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The Lake Leatherwood Dam: Construction, Life, and an Uncertain Future

The Lake Leatherwood Dam: Construction, Life, and an Uncertain Future

By Luke Carothers

Photo: Luke Carothers

Lake Leatherwood and the dam that created it are located in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, nestled snugly in the Boston Mountains region of the Ozark Plateau.  If it’s your first time visiting the area, you are bound to hear a common local legend: that the Lake Leatherwood Dam is the largest hand-carved limestone dam in the country.  While this is almost certainly not true, the real story behind the dam and its history is no less interesting or significant.  

Plans to create Lake Leatherwood came as a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Soil Conservation Service (SCS) at the height of the Dust Bowl.  In 1937, Arkansas Governor Carl E. Bailey signed legislation that split the state into four soil conservation districts.  Amongst the projects that improved soil quality in the four districts, the Lake Leatherwood Dam was considered the premier project.  When the dam was completed in 1940, it featured a concrete-poured core covered in locally-quarried limestone.  It is this on-site quarrying that lends to the myth of it being the largest hand carved dam in the country.  The other contributing factor to the myth is the dam’s size: 630 feet long and 55 feet tall.

Work on the project began early in 1938 under the direction of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Soil Conservation Service, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

Straddling two hills, the dam is impressive when approached from either angle.  When approached from beneath, the cascading fresh water and natural feel of the local stone give the structure the feeling that it grew from the landscape naturally.  When you traverse the walkway across the dam’s span, you are treated to commanding views of not only Lake Leatherwood, but also the lush valley to the north.  

On one hand, the Lake Leatherwood Dam was constructed as a soil conservation project.  Prior to the dam’s construction, the northern area of West Leatherwood Creek was experiencing significant forest loss.  Once completed, the dam was able to curb further soil erosion and loss, which allowed the verdant land around the creek to flourish.  Additionally, the formation of Lake Leatherwood provided a stunning outdoor space for local residents to enjoy canoeing, sailing, fishing, and swimming. From its initial plan to create Lake Leatherwood, the project soon grew to include several other buildings and facilities along its shores.  These additional structures are indicative of the dual purposes the project served.  Approximately one mile south of the dam, on Lake Leatherwood’s western shore, the CCC constructed a stone bathhouse and a barbecue pit to form a larger picnic area. 

In order to facilitate the building of the dam, workers had to construct a new road, which is now part of Country Road 61, connecting the park to Highway 62 and making the park much more accessible to modern tourists and local residents  Along this road, workers for the CCC built 6 stone culverts and 2 bridges: one single arch bridge and one double arch.  In addition, the service road workers used to access the dam has been repurposed as Beacham Trail, which allows hikers to traverse the shores of the 120 acre Lake Leatherwood and cross the top of the dam.

For over 80 years, travelers and hikers visiting the region who are not afraid of heights have been able to walk the shores of the Lake and cross the small walkway at the top of the dam, accessing the Eastern shore.  In August 1992, the site was nominated and accepted to the National Register of Historical Places.  The report submitted with the nomination noted a few issues such as spalling in a few places, but otherwise recorded the dam as being in good condition.

Since that time, however, significant issues have developed with the structural integrity of the dam’s stone walkway.  In March 2021, the Eureka Springs Parks and Recreation Commission announced that the dam was closed indefinitely to cyclists and hikers.  After finding significant damage to not only the railings but the integrity of the concrete itself.  The commission found the reasons for such rapid deterioration twofold.  On one hand, the locally sourced concrete, poured half a century ago, would not meet current standards, making it more and more susceptible to corrosion as time goes on.  On the other hand,  the area recently experienced the severe cold weather that affected much of the Southern U.S. in February.  This bout of extreme cold weather took a huge toll on the structure, shearing off large portions of the upper railing structure.

Repairs to the dam have been estimated to be upwards of $500,000, which can be a daunting number for a municipally-owned park.  Luckily, the integrity of the dam itself is not thought to be in jeopardy, only the portion open to the public.  Moving forward, the City plans to reassess their maintenance and inspection practices and figure out what can be done to monitor the health of the structure moving forward.  Although the dam is closed to the public for now, there is hope that the proper repairs can be made to ensure its continuing use by the public.

Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.