Area History

Information provided by the Power County Historical Society Centennial (1913 - 2013) Committee. If desired, click to enlarge the photos below to see more detail.

Snake River in Idaho

Snake River in Idaho

The question is often asked where the name "American Falls" comes from. The falls were a significant landmark for trappers and settlers even before the official founding of the town in 1880, and its name came from an incident at these falls.

According to the story, a group of French trappers were traveling along the Snake River in dugout canoes with a Native American guide and a dog. When they got close to the falls, the guide suggested the party pull out of the river and portage their canoe and supplies around the falls, but the trappers insisted they could navigate the "rapids." The guide and dog refused to ride in the canoe from that point forward. The trappers attempted to ride over the falls, but none of them survived. The falls were thereafter called "American Falls" because the trappers had died at a waterfall in America.

The first permanent settlement of American Falls was founded in the 1800s and located on the west bank of the Snake River, on the opposite side of the river from its present location. In 1888, the "town" was moved across the river to what is now called the "original town site."

Original power house at the American Falls Dam today

The original power house still standing today

In 1904, the National Reclamation Act was passed that allowed money from the sale of public lands to be used to fund irrigation projects in the western United States. At the same time, the construction of a power generation station on the American Falls was started by the American Falls Light and Power Company. This original power plant on the American Falls used the falling action of the water to power generators. It was acquired by Idaho Power Company in 1916.

With the passage of the National Reclamation Act to encourage the creation a large reservoir to hold water in, in order to provide irrigation water throughout the growing season, there was a desire to build a dam to benefit the local farmers. At the same time, Idaho Power wanted a steady stream of water to provide power. Between the two, the idea of a dam on the Snake River quickly gained favor. The preferred site of the dam was chosen, but a large obstacle stood in the way: The town of American Falls. American Falls was a bustling town with a prominent crossing already in place and a connection to the railroad.

Moving of the St John's Church by tractor

Moving of the St John's Church by tractor

In 1923, the federal government used eminent domain to acquire the American Falls town site as well as land nearby to relocate the town. Beginning in 1925, moving companies were brought in from as far away as Texas to relocate the 344 residences, 46 businesses, six grain elevators, five churches, three hotels, school, hospital, and flour mill to the new town location. While most buildings were transported on beams inserted under the structure and pulled by tractor, the Methodist Church was just too cumbersome for transport as a whole building. The red brick church was disassembled, transported and rebuilt brick by brick in its present location.

Grain tower in American Falls Reservoir in American Falls, Idaho

Grain tower in American Falls Reservoir

One of the grain elevators was deemed too heavy to move, and so the decision was made to blow it up. Multiple attempts were made, but despite the liberal use of dynamite sticks at the base of the grain tower, very little damage was actually caused to the structure itself. Eventually, the decision was made to leave the grain tower where it is, which is why the reservoir has, to this day, a large tower standing in the middle of it with a section carved out of its base. When the water goes down at the end of late summer, the grain tower and other remnants of the original town site can still be explored, including the petrified remains of tree stumps that once lined the main street of town.

The original American Falls Dam, circa 1947

The original American Falls Dam, circa 1947

The dam was completed 60 days ahead of schedule on April 21, 1926 and cost a total of $3 million dollars (the equivalent of over $40 million dollars today). The dam's gates were shut and the spring run-off started to collect in the reservoir which would eventually cover 25 miles upstream. On July 29, 1926, the "moving road" was closed, officially marking the end of the town relocation.

The beginning of the end for the original American Falls Dam came in the early 1960s, when core samples of the concrete revealed that an unforeseen chemical reaction between the concrete and the water was causing a loss in structural integrity.

In 1976, work was completed on a new generator facility. The American Falls Reservoir was also lowered to stop the oncoming flood waters from the collapsed Teton Dam. American Falls was the end of the line for that destructive flood.

Today's American Falls Dam

Today's American Falls Dam

The new dam replaced the horseshoe-shaped dam with a straight composite dam standing 94 feet high, holding back 1,672,600 acre-feet of water covering 56,000 acres of area. The Willow and The Bay is located on the eastern shore of the American Falls Reservoir.

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