final cost of the entire project. One Indian engineer observed, “The savings that his genius has effected has made him worth his weight in gold.”

Slocum was 64 years old when he set up shop in India. “My wife tells me, ‘You silly old so and so, you should retire at your age instead of going over there.’ She’s probably right, but it’s the challenge of the thing. Besides, it’s going to break a few spokes out of Uncle Joe Stalin’s wheel—and I’d really like to do that before I throw in the sponge.”

Upon arriving at the dam site, Slocum realized the challenges and obstacles were so great that, if he only did what he was contractually committed to do, the dam might not get built; and certainly not within his initial estimate of six years. So, Slocum mentally tore up the contract and committed to himself, and the Indian government, to do what was required to get the dam done. Slocum separately told Herndon and Rand, “Look, there’s only one obligation that’s worth a damn anywhere in the world, and that’s Harvey Slocum’s obligation to Harvey Slocum. I had to get that dam built.”

Slocum ended up spending closer to nine months each year on the Bhakra Dam project, getting home to Los Angeles for short visits three or four times a year. “The truth of the matter is, Slocum had been had,” Herndon surmised. “The Indians knew once they got him there, he’d build the dam. For this was the world’s greatest challenge.”

“Bhakra is the toughest project ever built,” Harvey told Ray Day for his article in Excavating Engineer. Coming from the man who built 18 dams including Grand Coulee, Bull Shoals and Friant Dams, that was saying something. Slocum ticked off for Day some of the challenges: an untrained and largely illiterate labor force; a dearth of skilled equipment operators; no domestic source of machines and equipment nor the manpower to repair them; no available lumber yards; and the remoteness of the site.

Add to that the extremely difficult geologic conditions. Herndon broke it down in laymen’s terms. “The Siwalik range is a crazy, mixed-up mountain if there ever was one. It was once an ocean floor. During the ages, as the ocean rose and fell, different forms of sediment were laid down and hardened, under the weight of subsequent layers, into strata of claystone, limestone and sandstone. Then came the mighty convulsion of the earth’s crust that formed the world’s highest mountains, the Himalayas.

“It raised hell with these strata, upending them and driving them against themselves. Here one stratum was shoved forward with such pressure and force that the stratum beneath became molten, then solidified into denser, harder rock. Then a whole stratum just crumbled, leaving loose rock broken into pieces as small as a pea or as big as a house. The whole range is a geological mess, with layers of sandstone, busted-up rubble, hardstone, soft claystone, all jumbled together and standing on end.”

Slocum told the Spokesman Review, “But the thing which makes this such a helluva job is logistics. I guess that’s one of them big words. In this case it means that they don’t make locomotives in native villages, and they don’t make bulldozers either. How’m I going to move those mountainsides out of the way in my lifetime with this monkey business of women carrying the dirt on their heads in baskets?”

Slocum lamented the tremendous transportation difficulties presented by the dam’s isolated, rugged site less than 140 miles from Chinese Communist-controlled Tibet. When work began at the dam in 1948, the nearest railroad station was in Rupar, 46 miles away. The Indians got to work on installing 38 miles of track connecting Rupar to the construction camp and equipment yard erected in Nangal specifically for this project. The first regular passenger train steamed into the Nangal Dam Railway Station in March of 1949. Nangal was then connected to the dam site with an additional eight miles of track, including a 1,000-foot tunnel for the trains to pass through.

“Construction is nothing more than a colossal job of transportation,” Slocum observed. “We’ve got 5,000,000 barrels of cement to move, and nothing but them tiny British railway wagons to move it in. The workers here don’t get enough to eat, so they can’t lift heavy loads or do half as much work as the stiffs back home.”

Slocum and “Boo” Herndon—that was his nickname—had become friends when they worked together on the article for Collier’s. Herndon’s wife, Bonnie, was a professional photographer and took most of the photos that appeared in that piece. Slocum wrote Herndon a letter in November 1952. It was typed on official stationery with the title “Bhakra Dam Project— Directorate of Construction & Plant Design.” Boo had apparently told Harvey he’d recently “gone on the wagon;” i.e. quit drinking.

“I trust your going on the Big Cart didn’t have anything to do with Bonnie’s coming addition! However I know you will always be prouder that you say ‘no’ than ‘let’s have another.’ Enuf said, I hate a holy guy.”

Slocum then addressed Bhakra. “Keerist! You nor no one can have the faintest idea of the difficulties that his project presents. In describing I would sound Hollywood-stupendous, gigantic, colossal, beyond words, and can you believe I was long eared enough to take on ten years with no time off for good behavior. I am sure that in about a year to eighteen months there will be something worth writing about as it will take that long for things to sort of shape up to see what all the shouting is about.”

Slocum told Gingold of the Los Angeles Times that one of the first big hurdles was to make the project self-sufficient. “I learned right away we had to do this. We couldn’t depend on getting materials otherwise. So we trained the Indians to do things they could never do before.”

They were forced to make many things themselves that in other countries they simply would have bought. The nerve center for this effort was at Nangal. Slocum helped oversee the installation of a well-organized materials storage and equipment fabrication and repair facility. Housed in modified aircraft hangars spread out over many acres, the workshops included a steel fabrication plant to make the hopper-bottom cement cars, trestles, concrete forms and other equipment; a lumber mill; a plant to produce their own acetylene and oxygen to cut steel; and a garage for maintenance and repair of the hundreds of trucks, tractors, locomotives, cranes, shovels, automobiles and other vehicles, many of them the biggest made. There was also a welding shop, rigger’s loft and the construction plant design office. Another construction yard at Neilla included a carpentry shop and storage for fuel oil and lubricants.

“No other construction job in the world has this kind of a layout,” Slocum told Rand. “You do everything yourself except grow the trees for your own wood. We’ve got the only trailer-truck equipment in India, the only hopper-bottom cement cars in India, and the only shop in India where the big tires used by the bulldozers and other construction gear can be retreaded. These facilities have more than paid for themselves.”

Soon after Slocum had arrived at Bhakra and surveyed the situation, he projected that the dam could be finished in six years. The previous year, a delegation of engineers from the Soviet Union told their Indian counterparts they could do the work in less than a year.

Slocum scoffed at that. “There ain’t no one in the world can do this in less than six. And if it’s possible in six, we’re the ones who’ll do it.” Even Slocum’s estimate was optimistic. From the time he got there it took over 11 years to complete the dam.”

One of the first things Slocum did was to have the Indian government hire 40 American engineers to work with the Indian engineers. Harvey’s friend and mentee, Bart Bartholomew, was one of them. He also enticed his colleague Joe Cunningham to come to India and consult on the procurement and purchasing of the hundreds of thousands of tons of equipment, materials and supplies at Bhakra.

There were some other things that needed to be addressed. When construction began in 1948, many of the laborers were living in two work camps in the valley above the dam. Since those would be underwater when the dam began to fill, they needed to be relocated. Also, in order to accommodate the explosion of the workforce to over 10,000 laborers once excavation and concrete pouring got into full swing, 24 hours a day, housing and support facilities were constructed and expanded closer to Nangal.

The Indians had been using a ferry to transport men and equipment across the Sutlej River. Once construction ramped up, the ferry would be inadequate to handle the volume, so a steel bridge about two miles downstream from the dam at Olinda was built in a record time of six months. The bridge handled vehicle and train traffic. Most of the equipment, materials and spare parts had to come from outside the country. Bombay was the nearest port city and 1,200 miles away. When Slocum arrived it was sometimes taking up to four months to get a shipment delivered to Nangal. Working with his Indian colleagues and officials, they were able to reduce that to 10 days.

The American engineers and their families were housed in two large compounds of 14 houses each in Nangal. Upon arriving in Nangal in the fall of 1952, Joe Cunningham’s wife, Vera, said, “We were met by the entire household staff all standing at attention. There were Heidah, the cook, Dhobi (washerwoman), Mali the gardener, a cook-beater and a sweeper. Our house has two bedrooms, kitchen, dining room, covered porch, three fireplaces and servants’ quarters.”

Slocum lived simply by himself in a small stucco house close to the dam site. He told Rand that he lived like a hermit when working a big dam job. Although Harvey’s house had a living room and dining room, he spent most of his time in his bedroom where he kept his books and work papers. He liked to read in bed and doze off with the lights on. This had the added effect of others thinking he never slept and worked all day and night.

The Indian engineers had multiple servants, including a chuprassie (personal office assistant) and driver, while Slocum had one Bengali manservant—a combination cook and bearer—who spoke fair English and was perplexed at the austerity of his employer. Slocum drove his own car, a yellow 1951 Oldsmobile with a black top, that he had shipped over from California.

In addition to custom and the comfort of their higher class-station in India given their college education, there was a more fundamental reason the Indian engineers had multiple servants. In this way, more people could be employed by the project. And even though the servants’ wages were paltry, at least they could feed their families.

Harvey did not host parties or otherwise entertain any of his subordinates. He told Rand, “I don’t invite people to my house—don’t play favorites. On a job like this, you can’t have friends. You’re in a battle. You’re fighting nature. Now, the only friend General Grant had was his whiskey bottle; he confided in that bottle, I understand.

“In my own drinking days, someone said to my old boss, H. Stanley Bent, after he made me superintendent of the Exchequer Dam, that he’d named a drunk to the job. Bent growled a reply similar to the one Lincoln once made about Grant: ‘You better find out what brand of whiskey Harvey drinks and try some yourself.’”

Slocum told Rand that a first cousin of his father’s was another Civil War heavyweight in the Union Army, General William Tecumseh Sherman. Rand saw a resemblance. “I could see that he himself looks rather like Sherman, especially above the mouth; he has the bent nose, thoughtful eyes, and high, rather narrow brow. His hair is receding, and he wears it slicked down. His face, which is fine and lean, with deep lines from the nose to the corners of the mouth, is badly scarred from burns he received in a gas-heater explosion years ago, and the skin on his hands looks almost corrugated as a result of the same accident.”

Harvey timed his trips back home so he would be at Bhakra during the monsoons. The heavy rains caused many problems for the job and were disastrous the year before in 1955. There were many landslides and, as he had done with the breach of the cofferdam at Grand Coulee, he took command much like a field general would in a fierce battle.

He told Rand, ”When the countryside is moving, you have to decide instantly on changes. You can’t be away, and you can’t hold consultations.” Slocum drove Rand through an area that had been hard hit by slides and pointed out where he had put in new roads and drainage systems at the height of the emergency. He explained what set him apart from those previously in charge of construction. “Napoleon, Eisenhower, Alexander the Great—all the great generals—had the faculty of looking at the goddam thing and saying, ‘Do this.’ They could talk things over before the battle but not during it. You had to recognize what had to be done, and the magnitude of the thing, and then go ahead and do it in a big way. That’s what none of those other fellows could realize.

Moving The River

Closing downstream cofferdam; diversion tunnel in background (Bhakra Dam & Power & Plant, November 1955)

The Sutlej is a big river, particularly during the monsoons season when rainclouds which have been building up across the Indian Ocean come to a full stop against the cold wall of the Himalayas and drop their load. The river is also extremely fast, dropping through the gorge ten feet per mile.

As with other big dams, one of the first challenges was to divert this beast of a river away from the dam site. This was accomplished by installing two diversion tunnels, one on either side of the gorge, to carry the river away from the site, and the construction of two cofferdams, one upstream and the other downstream, to enclose and dry out the site for excavation and installation of the dam’s foundation.

The two diversion tunnels were enormous—each 50 feet in diameter and about one-half mile long—and some of the largest that had ever been constructed. Work on the tunnels started in 1948 and was completed in 1953. The poor geology made the tunneling job extraordinarily difficult and dangerous. In some places the rock was so bad that as much as 30 feet of it caved in without blasting. In other places, huge blocks of rock, weighing 600 tons or more, broke off unexpectedly. Steel ribs installed to keep the rock in place were crushed like matchsticks. The tunnels were lined with three to six feet of concrete to support the rock load above and create a smooth surface to handle the high volume of fast-moving water through the tunnels during times of flooding.

The upstream and downstream cofferdams were 213 feet and 132 feet high. They were rolled filled dykes with compacted layers of claystone, sand, gravel and rock, with foundations that extended over 70 feet below the riverbed. In its day the upstream cofferdam was the highest rolled fill dam in India.


The excavation work is one of the most outstanding and extensive operations at Bhakra. In fact, it is one of the most important controlling features. Be it the laying out of a road or rail, or the carving out of levelled operational grounds on the steep rock for men and machinery to work, or the construction of tunnels, or the laying of the foundation of the dam, all are preceded by extensive excavation.
—Bhakra Dam & Power Plant, November 1955

With the river diverted and the dam site protected, the extremely challenging task of excavation began. Several methods were employed to remove the 7.4 million cubic yards of overburden. As with Grand Coulee, the primary method involved drilling holes with pneumatic jackhammers, stuffing the holes with dynamite and blasting the material loose. Eleven diesel and electric-powered shovels loaded the material into trucks and hauled it to dumpsites a couple of miles downstream. At the peak, 10,000 cubic yards of overburden were excavated per day.

The abutments on either side of the gorge were extremely steep and it wasn’t possible to construct the roads necessary to move in heavy earth-moving machinery to get to it. Some of the loose material was washed off using powerful jets of water—a technique called “hydraulicking.” However, much of it had to be removed the old-fashioned way—by manual labor using picks and shovels. The process was arduous and dangerous. Sometimes the workers had to do the job perched on steep precipices as high as 500 feet above the valley floor. Precautions were taken for the safety of the men. They were slung down the sides of the abutments by ropes, one end wound around steel rods firmly fixed into rock above, and the other tied to safety belts around the waists of the workmen. All workmen at Bhakra were provided with safety helmets. Around 1.5 million cubic yards of overburden were literally scraped off the sides of the abutments by hand.

The Insulting Board

The Indian government assembled a consulting board comprised of some of the world’s most experienced men in big dam construction. Members included Indian engineer, Dr. A.N. Khosla, Dr. Frank Banks who was in charge of Grand Coulee Dam, and Slocum. All were college-trained engineers, except Slocum. This board of experts was consulted to address major issues or problems encountered at the dam.

Slocum referred to it as the “Insulting Board,” with most of the “insulting” originating with him. One of the issues debated was how deep the foundation of the dam should be. The board felt the geology of the valley floor would not support the weight of the dam and the tremendous pressure of the water backed up into the reservoir. They instructed Slocum to dig down another one hundred sixty feet into the mixed strata of bedrock. Slocum vociferously protested arguing that a deeper foundation would not make the dam stronger but rather would have the adverse consequence of making the abutments weaker and susceptible to collapse. The Board insisted. When the men had dug down about 140 feet, Slocum said “all hell started to break loose. Landslides started on the valley sides. Boulders tumbled.”

The Board agreed the foundation was deep enough. To stabilize the site, the foundation and abutments were filled with massive quantities of grout—a liquid mixture of cement, sand and water—shot into crevices, cracks and tunnels dug down 50 feet beneath the foundation with high pressure hoses. When the grout hardened, the underlying strata was turned into solid rock and impervious to water.

The Concrete Plant

Perhaps one of the most challenging and impressive accomplishments at Bhakra—and the one Slocum was primarily sought after for—was the design and installation of the construction plant, also known as the concrete mixing plant. Like Grand Coulee, Bhakra was in the middle of nowhere, although in the case of Bhakra, there was even less “there.” The logistics and location of the dam in rugged, hilly terrain complicated matters.

The Indian engineers had identified two sources of good quality sand and aggregate in the downstream riverbed. The main aggregate pit located at Fatehwal was long on sand and large cobbles bigger than six inches. A secondary pit at Niella was short on sand but long on smaller rock. Slocum needed the material sourced from both sites to achieve the desired mix for the high-quality concrete required for the dam.

But the sites were between two and four miles away from the site. As Slocum lamented, “How am I going to get that stuff up there?” Slocum leaned on the solution he employed with success at Grand Coulee and Bull Shoals: conveyor belts. Slocum had miles of three-foot wide conveyor belts manufactured in Nangal and installed over rough terrain, through tunnels and suspended on trestles over the river to the dam site.

There, Slocum set up a series of huge storage tanks for the various sizes and classifications of sand and rock. The cement was delivered to the site by rail using the hopper-bottom cars also fabricated at Nangal. After discharging the cement into an unloading pit, the dry powder was pumped into six silos 150 feet above with a total storage capacity of 5,000 tons. The cement was then pumped from the silos to a service silo which gravity fed the cement into the concrete mixing plant.

Slocum had shipped over the refrigeration plant he used at Bull Shoals. The Indian engineers’ specifications required that the rock be chilled to 38 degrees Fahrenheit before it was mixed with the water and cement. Ammonia compressors made 1,500 tons of artificial ice each day, which was dumped into another series of tanks filled with water into which the aggregate was dunked.

This same system was used to produce thousands of gallons each day of fresh, thirst-quenching ice water consumed by the men on the job.

From the cooling tanks, the aggregate was transported to the bins at the top of the concrete mixing plant by more conveyor belts enclosed in glass-wool insulated chambers to prevent it from regaining heat as it was moved outdoors.

The concrete mixing plant was a work of art. The 110-foot high totally enclosed steel structure housed four mixers, each with four cubic yards of capacity. It was totally automated and could be operated by one man. Using push buttons and dials, the operator punched in the particular quantities of aggregate, sand, cement and water required for the type of concrete to be poured at the particular section of the dam being worked on. The mix was then automatically drawn from the selected aggregate bins and cement silos and loaded into the mixers.

Concrete plant control board (Bhakra Dam & Power Plant, Nov 1955)

The plant was originally erected on a levelled-out section of an abutment about 450 feet above the foundation of the dam. Five thousand tons of structural steel fabricated at the plant in Nangal were deployed in the construction. From that location the mixing plant produced about sixty percent of the concrete poured at the dam. The plant was then disassembled, moved up another 250 feet and from there produced the remainder of the concrete.

The evolution of the plant from design to operational perfection took a little over two years. The plant was capable of producing 10 tons of concrete every minute, with a maximum capacity of 8,000 cubic yards per day.

For the placement of the concrete, Slocum’s men erected side-by-side steel trestles that rose 320 feet above the foundation and were the largest of their kind in India. The trestles were designed and manufactured in Nangal with another 5,000 tons of steel. Two double cantilever cranes and three revolver cranes were mounted on gantries as high as a six-story building and ran on tracks on top of the trestles. The trestles were arranged so the cranes could pass each other on the gantries.

The cabs of the revolving cranes were placed far down for better vision of the dam’s foundation by the operators. Each cab was fully air conditioned and the operators sat in comfortable swivel chairs.

The concrete was moved from the mixing plant to the cranes in four-cubic-yard, bottom-dump, air-operated buckets. Bhakra boasted 11 of the finest locomotives built in Germany. Each locomotive pulled cars loaded with four buckets of concrete and one empty platform to receive the last bucket placed by the crane it was spotted under. The steel buckets were also fabricated in Nangal, as were the concrete forms.

The First Concrete Pour

The common man today looks to Bhakra as a harbinger of plenty—a magic wand that promises to change the face of Punjab. We have pilgrimed a long way to reach this day—the beginning of the final stage of construction. The completion of this dam will be a milestone in our country’s journey towards prosperity. Even so, a huge task yet awaits to be performed before the ideal of a welfare state is achieved. “To this great task let us address ourselves with all the strength in us.”
–Epilogue, Bhakra Dam & Power Plant, published in November 1955 when concrete was first poured

First bucket of concrete poured at Bhakra Dam; Slocum, in sport coat, tie and hat, is standing next to Prime Minister Nehru (Press and Sun Bulletin, November 16, 1955)

After years of preparing the site, installing cofferdams and diversion tunnels, blasting, chipping and hauling away the overburden, building the concrete mixing plant, and installing conveyor belts, tracks, trestles, roads, gantries and cranes, the first concrete was poured into the foundation on November 16, 1955. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was present for the milestone and described the undertaking as “the temple of modern India and its will to develop.”

Five million four hundred thousand cubic yards of concrete were poured steadily thereafter, twenty-four hours a day, four hundred tons per hour, over the next five years.

Almost two years after the first concrete was poured, Slocum wrote Herndon about the progress. “It will soon be twenty-four months since concrete started and I had hoped to average 100,000 cubic yards a month. Now my guess is that when the month is thru, the total will be about 2,232,000 cubic yards or an average of 93,000 per month. Anyway, as poor as I think that is, no other job out of the U.S.A. has ever averaged that—and for SURE none have presented the obstacles of Bhakra—not ever.”

Lots of Visitors to Bhakra Dam

The Bhakra Dam Project has earned a name for India in the world outside. Such a difficult and huge project had not been undertaken by any other country and they, therefore, were happy and proud of that project which people from other countries visited with a feeling of praise for the people of India for their determination to build their country.

—Jawaharlal Nehru

Harvey Slocum with the Dalai Lama at Bhakra Dam, India, 1955 (Source of photo Vernon C. Gauntt)

The Bhakra Dam attracted 47,000 visitors a month including many dignitaries such as Chou En-lai (the first premier of the People’s Republic of China), Great Britain’s Prince Philip, Ho Chi Minh (President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam), Haile Selassie (Emperor of Ethiopia), the Panchen Lama, and the Dalai Lama. However, most who came were ordinary citizens of India and, like Nehru, were deeply moved by the project; not just by its sheer size, but also because of the respect and attention from all over the world the undertaking of such a thing brought to them and their country.

As Rand was driving around with Slocum, he noticed the wooden skeletons of arches spanning the road leading up to the dam. Slocum said a few days earlier, the arches had been decorated for the Shaw and Queen of Iran, and that arches might be added or subtracted the next time. Slocum explained, “It’s all according to how big a shot they are how many arches are put up.”

Slocum conducted the tours of many of the dignitaries himself, however, not all of the dignitaries were well received. Harvey stood up for and did his best to protect his workers, but he loathed unions and organized labor. Walter Reuther, a founder of the AFL-CIO Union, one of the biggest in the U.S., came to visit the dam. Slocum told Herndon, “I fixed that son of a bitch, Walter Reuther. When that bastard came to Bhakra they were going to take him all over the damn dam, show him everything, let him talk to anybody. ‘Can that crap!’ I told ’em. ‘Who the hell you think that bum is anyway? Take him to the dam, let him look at it, feed him, then put his ass back on the train. That’s enough for that guy.’”

Herndon also remembered the time he visited Bull Shoals Dam to interview Slocum in 1951. “All over the place were little wooden sheds, like rural parents build for their children to wait in for the school bus. I asked one of the department heads what they were for. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘the old man and the union had a big row and the union called a strike.’ The man started giggling. ‘Mr. Slocum had those things built so the pickets wouldn’t have to stand out in the rain.’”

Perhaps no one received more arches, and certainly not the press coverage, than Premier Nicolai Bulganin of the Soviet Union, and Nikita S. Khrushchev, then first secretary of the Soviet communist party, during their visit to the dam in November of 1955. The top two Russians were on a ten-day tour of India to enhance relations, extend their influence and seek to partner on infrastructure projects. Premier Nehru hosted them and their entourage of 100 delegates in New Dehli but turned over the tour of the dam to Harvey Slocum.

Nikita Khrushchev and Harvey Slocum at Bhakra Dam (True magazine, “Dynamic Dam Builder,” July 1958)

Slocum never strayed from his roots as a straight talker and did not mince words, no matter whom he was speaking with. The newspapers feasted on this exchange between Slocum and Khrushchev.

As Bulganin and Khrushchev peered down almost 700 hundred feet at the foundation of the dam, Khrushchev turned to Slocum and rattled off the names of several American engineers who had built dams in Russia during the early days of the communist revolution. “We needed and got American aid at the beginning of the new Russia, but now we are competing with you and will soon surpass you.”

Slocum, unfazed, replied “Competition is fine by us. It helps progress.”

To which Khrushchev said, “Competition is good for peace, too.”

Khrushchev turned to his Indian hosts and said in front of Slocum, “You people should learn to do these things yourselves. Then you will not have to depend on foreign help.”

“It’s a case of you work for me and I’ll work for you,” Slocum remarked.

Khrushchev tried another tack, and remarked to Slocum, “Your job here must be very difficult.”

Slocum grinned and asked, “You want to change jobs with me? Okay, you take my job and I’ll take your job.”

“Well, that’s all right,” Khrushchev replied, “I can give you a passport to my country, but you can’t give me one to your country.”

“I’m not sure about that,” Slocum said.

“You will have to lift your Iron Curtain and let me in,” Khrushchev said. Both men laughed.

Bulganin broke in, “We are not your enemies. We want to be friends.”

As the Russians moved on, Slocum said to one of the reporters, “That guy Khrushchev doesn’t miss any bets.” A few years later, Slocum revisited the famous exchange with the New York Daily News. “I couldn’t get mad at the guy. He spoke my language. He’s dug gutters; so have I. He’s a tough customer, a self-made man. So am I. He may be a bastard in politics, but I’d hire him on a construction job in a minute. And in my drinking days, I would have liked to get drunk with him.”

Slocum also said that, after their exchange of words, and for the remainder of their tour of the dam, Khrushchev seemed to seek him out whenever possible. And before leaving, one of his aides approached him and asked for Slocum’s address, adding “Mr. Khrushchev would be pleased to send you an autographed picture as a gesture of his personal esteem.”

Harvey Slocum confers with Prime Minister Nehru. On the left is Nehru’s grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, son of Indira Gandhi (Source of photo unknown)

The Welfare of the Workers at Bhakra

In free democratic India, the worker has come to occupy a pivotal position in the social structure of the country. Upon his shoulders has devolved the responsibility of building a new India, worthy of our aspirations. A happy and contented laborer is always an asset but it is more so when he happens to be the architect of a project like Bhakra Nangal which is the symbol of the Nation’s progress. Labor is the spearhead of the Engineer and is an essential instrument for translating his blueprints into manifest realities. It is, therefore, essential that his interests should be thoroughly looked after so that he is able to devote himself freely to the task at hand. [Bhakra Dam & Power Plant, November 1955]

At the peak of construction, over 10,000 skilled and unskilled laborers worked on the dam, twenty-four hours a day. Some were married and had children. They needed to be housed, fed, cared for and entertained. On a scale similar to what he did at Grand Coulee Dam with Mason City, Slocum and his Indian colleagues addressed the needs of this most valuable asset—the work force.

Workers gather to collect their wages from a ‘Pay Van”, as it was called, at the Bhakra Nangal Project area in the late 1950’s

Work camps were constructed in Nangal and at the dam site. Residential quarters were provided rent free or, when necessary, workers received rent allowances. The housing was built with permanent, sturdy materials and equipped with piped-in filtered water, electric lighting, toilets and drainage facilities. Community baths and latrines were also built for the men-only camps.

All workers were given free rail or bus transport to and from work. A recreation center equipped with indoor games, radio and newspapers was erected in Nangal, as well as a children’s park with playground equipment. The recreation center showed films of the ongoing work at Bhakra that featured the workers themselves, as well as other documentary and educational films.

A modern and fully equipped 70-bed hospital, with the latest medical equipment facilities and an air-conditioned operating theater, was built in Nangal. In addition, there were two medical clinics set up at the Bhakra labor camp and the dam site. Several first-aid stations were also established around the dam and at the equipment yard in Nangal.

A maternity and child welfare center staffed with trained nurses provided pre- and post-natal care for mothers in Nangal. Embroidery and tailoring classes were offered at the center, which also included a family planning clinic.

A high school for boys and girls, a middle school for girls and a primary school for boys were built in Nangal for the children of the workers. All the schools were furnished with playgrounds, teachers and essential teaching equipment. Free meals were offered to the children of low-paid workers. In November of 1955, 2,800 students were enrolled in these schools.

The workers were required to take job safety classes to reduce the incidence of accidents. All workers with more serious injuries were cared for at the hospital and transported by three ambulances staffed with drivers at all hours of the day and night.

The Prestigious Moles Award and Others

While working on the Bhakra Dam, Slocum received several awards, including the Moles Award. The Moles is a New York-based association of individuals engaged in heavy construction and tunnel building, and since 1941 the award for Outstanding Contributions to Construction Progress is given to one Member and one Non-Member. The award is considered the highest recognition that can be bestowed for service to the American construction industry. President Herbert Hoover is a past recipient.

Harvey Slocum, 1956 Moles Award recipient (Holing Through News Bulletin of the Moles, July 2016)

In 1956, the Non-Member Moles Award was given to Harvey Slocum who they declared “the best dam man in the world.” This is from Holing Through, the news bulletin of The Moles. “Starting at the age of 13, Harvey served as a messenger boy, newspaper route carrier, cabinet maker, iron worker, pile driver, rebar lumper, concrete laborer, and bridge erector until 1913, when at the age of 26, he got his first assignment as a superintendent. Between then and 1956, he built a multitude of dams including Lake Hodges, Hetch-Hetchy, Sierra Madre, Madden, Grand Coulee, Friant, Davis and Bull Shoals. At the time of the award, he was building the Bhakra Dam in India. It is said that in his career, Harvey poured over 20 million cubic yards of concrete.

“Upon being told of his selection to receive the Non-Member Award, Harvey said, ‘Hell, I don’t build a damn thing. It’s the stiffs with the picks and shovels that build ’em and the big contractors who make ’em possible by putting up millions of dollars of their own money on the say-so of an old beat-up stumble-bum like me.’”

That same year, Slocum was the recipient of one of the inaugural Beavers Awards. The Beavers is based in Los Angeles and recognizes the heavy-construction titans west of the Mississippi River. Other Award recipients that year included the former MWAK partner who fired Slocum from the Grand Coulee job, Guy Atkinson, and Harry Morrison of Morrison & Knudsen.

Harvey didn’t conceal from Rand his pleasure from receiving these recognitions by his peers, but there was something Slocum was even more proud of. “You remember what my old boss, Stanley Bent, said about my whiskey-drinking? That same contractor paid me the highest compliment I’ve ever been paid in my life. He said, ‘Harvey Slocum is the only intrinsically honest man I have ever known.’ I’ve never forgotten that. I have only one rule, and that is To thine own self be true. You’ve got to say that to yourself. You stupid son of a bitch, why did you do that? and then change whatever it is you’re doing.”

Harvey’s work on the Bhakra Dam made him a national hero in India, and in 1960 he became the first American ever to receive the Durga Prasad Khaitan Memorial Gold Medal, one of India’s highest honors.

Tensions Between Indians and Americans

Over the course of his forty-year dam building career, Harvey Slocum had grown accustomed to being in charge and, for the most part, unchallenged on the projects he was hired to build. He told Rand that, on more than one occasion, he told contracting firms he would only take on a job if the heads of the firms promised not to come near the site. That was a deal-breaker for some. “On a job like this, you’ve got to be a specialist in everything. You subcontract nothing, and that’s what I like. I like to be doing it all myself.”

Although Slocum was brought aboard as the lead construction consultant on the Bhakra Dam and had a lot of influence over the decisions made, by no means did he have sole rein. Slocum was used to working with large groups of engineers on big dam jobs, but the environment at Bhakra was literally foreign to him. Not only was the Indian culture and social structure vastly different than what Slocum had grown up living and working with in the United States, they had their own structured ways of doing things. Slocum told the National City Star in 1957, “I have no personal contact with the Indian workmen. The head man in one small group reports to the head man of a combined group and so on until the top men on the construction work report to me. Most of the time I remain in my home on top of a hill where I can survey every detail as the work progresses in the valley below my house. Top officials of the Indian government come to see me; I never go to them.”

That sometimes applied even to the Prime Minister. Slocum wrote “Boo” Herndon in October of 1957, “Keerist! What a mess Bhakra was in on my arrival about a month ago. Keerist! It now is back on track again, that is as near on the track as anything can be in India or the far, middle or just the east…Nehru due on 10th of November. I was to go to Delhi to see him and some of his ministers today but said NO. I have been raising hell via letters again to wake them all up, therefore ‘the come see us’—let them come see me.”

Slocum complained to Rand that he couldn’t simply appear somewhere on the job and tell the men to build a drain or a retaining wall. Instead, he had to go to the administration building and get an Indian engineer to draw a plan. Slocum said, “The paperwork takes longer than the actual work, but they’ve got to do it that way.” Slocum said the Indian engineers leaned more toward the academic rather than the practical in their training and outlook, but he acknowledged his own lack of academic training affected his opinion. “The engineer here is so immersed in his paperwork that he has no time to do his engineering. He becomes more of a bookkeeper than he is an engineer or an executive. He gets stuck with what the book said when he went to college, and he can’t get beyond it. That’s not my way. I see things fresh and I see them deep.”

Rand also observed this at the dam. “The distinction of being a white-collar man is so highly prized by educated Indians, as by other Asians, that they often refuse to spoil it by indulging in physical action. This inhibits the Indian supervisory staff at Bhakra from behaving as an American staff would—from scrambling round the hillsides, getting dirty, and showing the workmen how to do things. Slocum says that the situation has changed a lot since he came, and that he has driven or shamed much of the staff into going out on the job now (and also into removing their neckties, which has become symbolic of conversion to his outlook). But the fact remains that Indian engineers are, almost by definition, men of repose rather than action.”

The Indian engineers, or at least some of them, ultimately came to appreciate Slocum’s approach to the work. One told R. Satakopan for a 1958 article, “He preached to us the gospel of the dirty hand. Now we are ashamed to wear white collars while on duty.”

Another engineer said top Indian officials adopted Slocum’s custom of carrying notebooks in their hip pockets to issue orders on the spot. They became approachable by the lowest-paid workers. Chief engineer, Mr. R. Chopra, observed, “Slocum is a terror to us, but we know he is a benevolent despot, working for a cause. We are all Slocum engineers, and that is of greater qualification than all the degrees we have.”

The criticism, however, cut both ways. Slocum’s direct, gruff, “Do it my way or the highway” style rubbed others the wrong way, particularly those who had not worked with him before. He could be harsh and his frequent blow ups at the Indian engineers in the presence of other Americans caused them to lose face—a grave offense anywhere in the East. Rand witnessed this on his visit to Bhakra. “Slocum conducted himself like a general dealing with subordinates, and did most of the talking; he knew what he wanted, and he imparted it firmly and directly. He listened to what the others had to say, but he seemed really absorbed only in his own vision of the job…often pointing a finger at his listeners.”

Slocum with Sikh engineer (“Project Bhakra Nangal Dam,” Documentary Films of India,1955)

One of the American engineers tried to explain his behavior. “He’s only being hard to make them do the things they should do but wouldn’t do otherwise. As long as you’re trying, no matter whether you know the job or not, he’ll help you, but if you’re not trying, he’ll ride you.’”

The Indians also took issue with the fact there were so many American engineers on the job and their exorbitant pay. One Indian engineer said the highest salary paid to any of his countrymen at Bhakra was between eight and nine thousand dollars a year, while most of the American engineers received over twenty-two thousand dollars free of any Indian tax.

The unskilled Indian workers, on the other hand, made about two rupees a day; 42 cents.

No one took issue, at least not with Rand, as to what the Indian government paid Slocum—assuming they even knew. Harvey told the Los Angeles Times in 1960 that he could never be compensated adequately for the time and effort he’d put into the Bhakra project. But he had no regrets. “Too late for that. I go clear beyond the terms of my contract because of the moral obligations. If I didn’t, they wouldn’t get anything done.  When I took the job I figured I could kick a few spokes out of Stalin’s wheel, and I think I can do the same with Khrushchev. At least I can keep the Russians out of there and the Hindus in line—they’re scared to death of me.”

During the summer of 1954, 24 American engineers went home. They believed they were fired because of the Indian government’s displeasure with the U.S. supplying military aid to India’s enemy, Pakistan. The Indian government insisted they were let go because their contracts were termed out or their work was completed. Either way, many Indians believed there were still too many Americans on the job. These conflicts between Slocum and the Indian engineers and local authorities were foreseen up front. The project was a priority for Prime Minister Nehru, and a working arrangement was established whereby Slocum could go directly to Nehru without the usual red tape. A close personal relationship was forged between the two men that was instrumental in getting things done.

When in New Delhi, Slocum would call on Nehru, sometimes for purely social reasons, and other times to address problems at the dam. Harvey didn’t always have to run to Nehru with an issue—the fact that it was widely known he could was often all that was needed to find a solution and encourage others to stay on his good side.

At one point the phone system broke down at Bhakra and Slocum reportedly wrote the Prime Minister and exclaimed, “Only God, not Slocum, could build the Bhakra Dam on schedule.”

Prime Minister Nehru at Bhakra Dam site. Slocum is walking next to him wearing a sport coat and hat (Source of photo unknown)

In his dissertation for his doctorate degree in philosophy from the University of London, Krupa Chandrakant Desai examined more deeply the bond between Nehru and Slocum. “It is interesting to note that the time of the construction of the Dam (1947- 1963) directly correlates with the tenure of Nehru’s prime ministership (1947-1964). During the thirteen years of its construction, Prime Minister Nehru famously paid thirteen publicized visits to the Dam.

“It is also known that Nehru took a personal interest in the progress of the construction, allowing dam superintendent, Harvey Slocum, personal access to him. This is said to have been a result of Bhakra’s unique place in India’s (and Nehru’s) postcolonial vision. In a way, the Bhakra Dam stood as a portrait of the Nehruvian regime-in-making. His specific interest in showing how the dam will materialize in the future suggests that the dam was not just constructed at Bhakra, but also visualized for the rest of the country as a living image of the future representing a self-reliant postcolonial nation. The image of Bhakra thus became a metonym to see the futuristic vision of the Nehruvian state itself.”

Rand also observed the softer side to Slocum. Driving around the dam site, he frequently gave lifts to Indian workmen. He instituted the practice of supplying fresh water to the laborers at their posts and installing air-conditioning and swivel chairs in the control cabs of the cranes to provide comfort and efficiency. Slocum also carried in his glove box a bag of hard candies, and when he’d encounter a crowd of small children on the roadside, he would pass the bag around. “Occasionally, we encountered groups of peasants who stared after him with obvious awe. I learned later that several farmers in the district have offered him gifts of land and that Indians have waited as much as twenty-four hours just to catch a glimpse of him going by in his car. Some of the more superstitious ones believe that he can see two hundred feet into the ground.”

As a young engineering student in the 1950s, Mohan Singh recalled many visits to Bhakra Dam during its construction, coupled with some adventure. “Soon after Mr. Slocum of Coulee Dam fame in the US took over in 1952 as the chief engineer of Bhakra Dam, there was a spate of vacancies for engineers. Like others from across the country, my brother-in-law, a graduate from BHU [Banarus Hindu University in Varanasi], joined as a temporary engineer. I was a college student at Amritsar then, but the romance of having a periodic glimpse of the construction of the then highest straight gravity concrete dam of the world often sent me to Nangal township, a well-laid small city on the banks of the Sutlej, to provide first-class family accommodation to the workers and officers. “The tapering V-shaped RCC monolith, 325 ft. across the river at the base and 740 ft. high from the riverbed, was to acquire a length of 1,700 ft. across at the top. The conspicuous horn of the diesel locomotive plying between the dam and the city, a distance of about 13 km, to transport the staff, still rings in my ears as a time signal. About 13,000 workers and 300 engineers worked for almost 10 years in three shifts. Rake after rake of quality cement would be unloaded into humongous silos to ensure an uninterrupted supply for the concrete mixture from the cooling plant. That was why cement was available to people only on ration cards.

“Mr. Slocum had also demanded a school and healthcare center to serve the populace. Even a primary school student would spell out the salient features of the dam, as if it was in the syllabus. A picture of neatness and orderliness, the foothill township had a natural drainage, and a plethora of slopes. You saw youngsters running their toy water turbines wherever there was a sloping drain. ‘SLOCUM’ (he used to sign in capital letters) was a household name and a role model. No wonder, many of those boys later became civil engineers.

“Passes were issued to the visitors for seeing the dam on the ground floor of the overhead water tank, just in front of our house. Cameras or binoculars were banned. For us, it was easy to get a pass. I remember with awe when my nephew, only about 12, and I went to see the dam without informing anyone at home. My nephew was known to everyone and soon we found ourselves criss-crossing the labyrinth of hundreds of drainage galleries of the mountainous dam.

“Initially, we did come across some workers but after a few wrong turns and climbs, we were lost in the maze of multi-level inspection galleries where entry is recorded and strictly monitored. “I could imagine the future that awaited us. But fortunately for us, the shift hooter sounded and we saw some workers moving out of the structure. We mutely followed them and heaved a sigh when after about two hours, we saw daylight. My brother-in-law, who later retired as a superintending engineer, never knew of this lifetime folly of mine.”

Harvey Slocum received something from his work on Bhakra Dam that he never got from his other jobs—a hero’s welcome from the people in India. He was famous, rather than infamous. Slocum wasn’t ashamed of his past—the drinking, getting fired from jobs, his colorful language—but he had achieved a level of respect and recognition not only among his peers and subordinates, but from Prime Minister Nehru and other leaders and dignitaries all over the world.

When Booton Herndon was hired by True magazine to write another story about Slocum in 1958, Harvey was reluctant. So reluctant in fact that Harvey and his lawyer threatened to sue True’s publishers if they went ahead with it. Much of the piece was a dust-off of the article Herndon wrote in 1951 for Collier’s. Slocum didn’t so much have a problem with what was being re-written about his past—it was all true—rather, he wanted to move on and focus on what he’d accomplished since he’d achieved sobriety. He didn’t want to be remembered as “the rowdy drunk.” Slocum was the “best dam man in the world,” and that’s the legacy he wanted.

One of India’s most prominent engineers and dam builders, J.S. Jain, told Herndon in 1958, “Mr. Slocum has raised the quality of the work. He has driven the idea of doing an honest job in our consciousness. He has established India’s credit all over the world. It’s a funny thing; India is a socialist country and Mr. Slocum is a hater of socialism, yet he is showing us consideration for the common people.” Jain also offered this glimpse into Slocum’s softer, human side. “When my little girl was sick, a doctor told my wife and me she should have her tonsils removed. We did not know what to do. So I called Mr. Slocum long distance, told him what the doctors had told us. He listened and thought and then he said we should let them remove her tonsils. So we did and my daughter is now in excellent health. You see, there is nothing Mr. Slocum does not know.”

How well known was Harvey Slocum in India? He told Herndon for the True article, “The two best known names in India today are Mister Nehru and Mister Slocum.” Another time, when Herndon asked him for his address in India, Harvey told him Nangal Township, Punjab, India, then quickly added, “But hell, you don’t need all that. Just write ‘Harvey Slocum, India!”

That could be chalked up to good-natured boasting, but Cameron Hawley, who spent four months in India working on his article for The Saturday Evening Post, had this observation.  “Anywhere in India, whenever I identified myself as an American, someone has been almost certain to remind me that I am not only a fellow citizen of Harvey Slocum, but also of another legend-worthy personality called “Kaiserengineering,” an Indian contraction of the corporate name of the Kaiser Engineers Overseas Corporation currently engaged in India’s biggest private industrial expansion, a doubling of the capacity of the Tata Iron and Steel mills.”

And Herndon and his own personal experience with Slocum’s elevated status. “He may not be exaggerating. Once I was walking with Harvey down a broad staircase in the Indian Embassy in Washington D.C. A man with a sensitive face and graying hair was coming up the stairs. ‘Hello,’ Slocum grunted at him.

“The staircase was dimly lit and Slocum was wearing a hat and dark glasses. The man nodded politely and passed on. Suddenly he did a double-take, turned white, and charged back down again. ’Oh, Mister Slocum!’ he said, hands fluttering, and began stuttering apologies. It was the Indian Ambassador. Slocum magnanimously put him at ease.”

Slocum Acknowledged for His Knack at Foreign Policy

Frank Banks, the head engineer on Grand Coulee Dam, and a member of the Bhakra Dam Consulting Board—or as Slocum called it, the “Insulting Board”— had this to say about Slocum and his team of American engineers after a visit to the dam in 1956. “Slocum is seeing to it that the Indian government is getting first class equipment on the dam project and, under his direction, some of the equipment is being manufactured by the Indian government. Slocum’s personnel trained in the United States then helps educate Indians in the various tasks connected with dam construction. It’s a tremendous job in construction education American advisers are giving the Indians. The Indians have never done work like this before and government representatives spend a long time in book learning before putting the knowledge into actual practice. All the Indians I have come in contact with are very grateful to the United States and appreciative of technical assistance it is getting from this country.”

Slocum didn’t conceal his opinions on the subject of U.S. foreign policy. In March of 1961, during one of his visits home, Slocum was invited to speak at Pepperdine College’s 3rd annual California Freedom Forum. He lamented the U.S. was lagging behind the Soviet Union in foreign relations. In the 72 countries he’d visited Slocum said, “the Russians were already there living with the people and talking the people’s language. The equipment, the materials, the physical things we send to foreign countries are the best, but our personnel is the worst.”

Slocum also believed President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps initiative was too little, too late. “It would have absolutely the opposite effect for which it is intended. Too many young people would want to go overseas just for a good time. We Americans haven’t been trained to meet foreign people on their own level. We just don’t seem to be able to reach the people.”

Slocum told Gingold of the Los Angeles Times that he witnessed mounting Communist influence in India during the more than nine years he worked on Bhakra Dam. He said, “We are going backward” in the competition with Russia to help other underdeveloped countries. Slocum felt this was largely due to the fact the Russians didn’t just give money away like the U.S. Instead, they lent money and retained control over how it was spent, thus “getting more bang for their ruble.”

Douglas Carter, an award-winning newsman and Washington editor for the Reporter magazine, singled out Slocum’s know-how and dedication as essential ingredients for an effective American foreign policy. “A chauvinistic and cantankerous American dam builder is an outstanding example of this vital combination. Although he would hardly measure up to State Department specifications for the ideal American to work overseas, his know-how and spirit, nonetheless, made him a hero of considerable proportions all over India.”

Harvey Slocum with Jimmy Lovell Pepperdine University 1961 (USC Libraries archives)


On Rand’s last night in Bhakra, Harvey spoke about the future of water; clearly something on which he had given much thought. The locals may have been exaggerating that Slocum could see two hundred feet underground, but there is little doubt he could see well into the future. He told Rand, ”The entire history of man is tied to what he has done, and what he is doing, with the available supply of water. You can’t do a damn thing without water, and you can’t produce more water than falls. Therefore, you must conserve it. It is criminal the way mankind has misused his water supply. In the foraging age, he didn’t use more than two gallons of water a day, but now in the U.S. probably more than fifteen hundred gallons are used per day per person. Mostly, this is because of industrialization. It takes sixty-five thousand gallons of water to make a ton of steel, and three hundred thousand to make a ton of aluminum.”

Slocum explained that over time the great civilizations that once thrived in river valleys ultimately exhausted their water supply. “Then you got irrigation. First you got diversion dams and canals. Then people discovered that dams could be used for storage. Then for flood control. Then for electricity—that was in the late eighteen-eighties, the earliest hydroelectric development. It was found that dams could also be used for navigation—and for recreation, of course. Nowadays, every big dam has most of these uses, perhaps all six of them. “Yes, man’s future is tied irrevocably to what he does with water. With proper control of water, the earth might support ten billion people; it  is now [1956] supporting two and a half billion. Man is going to use up his easy supplies of metal, and he is going to use up his fuels. He will find substitutes for these things but not for water.”

Slocum opined that desalinization was too expensive and, although the Mississippi Valley basin provided good opportunities for dams, water storage and population increases, people in the U.S. preferred to live on the coasts. Slocum said that’s why New York City and Los Angeles have the worst water problems in America. “New York will soon have to be damming every little stream in its hinterland, and treating its sewage water for re-use in industry, and Los Angeles would ultimately have to do the same. Every stream in California will be dammed, if possible. Then every one in the United States. Then in the world.”

Rand said Slocum was smiling as he offered these predictions. When he was interviewed by Gingold in 1960, Slocum was 73 years old and he was asked about retirement. “What would I do? As long as I don’t have to be a burden to my fellow man, I’ll continue doing what I’m doing. I like the challenge of this work. I like to be able to say to that big raging river, ‘I’m going to put you over here.’”


On October 24, 1961, the day after his 74th birthday, and only a couple of weeks after he’d returned to India from a brief visit to his home in Alhambra, Harvey Slocum suffered a stroke at the dam site. He was transferred to Nangal Hospital where he had a heart attack two days later. His wife, Helen, arrived on Saturday, November 11, and was by his bedside one hour before Harvey died. That was Helen’s first, and last, trip to India.

Harvey Slocum Bull Shoals Dam January 1951 (Photo by Bonnie Herndon)

News of Harvey’s death travelled quickly and was covered by hundreds of news outlets around the world.

Helen accompanied her husband from Nangal to New Delhi, and back to Los Angeles on flights via Hong Kong and Tokyo. Harvey is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

Keyes Beech was with the Slocums on the November 22 flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo. In his article he wrote on the plane, “Great Guy Is Gone,” Beech captured the essence of the man. “He was, according to his own definition, the best damn dam builder in the world. Harvey was prejudiced but a great many people in the business would agree with him. His ego was matched only by the size of the dams he built…He was self-made, rude, arrogant, profane, and contemptuous. He was a great American.”

Beech had visited Harvey at the Bhakra Dam site seven years earlier in 1954, and he shared this lasting memory. “I was standing with Harvey at the summit of Bhakra with the vastness of it all spread out beneath us. “God it’s beautiful ain’t it,’ said Harvey, his voice reverent. ‘They say it will change the face of northern India, and by God it will.’”


Prime Minister Nehru addresses crowd at inauguration of Bhakra Dam, October 22, 1963

After 15 years of round the clock toil by over 10,000 workers, Bhakra Dam was completed and officially dedicated on October 22, 1963.  As 100,000 people cheered, Prime Minister Nehru paid tribute to the late Harvey Slocum and delivered this address.

“As the nation rejoices at the successful completion of this monumental project which will provide benefit to the whole nation though more to Punjab and adjoining states of Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh, I congratulate you all. The accomplishment of this mammoth task represents our resolve to build this immense country of ours. This Dam is not meant for our Generation alone but for many generations to come as well who will derive benefits from it. You have participated in an historic and monumentous effort and those who partake in such a noble cause rise in stature themselves. This Dam has been built up with the unrelenting toil of man for the benefit of mankind and therefore is worthy of worship. May you call it a Temple or a Gurudwara or a Mosque, it inspires our administration and reverence.”


Harvey Slocum gave his all to the Bhakra Dam project, doing the things he loved: thinking big and building big things.   It was prescient and fitting when an Indian magazine writer told Gingold in 1960, “The glory of Bhakra is bound to reflect the glory of Mr. Slocum.”

Slocum wanted to be known not only as a maker of dams, but as a maker of dam men as well. Many of the big figures in the industry who followed once worked for him. He told Herndon, “You can get to the top two ways. You can step on the necks of the people you work with and get there, but the satisfying way is to take them up the ladder with you.”

Bart Bartholomew was one of those Harvey took up the ladder. Harvey’s friend, Vern Case, loved to tell this story about those two. In the mid 1950’s while Harvey and Bart were working on the Bhakra Dam, Slocum was approached by officials in Egypt about the construction of a new dam on the Nile; a dam to be far bigger than the Aswan Dam built in the 1920’s. The new dam would become known as the High Dam. Harvey reportedly told the officials, “I don’t know how you’re going to build that dam. There are only two people in the world that can build it—Bart Bartholomew and me—and we’re both busy.”

During his conversation with Slocum, Herndon observed that many of Harvey’s contemporaries called themselves “Project Manager,” or “Superintendent in Charge of Construction,” or “Director of Construction.” Slocum snorted and said, “Hell, I don’t put anything after my name. Goldang it, I’m Harvey Slocum.”

Notes and References for Part Four

Folsom Dam, Lure of Bhakra and Matters of Money

“Folsom Dam,” Bureau of Reclamation website [Online.] Available:

“Spillway,” The Folsom Telegraph, December 6, 1951

Herndon, “Harvey Slocum Builds Our Mighty Dams,” 52

Rand, “Something Stupendous,” 57

Slocum Herndon, “Harvey -Dynamic Dam Builder,” 24

Bhakra Dam-“Something Stupendous”

Rand, “Something Stupendous,” 57,58, 60, 62, 66 and 68

As of 2022, there were at least 18 concrete dams taller than Bhakra with Jinping-I dam in China the tallest at 1,001 feet. “List of Tallest Dams In the World,” Wikipedia 2023 [Online.] Available:

 “U.S. Talent Behind India Dam,” Press and Sun Bulletin (Binghamton, New York), January 2, 1964, 6

 “Asia’s Highest Dam Could Change Face of a Large Portion of India,” The Desert Sun, December 11, 1963

Cameron Hawley, “India Faces the Facts of Life,” Saturday Evening Post, September 14, 1957, 101

Howard Gingold, “Dams All Over the World Mark Career of Alhambra ‘Insultant,’” Los Angeles Times, August 7, 1960

R. Satakopan, “American Building Huge Dam in India,” Press-Telegram (Long Beach CA), July 30, 1958

 “Huge India Dam Is ’Helluva Job,’” The Spokesman Review, May 25, 1952, 57. Joseph Stalin was the leader of the Soviet Union from 1924 until his death in 1953.

Herndon, “Harvey Slocum-Dynamic Dam Builder,” 28, 30

Ray Day, “India Builds Gigantic High Dam,” Excavating Engineer, February 1957

“Bhakra Dam & Power Plant,” Bhakra Dam Designs Directorate (New Delhi), November 1955, 9, 10

UVA Herndon Papers, Letter from Slocum to Herndon dated November 22, 1952

“Richlanders To Go To India,” Tri-City Herald (Pasco, Washington), September 18, 1952

“Monkeys, Heat and Bingo Intrigue Spokane Woman Now Adventuring in India,” Spokane Chronicle, June 27,1953

The author’s friend, 4th cousin and genealogy expert, David Plummer, conducted an exhaustive search of the Slocum and Sherman family trees on Although there are close ancestors of Harvey Slocum with the middle name “Sherman,” Plummer did not find any family ties to General Sherman.

Moving The River

“Bhakra Dam & Power Plant,” 11, 12


“Bhakra Dam & Power Plant,” 16,17

The Insulting Board

Herndon, draft “Harvey Slocum-Dynamic Dam Builder,” UVA Herndon Papers, 25

 “Bhakra Dam & Power Plant,” 18

The Concrete Plant

“Bhakra Dam & Power Plant,” 19-23

Day, “India Builds Gigantic High Dam,” 25, 60-64

The First Concrete Pour

“Concrete Ready to be Poured at Bhakra Dam,” Press and Sun Bulletin (Binghamton, New York), November 16, 1955

Rand, “Something Stupendous,” 62

UVA Herndon Papers, Letter from Slocum to Herndon, October 29, 1957

Lots of Visitors to Bhakra Dam

“Bhakra Dam & Power Plant,” 2

Gingold, “Dams All Over the World Mark Career of Alhambra Insultant”

Rand, “Something Stupendous,” 68

Herndon, draft of “Harvey Slocum-Dynamic Dam Builder,” UVA Herndon Papers, 4

“Foreign News,” Time magazine, December 5, 1955, 32

“Red Leaders Learn from Dam Yankee,” San Diego Union Tribune, November 23, 1955

“Lively Chat With Reds,” The Kansas City Star News, November 22, 1955

Daily News (New York, New York), August 10, 1958

The Welfare of the Workers at Bhakra

“Bhakra Dam & Power Plant,” 24

The Prestigious Moles Award and Others

“A Glimpse Into Our Past,” Holing Through-News Bulletin of the Moles, July 2016

 “Western Construction Leaders to Get Awards,” Los Angeles Times, January 27, 1956

Rand, “Something Stupendous,” 58

Gingold, “Dams All Over the World Mark Career of Alhambra ‘Insultant’”

Tensions Between the Indians and Americans

Rand, “Something Stupendous,” 58, 60, 62, 65, 77, 80

 “Harvey Slocum: Construction Engineer,” National City Star, July 25, 1957

UVA Herndon Papers, Letter from Slocum to Herndon, dated October 29, 1957

Satakopan, “American Building Huge Dam in India”

Gingold, “Dams All Over the World Mark Career of Alhambra ‘Insultant’”

“Diplomats on India’s Dam Job,” The Fresno Bee, July 9, 1954

Ramachandra Guha, India After Gandhi, Pan Macmillan LTD. (2007), 215

Krepa Chandrakant Desai, Photographic Histories of Postcolonial India: The Politics of Seeing and Unseeing, August 31, 2021

Mohan Singh, “Lost and Found in the Maze of Bhakra,” The Tribune (India), January 22, 2021

Cameron Hawley, “India Faces the Facts of Life,” Saturday Evening Post, September 14, 1957, 101

Herndon, “Harvey Slocum-Dynamic Dam Builder,” 24

UVA Herndon Papers, draft of “Harvey-Slocum-Dynamic Dam Builder,” 6,7

Slocum Acknowledged for His Knack at Foreign Policy

Engineer Praises American Advisers on India Dam Job,” Spokesman Review, January 6, 1956

“Peace Corps Called Late, Too Little,” The Van Nuys News, March 31, 1961

“Peace Corps Seen As Too Little Too Late,” Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1961

Gingold, “Dams All Over the World Mark Career of Alhambra ‘Insultant’”

Betty Trotter, Ventura County Star, April 25, 1962

The Future of Man is Tied to Water

In January 2023, the world’s population reached 8 billion people

Rand, “Something Stupendous,” 82, 84 and 87

Gingold, “Dams All Over the World Mark Career of Alhambra ‘Insultant’”

Off to the Next Big Project
“Harvey Slocum, Dam Builder, Dies,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 12, 1961

Beech, “Best Dam Builder Goes Home-Harvey Slocum Laid to Rest”


India Opens ‘Dream Dam,’” The Fresno Bee, October 24, 1963

 “Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Ji’s Inauguration Speech,” Bhakra BEAS Management Board website [Online]. Available:

Gingold, “Dams All Over the World Mark Career of Alhambra ‘Insultant’”

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Casey Gauntt

is a retired attorney and former senior executive of a major San Diego real estate company. He lives in Solana Beach, California, with his wife, Hilary. Casey grew up in Itasca, Illinois, graduated Lake Park High School in 1968, and received B.S., JD and MBA degrees from the University of Southern California.

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was born and raised in Solana Beach and graduated from Torrey Pines High School in 2002.   A prestigious Trustee Scholar at the University of Southern California, he majored in English and Spanish. He authored six plays, five screenplays, and a multitude of poems and short stories. Beginning in 2010, the USC English Department annually bestows the Jimmy Gauntt Memorial Award—aka “The Jimmy”—to the top graduates in English.  Jimmy passed over to the other side in 2008 at age 24.

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