Mankind is the most ornery critter in the world. He comes to a mountain, and he says, ‘You can’t stop me,’ and he drives a tunnel through it. He comes to a deep gorge, and he says, ‘I’ll step over you,’ and he throws a bridge over it. He comes to a great, ugly river, and he says, ‘you’re dangerous and I’m gonna plug you up.’ An’ by God, he does it!

—Harvey Slocum

Harvey Slocum in his office at Bull Shoals Dam, January 1951 (Photo by Bonnie Herndon)


It was spring of 1951, and the melting snows in the Washington State mountains were sending torrents of water down the mighty Columbia River. A stocky, grizzled man, with a domineering presence walked out on the roof of the powerhouse that nestles under the mammoth Grand Coulee Dam. He gazed up at the massive face of the dam to the tons of water roaring over the spillway—twice as much water as pours over Niagara Falls –and he shook his head in wonderment. Then he exploded.

“The tomfool temerity of man, even to think of puttin’ up a thing like that! Who the hell do we think we are, anyway?”

That man was Harvey Slocum. He was 63 years old and had his hand in the construction of over eighteen huge dams around the world, more than any other single man in history.

He was finishing up the Bull Shoals Dam in Mountain Home, Arkansas and being heavily recruited to oversee construction of the Bhakra Dam in northern India, which upon its completion was the tallest concrete dam in the world.

Journalists across the country described him as self-made, rude, arrogant, profane and contemptuous; chauvinistic, cantankerous, leathery, outspoken, wryly humorous, and an irascible blowhard with a colossal conceit who was just as good as he said he was, with an ego matched only by the size of the dams he built. Small in stature, but gigantic in drive and willpower, with a raspy voice that sounded like gravel sliding down a chute, and a two-fisted drinker and brawler until he got sober in his late 40’s, Harvey Slocum was a great American.

This is the story of a how a boy of humble means, born and raised in National City and San Diego, California, with only an eighth-grade education, clawed his way up the heavy construction ladder to become a national hero in India and recognized by his peers as “the best dam man in the world.”

The Early Years in National City

Manly Harvey Slocum was born on October 23, 1887, in National City, situated on San Diego Bay. National City and its 26,000 acres of agricultural land, previously known as Rancho de la Nacion, became a city that same year. By 1890, the population was a little over 1,300.

Harvey’s father, Manly Leonidus (M.L.) Slocum, was born in Monkton, Vermont, in 1832. His family relocated to Pennsylvania and, after several years, the “Yankee” settled in Mississippi. When the Civil War broke out, M.L. joined the Confederate Army and achieved the rank of Colonel. Col. Slocum was a master millwright and builder, and he oversaw construction of railroad bridges and other infrastructure projects in Texas and other Confederate states. M.L.’s decision to become a “Southerner” is rather ironic given the fact his first cousin was one of the most highly decorated generals of the Union Army: William Tecumseh Sherman.

Harvey’s mother, Lucella “Cella” Milly Boucher, was born in Missouri in 1856. She was of French and Irish extraction. Her father served as an infantryman for the Confederate Army. After her early education in the public schools, Cella attended Mount Pleasant College in Huntsville where she was a student of the college president, J.W. Terrell, one of the most scholarly men of his time. At age 21, she accepted a teaching position in Cowan, Tennessee where she taught for six years.

Cella met Col. Slocum in Cowan where he was the superintendent of a blast furnace. They were married in 1882; Cella was 26 and M.L. was 50. M.L. had been married twice before, first in Mississippi in 1866, and the second time in 1876 in Nashville. Both spouses tragically died of illness within the first three years of marriage. There were no children.

M.L. and Cella moved to Chattanooga where their first child, Marie Irene, was born in 1884. Shortly after her birth the family moved to San Francisco. A year later Cella and Marie Irene returned to Cowan to spend time with her mother. Their second child, Leonidas Sherman, was born in Cowan, but he died in infancy. In the meantime, M.L. had moved to National City and Cella and Marie Irene joined him about eight months later. Harvey’s younger sister, Cella Pearl, was born in National City in 1890.

Cella was a pioneer in many advanced teaching methods.  While in San Francisco, she became interested in teaching kindergarten and wanted her children to have that training. She travelled by stagecoach from National City to San Diego and studied kindergarten instruction under Miss Curtis. Cella then established a kindergarten in her own home for Marie Irene and a few of the neighbors’ children. She later moved the kindergarten to a public building, Aylworth Hall. Two of her pupils were sons of Mrs. Prudence Brown.  She was so enthusiastic, she too trained as a kindergarten teacher from Mrs. Porter who had by that time established a training school in San Diego.

Cella charged a small fee for the children to attend her school, but for most it was still too much, and she had to close it. Another who became deeply interested in Cella’s work was Mrs. Frank Kimball. She started a free kindergarten and hired Mrs. Brown as head teacher.

Not long after, free kindergarten was added to the public school and National City became one of the first districts in the State to host classes from kindergarten through high school. Cella taught for several years in National City and by 1900 she was the school’s superintendent.

Harvey grew up in a small two-story house at 524 East 7th Street behind St. Matthews Parish Hall. Harvey’s father did most of the construction work on St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, which was completed in 1888.

 For over twenty years, M.L. was superintendent of woodwork for the Spreckels Companies and in that capacity oversaw construction of many piers and warehouses in San Diego and supervised much of the early work at Coronado’s Tent City. As its name suggests, Tent City opened in 1900 and offered a more affordable opportunity for visitors than the grandiose Hotel Del Coronado.

Tent City with Hotel Del Coronado in the background ( website)

Young Harvey had a close-to-home role model for building big things. His father’s work for Spreckels included building the massive Spreckels Coal Bunkers in San Diego Bay that provided coal for steamships and railroad locomotives. Col. Slocum also worked on Morena Dam for Spreckels’ Southern California Mountain Water Company.  Morena Dam is a 177-foot tall rockfill dam across Cottonwood Creek, a tributary of the Tijuana River, in south San Diego County near the border with Mexico.

Harvey’s mother devoted much of her adult life to the study and teaching of philosophic thought, also known as “New Thought.”  Cella was among the prominent citizens and movers and shakers featured in Clarence Alan McGraw’s two-volume book set, City of San Diego and San Diego County, published in 1922.

“While living at National City she frequently opened her home to teachers and lecturers of advanced philosophy,” McGraw wrote. “After living for sixteen years in National City, she moved to San Diego, where she continued to invite to her home and entertain all such lecturers and teachers, teaching herself at the same time both privately and in classes.

“In 1915, at her home on Front Street, Mrs. Slocum started a Metaphysical library, with eighteen dollars-worth of literature. One year later she moved to 1024 Broadway, where she increased her library, held public meetings, holding classes and lectures. In November, 1920, she moved to her present location at 1023 Seventh Street, where she has a large lecture room and a very choice Metaphysical and Occult library of several hundred volumes and invites to her platform all teachers of Advancing Thought.”

Cella’s   other activities included president of the Humane Education League and Pathfinders of America, president and member of the Stonewall Jackson chapter of Daughters of the Confederacy, treasurer of the American Women’s League (promoter of women’s rights, including right to vote), and director of the Needlework Guild’s San Diego branch.

Not surprisingly, Harvey and his sisters did well in school with nearly perfect attendance. They routinely made the “roll of honor.”

Perhaps a more recognizable name in San Diego, Roscoe Hazard, was a year older and a grade ahead of Harvey’s older sister, Irene. In 1926, Roscoe started R. E. Hazard Contracting Company, which became one of San Diego’s biggest homegrown construction companies.

Mrs. Slocum helped start the Children’s Club in National City, an after-school program that hosted performances, readings and recitals for students, faculty and parents on a regular basis. All three of her children were very active in the club. Harvey’s mother and sisters played piano and sang. Harvey gave talks on a variety of topics such as fossils, petrified plants and our country’s first president, George Washington. Harvey frequently wrote the reports of the club’s activities that appeared in the local papers.

Harvey was also eager to get to work. Starting in the 7th grade, he got part-time jobs as a messenger boy and delivering newspapers. In December 1955, Harry Dilley read a Life magazine article about the big dam builder, Harvey Slocum. The name and face were familiar to him as someone he knew in his childhood. Dilley wrote Slocum a letter. “Are you not the same guy who was a Western Union messenger with me in San Diego some 50 odd years ago?”

Harvey replied with a handwritten note. “I am the same lad who was an A.D.T. messenger in San Diego, No. 37 if I remember correctly. Since then, much water has run under the bridges, through the tunnels and over the spillways of dams I’ve been in charge of all over the world.

“I am not, however, a graduate of any school beyond the eighth grade so I do not technically rate the title of engineer. Nor do I desire it.

“Suffice it to say that I have had charge of some of the world’s greatest structures and it hasn’t gone to my head in the slightest. I can and do laugh at myself and recognize that basically I’m the same bicycle-riding messenger boy.”

Dilley included his exchange with Slocum in a letter to the editor of the San Diego Union Tribune. “The letter from Mr. Slocum delighted me. Like ‘Little Mo’ Connelly, Flo Chadwick, Art Linkletter, Gregory Peck and other renowned San Diegans, Harvey Slocum has accomplished things. I think that some sort of plaque should be erected in his honor; it might well inspire other San Diego boys and girls to emulate a messenger boy who went on to great deeds.”

In the fall of 1901, Harvey entered the 8th grade. The curriculum was extensive. They studied word analysis, bookkeeping, arithmetic, banking interest, percentages, cubic roots, computing longitude and latitude, and measuring lumber. Harvey carried the additional load of continuing his messenger and paper delivery jobs.

Harvey received his diploma in June of 1902, and that was the end of his formal education. Like a lot of boys his age in those days, Harvey decided it was time to go to work full time and make some more money.

Harvey’s First Dam- And Brush With Bent Brothers?

Sweetwater Dam after the Great Flood of 1916 (Photo courtesy of San Diego History Center)

Construction of the Sweetwater Dam, about seven miles east of National City, was completed the year after Slocum was born. The Los Angeles-based Bent Brothers oversaw its construction. At the time, the 90-foot masonry arch dam was the biggest in the country. Twenty-nine years later, Stanley Bent gave Harvey Slocum his first shot at building a dam: Lake Hodges Dam in Escondido.

In December of 1956 Harvey, and his unrivaled resume of building dams, were featured in an article in The New Yorker magazine. The National City Star News thought Harvey’s success might come as a surprise to many of the old-timers of the city, so they did their own feature article a few months later.

“How did Harvey Slocum become interested in building dams and big ones at that? Go back in National City history to the days when Harvey Slocum lived in the little house at 524 East 7th street. The Sweetwater Dam had been built, the largest in the country… Harvey, like the other boys of the town would have been interested spectators when the dam overflowed in 1891, tearing away much of the fill at the side. Everything about the dam was fascinating.

“In fact, Harvey got his first experience in dam building right in his own hometown. A mud hole in the rear of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church and just east of his home was swarming with tadpoles. Harvey and his friend, Eldene Tyson, now Eldene Recklin of Mission Beach, coming home from school noticed the fast-receding water in the mud hole which would result in the complete annihilation of the entire colony of tadpoles. Drastic measures were necessary and Harvey planned a system of conservation which was completed with the help of his schoolmate. The day came when the remaining polliwogs were wallowing in the fast-drying mud. Many of their number had made the great transition and had hopped away to begin their nocturnal concert under adjoining houses. As a last resort, they placed the last of the polliwogs in a can and the little lady took them home where she put them in a large china wash bowl in her room. It was crowded but that was a minor issue; the tadpoles’ appendages were growing fast.

“In the morning, after her small daughter had gone to school, Mrs. Tyson observed an army of frogs coming from Eldene’s room which she unceremoniously ejected from the house with a broom.

“The basic training received in the National City School, an interest in the Sweetwater Dam and a practical demonstration of water conservation in a mud puddle may have contributed to Harvey Slocum’s enthusiasm to become an outstanding construction engineer.”

At the time that article came out, Harvey had been working for four years in northern India as the lead supervising engineer on the massive Bhakra Dam project. Four years later Irene Phillips, a journalist from National City, reached out to him during one of his brief visits back home in the Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra. She asked him for any memories or impressions he had of growing up in National City. Harvey had read the story about the tadpole rescue.

“The mud hole behind the Episcopal Church which Jean Tyson remembers was used chiefly to float my navy and I was greatly interested in sinking Spanish ships: ‘Remember the Maine!’”

Slocum also shared, “Max Thelen’s firm is my attorney, and Roscoe Hazard has done many jobs on work that I have managed.”

Max Thelen was another boy from National City who went on to do great things. Born in Nebraska in 1880, Max moved with his family to National City in 1887, the year Harvey was born. Max’s father, Edmond, had a fruit tree farm and also briefly served as mayor of National City. After he graduated from high school in 1897, Max attended the University of California at Berkeley and then Harvard Law School.

Thelen became one of California’s most prominent attorneys, specializing in railroad law and construction. In 1924, he co-founded the prestigious law firm, Thelen, Marrin, Johnson and Bridges, in San Francisco. His firm represented some of the biggest international construction firms including Bechtel and Morrison-Knudsen. At the time Irene Phillips’ article came out, Max was 80 years old and still practicing law. Garfield Anderson was a senior partner at Thelen Marrin and Harvey’s personal lawyer.

Slocum told Ms. Phillips he was returning to Bhakra Dam the next day where he’d been working since the spring of 1952. “This will be my 32nd trip around the world in the past 8 years. During my life I have traveled over 1,600,000 miles by air to Alaska, Canada, USA, Europe, South America, Africa, Asia, etc.—some 62 different countries. My misdemeanors have been written about in every language and in some 30 periodicals.”

Those misdemeanors began in 1902.

Easy Money

After eighth-grade graduation, Harvey worked full time as a messenger boy in San Diego. In those days, a messenger boy’s duties were far more varied. Harvey explained some of them to journalist Booton Herndon in 1951 when he interviewed Harvey at Bull Shoals Dam for Collier’s magazine.

“A lot of the work was in the red-light district, for example. Say one of the girls talked a customer into springing for a new hat. She’d call a messenger boy and send him to the store for a selection. The boy would make a deal with the store to collect a commission on the sale and take a quick look at the prices on the hatboxes in order to talk up the most expensive. That way an enterprising youngster could collect from the store, the customer and most probably also get a tip from the girl for advising her to buy the most expensive hat.”

Harvey did so well at it he decided to try his luck in San Francisco. His father was not in favor, but Mrs. Slocum overruled. “Harvey’ll be alright,” she assured him. So young Slocum, a few months shy of 15, and with the brand-new bicycle he bought with his own wages, boarded a boat for San Francisco. He ended up in the most notorious part of the city known as the Barbary Coast.

The Barbary Coast was the City’s red-light district that came into bloom following the population boom fueled by the Gold Rush that began in 1849. The three-block area centered on Pacific Street (now Pacific Avenue) remained the most lawless part of San Francisco until most of it was destroyed by the massive earthquake in 1906. The Barbary Coast was packed with dance halls, dive bars, jazz clubs, brothels and drug stores where morphine and cocaine were sold 24-7.

The waitresses were a major attraction for the saloons and were nicknamed the “pretty waiter girls.” Scantily clad in gaudy outfits, they were encouraged to pick customers’ pockets and split the money with their employers. It was not unusual for the girls to put drugs into customers’ drinks, so they could later be more easily robbed and sometimes clubbed unconscious. Sailors had cause to dread the area because the art of ‘shanghaiing’ was perfected there. Many a sailor woke up after a night’s leave to find himself unexpectedly on another ship bound for some faraway port. The verb to “shanghai” was first coined on the Barbary Coast.

Partying at the Barbary Coast, 1890 (Photo Courtesy of San Francisco History Center)

Harvey continued to ply his skills in millinery and, as he told Herndon,

“He also picked up other little specialties, such as selling heroin, which he carried in the phony fountain pen in his shirt pocket. Harvey was in great demand. If by chance a pretty waiter girl had just administered knockout drops to a gentleman and needed help in transporting him to a ship whose captain was short of hands for a voyage, why, call Harvey. He’d be glad to park his bicycle and give you a hand.”

“I knew ’em all,” Slocum said. “The shanghai artists, the con men, the prostitutes, the alkies and dope fiends, the thieves, and the murderers. Some of those people, though, were the most honest I’ve ever met, according to their own code.”

Harvey Slocum was making as much as $30 a day before he turned sixteen. That was in 1903 and would be over $1,000 in today’s dollars.

Return to San Diego and Honest Work

By 1904 Harvey had returned to San Diego and moved in with his folks and younger sister in a boarding house they bought in 1902 at 1658 Front St. on the eastern border of the Little Italy district. He got a job as a carrier for P.E. Woods. Two years later, Harvey was working as an apprentice carpenter for the M.A. Graham Mill Co., and by 1909 was promoted to millhand.

In 1912 at age 25 Harvey was still living with his parents and had switched to a more flamboyant and dangerous career: structural iron worker. Herndon wrote how Slocum pondered this decision.

“Harvey Slocum as a cabinet maker was probably the greatest occupational misfit since U.S. Grant became a store clerk. But one Saturday night, as happens to good men everywhere, he ran into some guys in a saloon. They were structural iron workers, and a rougher, louder, harder-drinking pack of hell-raisers the world has never seen. Slocum had so much fun getting plastered with these men that he went to work with them, too.

“’Goddamit!’ Slocum bellowed. ‘That was livin’! Safety precautions? Overtime? Hospitalization if you got hurt or flowers if you were killed? Hell no! You’d walk on a three-quarter inch rod—no bigger’n your finger—20 stories up, and dance on it for the girls lookin’ from the next building. You’d work on ice, or you’d work in scorching heat, but when the day was over, you’d look at each other and say, ‘By God, we hung’ er.’ That’s all that mattered—gettin’ that iron hung.”

By 1915, Harvey, a top-notch ironworker, had moved on to reinforced concrete buildings and, before long, he began bossing jobs.

“Hell, it’s easy,” he told Herndon. “You just do twice as much work as anybody else, and the boss makes you a foreman. Then you do three times as much work, and the next thing you know you got his job.”

On Christopher Rand’s visit to the Bhakra Dam for The New Yorker magazine in 1956, Harvey added “I just naturally became boss on all jobs, even unfamiliar ones, because I like to work and I’m naturally smart. I was a natural boss, a natural executive.”

He worked briefly in Los Angeles before returning to San Diego to supervise the construction of a potash plant for Swift & Co. at the foot of E. Street next to San Diego Bay.

Harvey Slocum’s career and life nearly ended that year.

But before diving into that, it wasn’t all work for the young Mr. Slocum.

San Diego Rowing Club

San Diego Bay Steamship Wharf 1890. The buildings on stilts upper left became the site of the San Diego Rowing Club (The Little Clubhouse on Steamship Wharf by Patricia-Schaelchlin)

In 1888, a group of San Diegans formed the Excelsior Rowing and Swim Club. In 1891 the Club dropped the name Excelsior and became the San Diego Rowing Club. By 1900, the members had raised enough money to build their first boathouse on pilings at Steamship Wharf directly west of what is now the San Diego Convention Center. Seventy-five years later, in 1983, Charthouse Restaurants acquired the dilapidated building and turned it into a restaurant that prominently featured Club memorabilia and photographs.

A year after Harvey returned to San Diego unscathed from the Barbary Coast, the seventeen-year-old joined the Rowing Club. At that time the town was in the midst of a population boom and the number of residents had swelled to almost 14,000. Competitive rowing events, along with boxing and horse racing, drew large crowds and fostered extensive wagering.

Harvey didn’t pick an easy sport. Rowing, or crew as it is also known, involves pulling a skinny boat, known as a shell or scull, with long slender oars as fast as you can over a course that can range in length from one-half to one and a half miles. Boats are manned by a single oarsman up to a crew of eight plus a coxswain that steers the boat and shouts out the cadence for how many strokes need to be made per minute.

It requires strength, incredible stamina and is perhaps one of most aerobically challenging sports there is—right up there with marathon cross-country skiing in high altitudes.

Harvey Slocum took to it like a duck to water. Within a year he was challenging Harry Vaughn, another newcomer to the sport, as one of the Club’s top rowers. The Los Angeles Times had this to say before a regatta between the San Diego Rowing Club and the Los Angeles Athletic Club in August of 1906.

“San Diego promises to develop a champion oarsman on Admission Day, when Harvey Slocum, the promising young pupil of Coach Courtney of the San Diego Rowing Club, mans the blades to compete against a field of fast single scullers. Slocum is but 18 years old and has, under Courtney’s instruction, made an excellent showing. He has been pulling an oar about one year, and his first performance was September 9, 1905, when he rowed second in the intermediate singles at the San Diego Rowing Club regatta. Since that time, he has worked assiduously under Courtney’s instruction and the veteran oarsman has great faith in Slocum’s ability. Throughout the year Slocum has practiced a stroke, and his development has been marked.

The training was brutal and demanded that Harvey and his teammates be on the water in their shells most mornings between five and seven. Harvey would then head off to his job as a millman or ironworker.

The Club counted among its members some well-known and powerful figures in San Diego business and politics. As famed San Diego Union Tribune sports columnist Jack Murphy wrote in 1973, “There was a time in this city when a man couldn’t very well get elected mayor unless he passed some of his time exercising or loafing, or both, at the San Diego Rowing Club.”

In fact, between 1911 and 1963, nine of San Diego’s 14 mayors were members of the Club. Other illustrious members included Richard and Joseph Jessop, sons of the founder of Jessop Jewelers, George W. Marston (Marston Department Store), and philanthropist and banker, C. Arnholdt Smith. Smith was also the first owner of the San Diego Padres baseball franchise.

Murphy, who was so beloved in San Diego they named the Chargers football stadium after him, described the sport of rowing with his trademark sense of humor. “Rowing has been described as the only sport where a man can sit on his fanny, go backwards, and win a medal. But it makes terrible physical demands and requires much sacrifice. The badge of the oarsman is the leather patch on the seat of his pants. Plus throbbing muscles and burning lungs.”

Anderson “Andy” Borthwick joined the Club in 1918, was one of its most successful rowers, and went on to a distinguished and lengthy career as a banker and civic leader. He shared with Murphy his love of the sport.

“A rower has blisters on his hands and a raspberry on his hip and he asks himself, ‘Why do I do it?’ There can be only one answer: because he loves it. I believe there is a camaraderie in rowing not found in any other sport. There is very little acclaim for the rower; he does it for the pleasure of the sport.”

During the period of Harvey’s association and for many decades after, the San Diego Rowing Club was the most prominent and influential men’s club in San Diego. Politicians, professionals, and businessmen rubbed shoulders and pulled oars with carpenters, truck drivers and ironworkers like Harvey Slocum.

“The Club did not exclude anyone, for it saw itself as a truly plain club, minus frills, and offering fellowship and stimulating life to its members,” wrote Patricia Schaelchlin.  “There was no hierarchical distinction, as the members, the ‘gabooneers,’ sunbathed together on the Club’s porch, discussing world affairs. They were all rowers, come together for the love of the sport, not because of their relative status.”

The shoulder-rubbing led to Harvey being offered a coveted appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. However, he regretfully turned it down, knowing he couldn’t pass the entrance examinations with his limited education.

In addition to the Los Angeles Athletic Club, Harvey and his fellow rowers competed against most of the elite crew teams on the west coast, including University of Washington, Stanford, Cal Berkeley, and San Francisco Rowing Club. Slocum was a fierce competitor and specialized in the single, two-man and four-man boats. He won many big races including the 1908 West Coast Championship in single sculls.

SDRC members at the Club in 1913. Harvey Slocum is pictured in the center with arms folded on the rail (Courtesy San-Diego History Center)

Harvey was surprisingly good at the sport, given his relatively short height and 145-pound frame. When he hung up his oars in 1913, Harvey donated his single scull to the Club, which for many years after was known as “the Slocum.” Occasionally, when Harvey and his wife Helen were back in town to visit their mothers, he would drop by the Club. After one of his visits in 1930, a writer for the San Diego Evening Tribune had this to say.

“Speaking of Harveys, over a score of years back, a little runt of a fellow began to take his sculling seriously, with the result that in no time he was making all the big boys at Clubville hump to beat him. Then, when 18, he stepped out and bought a racing single of his own, and what he did to the rest from then on! No one’s ever figured out why this “shorty” rowed so fast, but he did it and left his victims scattered in every direction. Yesterday Harvey Slocum came back to Clubville for one of his ever-so-often visits, rowed his old race boat (since donated to the club) and promises to be a regular, henceforth. Here’s a fellow who can do our present crop of scullers a lot of good.”

The discipline and toughness of mind and body Slocum developed during his years of rowing helped him to overcome future challenges in life and, perhaps, none more daunting than the one he faced in 1916.

Harvey’s Near Death Experience

At the time he was running the potash plant job in San Diego, Slocum was nearly killed in his sleep. A leaky gas stove in a construction camp tent blew up and he was severely burned over much of his face and body. They got him to a hospital and, after examining him, the doctor prescribed enough morphine for Slocum to die peacefully. The doctor went home and back to bed.

Harvey told the rest of the story to Herndon. “The next day, the doctor returned to the hospital and I was awake. ‘You still here?’ the doctor demanded. And I snapped back, ‘Where in the hell did you think I was? Think I’d gone home?’

“The doctor then went to work on me. He put me in a bichloride of mercury bath and peeled the burned skin off my hands the way you take a baby’s gloves off. My girlfriend of about eight years, Helen Ensminger, hurried to the hospital and stayed there with me. But after a few days even she considered it hopeless.

“Once more the doctor prescribed the hypo for a painless death. Helen told me later that right up until the morphine took effect, I lay there muttering: ‘Hell, I ain’t gonna die. Hell, I ain’t gonna die…’

“And I didn’t. But when I was released from the hospital, my fingers were grown together in tight fists, and my legs drawn up so that I was in a perpetual squat. The doctors said that nobody could help me but myself. So, I worked on my hands until they were more like claws than fists, and then I went to a friend putting up a reinforced concrete building and got a job tying iron for no pay. I had to bend over and, with baling wire and pliers, tie the iron rods together wherever they crossed. At first my hands bled after only a few minutes’ work, but I stuck with it for weeks, stretching my legs, and getting back the use of my fingers.

“One day, instead of laboriously scuttling up a ladder to get to the next floor, I automatically started shinnying up a steel girder. I was halfway up before I realized what I was doing. ‘I’m no cripple,’ I yelled to no one in particular, and never got the rest of the way up that girder. I jumped down, waved good-bye to the boss, and went out to find a job.”

Slocum’s Girl-Helen Lee Ensminger

Harvey’s long-time girlfriend, and wife and partner-for-life to be, was Helen Lee Ensminger. A couple of years younger than Harvey, she was the only child of Dr. John Austin Ensminger and Mae Green of Crawfordsville, Indiana. Her father died in 1898 when she was nine, and shortly thereafter Helen and her mother moved to San Diego.

Mae found work as a stenographer for the San Diego Land Co. and Helen attended school.  In 1909, Helen, now 20, was working at the Marston Department Store and she and her mother were living at 1751 Front St.

Over the next seven years, Helen worked as a stenographer while living with her mother downtown. She worked a couple of years for Charles W. Oesting, also originally from Indiana, who was well known in the insurance and bond business.

In 1912, Mr. Oesting relocated his offices and Helen into the brand new Spreckels Theatre Building at 121 Broadway. It is quite possible that Harvey Slocum was one of the ironworkers that erected that six-story building. And just maybe, Helen was one of the girls that was dazzled by Harvey and his team dancing on the slender re-bar rods.

Helen and Harvey began seeing each other as early as 1907. In October of that year, Harvey’s parents hosted a surprise 17th birthday party for their daughter, Cella Pearl, at their house at 1658 Front Street. Helen and her mother were among the guests, as was 20-year-old Harvey.

The society sections of the San Diego papers were filled with reports of other parties attended by the couple, including a 1913 wedding of their friends, Olive Lindley and George Francis Brown of Los Angeles. Olive was a charter member of the first women’s Olympia Rowing Club in San Diego. Helen was her bridesmaid, and Harvey was an usher.

It would take a few more years before Helen and Harvey tied the knot.

Slocum’s First Dam- Lake Hodges

In 1917, the Santa Fe Land Improvement Company and San Dieguito Mutual Water Company, both controlled by Col. Ed Fletcher, hired Bent Brothers to construct Lake Hodges Dam on the San Dieguito River near Escondido. The project was financed by the Santa Fe Railroad Company, which owned much of what is now the exclusive residential community of Rancho Santa Fe, and the dam was ultimately named after its Vice President, W.E. Hodges.

Situated about six miles east of the Pacific coast, the dam and reservoir provided the water that enabled Santa Fe Railroad and Col. Fletcher to develop Rancho Santa Fe and the coastal town of Solana Beach. Bent Brothers also constructed the four-mile elevated metal flume to carry water from the dam to the San Dieguito Reservoir in Rancho Santa Fe.

This was one of several projects Bent Brothers did for Col. Fletcher, one of San Diego’s preeminent developers, over the ensuing years including the San Dieguito Dam and Lake Henshaw Dam.

Arthur and Stanley Bent based their business, Bent Brothers, in Los Angeles. Arthur started the business in 1886, and by the time his brother, Stanley, joined in 1901 they were leaders in building water storage and delivery systems in California and across the country. In addition to making their own pipe and installing thousands of miles of irrigation and water delivery lines, they became specialists in the construction of concrete dams, starting with the Sweetwater Dam in 1888.

When Harvey Slocum was a young boy in National City and gazed upon the Sweetwater Dam, he could not possibly have imagined the enormous role Bent Brothers would play in his career and helping him become the best dam man in the world. It all started with Lake Hodges.

Harvey heard through the grapevine that the superintendent on the Lake Hodges Dam had run into trouble, and Bent Brothers was looking for a new man. Up to that point he had never done dam work, but he looked at the job, and then went to see Stanley Bent in Los Angeles. Harvey, a few months shy of 30, told Mr. Bent he would take over. Slocum recalled how he got the job.

“Big joke was that all the time I knew I could do it. They were trying to build the goldang dam with almost-dry concrete and one chute. The stuff wouldn’t go down the chute in the first place, and after it did, it took ’em an hour to move the goldang chute to the next pour. I told Mr. Bent how I’d fix it. It was simple.”

Bent knew of Slocum’s reputation for raising hell and his lack of experience, but he figured he’d take a chance on this confident young man.

Herndon explained how Harvey got the job back on track. “Slocum took over in slam-bang style. He dragged men off other parts of the job, stationed them at the chute with buckets of water and long-handled shovels. All they had to do was keep the stuff moving down. He had more chutes built and spotted over the dam. Then when one pour was finished, they’d charge over to the next chute and start in right away. In spite of the poor start, Slocum got the dam finished in good time.”

Harvey completed the dam in 1918 for Bent Brothers. At a height of 131 feet and length of 730 feet, at the time it was the highest multiple arch dam in the country.

But that wasn’t all. After 10 years of courtship, Helen Ensminger finally married him. Slocum reminisced with Herndon. “And I’ll never know why. She was a lady, the finest lady you’d ever hope to meet. Me, I was a rootin’, tootin’, pile-drivin’, fog-bustin’, revolvin’ son of a buck.” Slocum whammed his hand on his knee and roared. “Whee! Man, I was spherical!”

Lake Hodges Dam and Reservoir (San-Diego History Center)

More Jobs for Bent Brothers

Gibraltar Dam

Bent Brothers was impressed enough with Slocum’s abilities that they put him in charge of their next, bigger project, Gibraltar Dam. The newlyweds moved up to Santa Barbara County, where Gibraltar Dam was to be erected on the Santa Ynez River in a remote section of the Los Padres National Forest.

The site could only be reached by a tunnel through the Santa Ynez mountains. At 3.7 miles long and five feet wide by seven feet high, Mission Tunnel when completed in 1914 was the longest tunnel in the world. Water dripped constantly from the tunnel roof, and power for the trolley that pulled the flat cars came from an overhead wire. Wearing raincoats, crouched over to avoid electrocution as the sparks showered over them, that’s the way Slocum and his crew went to their new job.

Passengers on the Mission Tunnel tram (City of Santa Barbara website
Gibraltar Dam and Reservoir (City of Santa Barbara website:
Gibraltar Dam releasing water after powerful winter storms of 2022-2023

Henshaw Dam

After completing Gibraltar Dam, Harvey and Helen were back in San Diego to work on another dam for Bent Brothers and Col. Ed Fletcher. Henshaw Dam, completed in 1923, is a 123-foot-tall and 650-foot-long earthen dam on the San Luis Rey River near the base of Palomar Mountain. The water stored behind the dam is called Lake Henshaw.

Colonel Ed Fletcher, 1872-1955 (Courtesy of San Diego History Center)
Lake Henshaw Dam under construction 1922 (Courtesy of San Diego History Center)

After completing Gibraltar Dam, Harvey and Helen were back in San Diego to work on another dam for Bent Brothers and Col. Ed Fletcher. Henshaw Dam, completed in 1923, is a 123-foot-tall and 650-foot-long earthen dam on the San Luis Rey River near the base of Palomar Mountain. The water stored behind the dam is called Lake Henshaw.

In November of 1922, Harvey joined Col. Fletcher, John F. Forward, Jr. and other businessmen on a tour of Henshaw Dam. Mr. Forward, a title company president who was elected mayor of San Diego in the early 1930’s, described the expedition for the San Diego Evening Tribune.

“This is a most remarkable work, and probably being built the fastest of any dam in the history of the United States. Actual work of the excavating was commenced on June 9, 1922, and the dam will be completed January 1, next, less than 7 months’ actual construction moving over 500,000 cubic yards of earth. The dam is now over 100 feet in height and when completed will be 117 feet. It will hold 60,000,000,000 gallons of water and will irrigate easily 35,000 acres of San Diego County’s practically frostless lands. We are indeed fortunate in having this development at this time, for it means everything to San Diego County.

“I cannot speak too highly of the superintendent of construction for Bent Bros., contractors, Mr. Harvey Slocum, a San Diego boy who is making history for his company and himself; also, to William G. Henshaw and Ed Fletcher for their remarkable work pioneering in the development of water in San Diego County. San Diegans owe them a debt of gratitude for their magnificent achievement.”

Harvey would later scoff at comparing earthen dams to the massive concrete dams in terms of difficulty. “Some earth dams are miles long and include massive quantities of dirt, but at the end of the day…well, they’re just dirt.” But, he was continuing to hone his skills and earn his stripes on all the dam work he could get.

Lake Henshaw Dam 1938 (Courtesy of San Diego History Center)

Bullard’s Bar Dam

After Henshaw, it was off to Yuba County, California where Slocum took over as head of construction of another Bent Brothers project: Bullard’s Bar Dam. This 200-foot-tall concrete arch dam on the North Yuba River, about 40 miles north of Sacramento, was built for the Yuba River Power Company. The dam was originally designed to act as a debris barrier to permit the resumption of hydraulic mining for gold and other precious metals along the reaches of the Yuba River above the dam. The reservoir created also provided irrigation of vast acreages of land below the dam as well as hydroelectric power that was sold to Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

Bullard’s Bar Dam 7 Miles From Log Cabin, Calif., 1922 (Credited to
New Bullard’s Bar Dam 2023 (Yuba Water Agency)

Exchequer Dam

During the building of Bullard’s Bar Dam, Bent Brothers was looking at a new project in Merced County, California on the Merced River, in the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. At a height of 326 feet, 220 feet thick at the base, and 1,200 feet in length, the Exchequer Dam was not only the biggest dam undertaken to date by the brothers, it was also the largest concrete dam in the world.

Harvey asked Stanley Bent if he could take a look at the plans and specifications for the project. He compiled an estimate of the cost to construct the dam and submitted his numbers to Mr. Bent. Bent accepted Slocum’s figures and submitted the bid to the Merced Irrigation District. Bent Brothers got the contract and hired Harvey to oversee the construction of this behemoth. That was the first dam Harvey estimated on his own. He was 36 years old and very impressed with himself. “Hell, I was a goldang boy wonder! Even got my name in the Engineering News Record.”

The Fresno Morning Republican eloquently described the project. “Furnishing irrigation upon which the prosperity of over 20,000 persons in the district depends, the dam now rises to its full size in the canyon and offers an impressive sight in the midst of the majestic Sierras. Behind its broad back it will impound 289,000 acre feet of water, forming a lake 12 miles long and a mile and a half wide. Behind the upstream face of the dam there will be water to a depth of 315 feet, exerting a stupendous pressure, which the mighty dam will easily withhold. The dam has been declared by eminent construction engineers the most imposing work of its kind under construction in the world today and is one of the strongest structures built.”

Construction of Exchequer Dam commenced in July of 1924 and was completed 21 months later. One of the biggest challenges was dealing with the Yosemite Valley Railroad that ran along the Merced River, through the dam site and up to the El Portal Gateway at Yosemite National Park. The solution was to build a tunnel through the base of the dam to allow the trains to run until the reservoir was ready to be filled and, while the dam was being built, to construct a new 17-mile railroad that would hug the mountains at a higher elevation away from the dam.

When the $16 million dam was complete and the new railroad was ready, Slocum plugged the tunnel in the dam with concrete, pulled up the tracks before they were inundated by the reservoir, and began filling the dam. Thus, daily train service to Yosemite continued uninterrupted. The reservoir, named Lake McClure, also supplied irrigation water to over a half million acres of agricultural land.

There was an elaborate ceremony to celebrate the start of the dam’s hydroelectric power plant. The new Yosemite Valley Railroad brought 1,000 dignitaries and guests in 16 passenger coaches to the dam site. Harvey Slocum provided cold drinks and ice cream. At precisely 11:00 a.m. on June 23, 1926, from his office at the White House, President Calvin Coolidge pressed a golden telegraph key and the powerhouse lights came on to the cheers and delight of the attendees.

Exchequer Dam 1927 (Merced Irrigation District)

Over the next ten years, Harvey Slocum would go on to figure the successful estimates on almost all of the great dams built.[1] Asked in 1951 why he was so successful at estimating construction projects, Slocum said, “The reason I’m good at it is that 1 know I’m stupid. I don’t know a goldang thing about mathematics or slipsticks. I just made me up a little book which lists everything I got to have to build a dam. Then I write everything down and add it up the hard way, like a darn’ fool. It’s kind of a rough equivalent of an engineering degree and a super mail-order catalogue. It contains the experience learned over many years in big construction, and also the little piddling things, like stamps, thumb tacks and even the license to do business that you might forget when pricing a locomotive. I wouldn’t sell that book for $50,000.”

Slocum also told Rand, “I do it by visualizing everything I’m going to need and then writing it down. And any contractor in the United States would rather have a Slocum estimate than anybody else’s.” Perhaps the more compelling reason is that starting at the age of 17, Harvey Slocum mastered virtually all aspects of construction from the wheelbarrow’s end of the business. This is what he told the Spokane Chronicle after he was picked to oversee construction of Grand Coulee Dam. “I pride myself on being able to run any kind of rig the job might throw at ya. The forest of control handles on a steam shovel don’t scare me, or the joltin’ of a 75-horse diesel cat. I’ve worked ‘em all! Everything from concrete boss and carpenter foreman, to rivet tosser on steel and truck driver.”

During these formative years, Slocum worked on other dams for Bent Brothers, including Hetch Hetchy-O’Shaughnessy Dam on the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park, Talent Dam in Oregon, Snow Mountain/Van Arsdale Dam in Mendocino County, California and Little Sierra Madre Dam in Los Angeles County.

Notes and References for Part One


Booton Herndon, “Harvey Slocum Builds Our Mighty Dams,” Colliers, May 5, 1951, 33

Booton Herndon, “Harvey Slocum-Dynamic Dam Builder,” United States Information Agency Magazine, February 1961

The Early Years in National City

“Pay Tribute to Dead Co-Worker,” San Diego Union Tribune, July 7, 1919

Christopher Rand, “Something Stupendous,” The New Yorker, December 8, 1956, 57

Clarence Alan McGraw, City of San Diego and San Diego County (American Historical Society, 1922, Chicago and New York), 64, 65

“Children’s Club Matinee,” May 31, 1900, and “Graduating Exercises,” May 12, 1892, The Record (National City)

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

“Harvey Slocum Lived in National City Earlier,” National City Star-News, January 12, 1956

 “Pay Tribute to Dead Co-Worker”

“Services Monday for Mrs. Slocum,” San Diego Union Tribune, March 18, 1944

“Children’s Club,” The Record, March 8, 1900

Harry Dilley, “San Diego Messenger Builds Great Things,” San Diego Union Tribune, January 6, 1956. Maureen “Little Mo” Connolly (1934-1969) was a San Diego tennis player who won nine major titles in the early 1950’s including the Grand Slam in 1953. Florence “Flo” Chadwick (1918-1995) was an open water long distance swimmer from San Diego. She was the first woman to swim the English Channel in both directions, Catalina Channel, Straits of Gibraltar, Bosporus Strait, and Dardanelles (round trip)

Harvey’s First Dam-And Brush With Bent Brothers?

“Harvey Slocum: Construction Engineer”

Richard Crawford, “Building the Sweetwater Dam,” San Diego Union Tribune, March 15, 2008. The reservoir poured over the dam in 1895 tearing away one of its sides. In 1916, during the Great San Diego Flood, both sides of the dam eroded away releasing two-thirds of the reservoir that flooded the valley below and caused extensive damage. The structure of the dam itself withstood both disasters.

Irene Phillips, “World Famous Engineer Remembers Home Here,” Bay Cities Press (Imperial Beach CA), October 6, 1960

“At 80, He Heads Big Law Firm,” San Francisco Examiner, May 7, 1961; Willa Klug Baum,“Max Thelen-Railroad Commissioner and Attorney,” 1962, UC Berkeley Library

Easy Money

Booton Herndon Papers,1939-1986, Accession #9859-a, Albert and Shirley Small Collections Library, University of Virginia , Charlottesville, VA (the “UVA Herndon Papers”), draft of “Harvey Slocum Builds Our Mighty Dams,” 1951.

Herndon, “Harvey Slocum Builds Our Mighty Dams,” 51

Morgan Palumbo, “A Brief and Bloody History of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast,” November 8, 2016 [Online]. Available:

Return to San Diego and Honest Work

Much of this information is from City of San Diego directories found on

Herndon, “Harvey Slocum Builds Our Mighty Dams,” 51

Booton Herndon, “Harvey Slocum-Dynamic Dam Builder,” True-The Man’s Magazine, July 1958,26

Rand, “Something Stupendous,” 57

The San Diego Rowing Club

“History of the San Diego Rowing Club,” [Online] Available:

“In The Shells at San Diego,” Los Angeles Times, August 12, 1906

Jack Murphy, “Shades of Old San Diego as 73 Crew Classic Approaches,” San Diego Union Tribune, March 13, 1973

Joey Seymour, “The History of the Resilient San Diego Rowing Club,” The San Diego History Center Journal of San Diego History [Online]. Available:

Patricia A. Schaelchlin, “The Little Clubhouse on Steamship Wharf,” (Leucadia, California, Rand Editions, 1984), 2

Herndon, “Harvey Slocum-Dynamic Dam Builder,” 26

 “Northern Crews Working Hard for Rowing Races,”San Diego Union Tribune, August 27, 1907

 “Members Enjoy Social Evening at Pretty Clubhouse With Large Attendance,” San Diego Union Tribune, May 15, 1908

San Diego Union Tribune, August 7, 1929

San Diego Evening Tribune, November 20, 1930

Harvey’s Near Death Experience

Herndon, “Harvey Slocum Builds Our Might Dams,” 51

Harvey’s Girl-Helen Lee Ensminger

Records found on

City of San Diego Directories (1903-1915)

San Diego City Directory 1912

 “Society,” San Diego Evening Tribune, October 14, 1907

 “Society,” San Diego Evening Tribune, September 6, 1913, 4

Slocum’s First Dam- Lake Hodges

“Biography of Arthur S. Bent,” December 1925. The Explosives Engineer. Arthur Bent was also the founder of the California Chapter of the Association of General Contractors in 1917.

Herndon, “Harvey Slocum-Dynamic Dam Builder,” 26

Herndon, “Harvey Slocum Builds Our Mighty Dams,” 51. Herndon offered this translation: Rootin’ Tootin’ implies a flashy steam shovel operator with his hand on the whistle cord. Running a piledriver is another loud, flashy job; a blast of steam comes out of the thing and that’s the fog that was busted.  Revolvin’ means that if you turned him around he looked just as ornery in the back as he did in the front, and spherical means the same thing only more so.

More Jobs for Bent Brothers

Gibraltar Dam

Herndon, draft “Harvey Slocum Builds Our Mighty Dams,” UVA Herndon Papers

“Gibraltar Dam,” 2022, Wikipedia, [Online]. Available: The dam was expanded in 1948 increasing the reservoir’s capacity by almost 50%. The author’s grandfather, Vern Case, and his company, Case Construction, did the expansion work. Source: Vern Case’s son, Stanford Ellis Case

Henshaw Dam

Herndon, “Harvey Slocum Builds Our Mighty Dams,” 51

Herndon, “Harvey Slocum-Dynamic Dam Builder,” 26

“San Diego Party Encounters Change of Climate in Tour of Back Country,” San Diego Evening Tribune, November 20, 1922, 8

Bullard’s Bar Dam

Bullard’s Bar Dam Ready in December,” The Sacramento Bee, September 17, 1923, 8

Exchequer Dam

“Merced Water Project Nears Completion,” The Fresno Morning Republican, April 15, 1926,9

Herndon, “Harvey Slocum Builds Our Mighty Dams, 33, 51

“Dam Dedication,” The Fresno Bee, June 22, 1926, 9,14

 “Building the Original Exchequer Dam,” Merced County Times, September 29, 2019

 “Slocum Is “Big Shot” on Coulee Dam Task,” Spokane Chronicle, August 15, 1934

“Slipstick” is another name for a slide rule.

Rand, “Something Stupendous,” 57

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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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